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“The stated goal is for the older women to come as role models and supporters for the younger ones, who are dealing with major changes to their bodies,” Malka explained. But there is an unstated aim, as well: for the older women to unpack and deal with the baggage they carry about mikveh.
It’s the older women, not the younger ones, who come with preconceived — and misconceived — notions, often about concepts of purity and impurity. There is also the mistaken belief that a woman will be scrutinized by a mikveh attendant before being allowed to immerse.
“Mikveh is not just about blood and sex. It’s about health, decision-making, transitions and ritual,” Malka said. The idea is to introduce girls and women to the ancient Jewish ritual of immersion in “living waters” (either a natural body of water or captured rainwater, if indoors). Mikveh is meant to help them understand and experience the body’s inherent holiness, and they learn how to be truly inside their own skin, rather than scrutinize their appearances from the outside — a pernicious norm in our society.
Participants do mindful eating exercises led by Lisa Himmelfarb, a licensed clinical social worker and registered dietician specializing in body image and eating disorders, such as taking as long as five minutes to consume a single grape, using all of one’s senses. They also try out Jewish-values-inspired yoga poses taught by Lauren Rubenstein, who begins her session by reading “A Prayer for the Body” by Rabbi Naomi Levy. “When I am critical of my appearance, remind me, God, that I am created in Your holy image. If I become jealous of someone else’s appearance, teach me to treasure my unique form,” it reads.
When it comes time to go to the mikveh, the participants don’t immerse on the first visit; they are meant to learn about the practice first and then decide later whether or not they will try it on their own. Malka leads groups, divided by age, into the mikveh room. There, they light candles and observe an actress (wearing a bathing suit) play the role of a 15-year-old girl trying to feel a sense of wholeness with her body. She sings some of the traditional immersion blessings, recites a prayer of healing and then immerses. “The message we are imparting is, ‘your body is holy and you are complete when you are here,’” Malka said.
The group then files out and gathers to read creative liturgy compiled by the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh in Newton, Mass., the first center to offer mikveh education in an inclusive, pluralistic way. These are blessings for different life-cycle events, and “light bulbs go off they come up with their own ideas about when they could see themselves using the mikveh,” said to Malka. Girls have suggested immersing to mark key milestones like earning a driver’s license, graduating from high school or leaving for or returning from a first trip to Israel.
Emily plans to immerse for the first time in June, to mark the end of an intense school year. Ellie intends to make mikveh part of her becoming a bat mitzvah. “That would be a good time to start, when I become a woman,” she said. “The biggest challenge at my age is that everybody is different, and everyone is trying to be like a nonexistent normal. Mikveh teaches us to be ourselves.”