A Mikveh Celebrates a Birthday and Finds Its Voice

By Michelle Memran

Published March 11, 2005, issue of March 11, 2005.
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Somewhere in suburban Detroit, my mother and I tread water naked in what could be a petite synagogue rec pool. I am almost 8 years old. A rabbi stands outside the doors. His voice is barely audible as he recites a prayer in Hebrew, which, for all intents and purposes, is Moravian Morse Code. A foreboding lady in black hose and sandals tells me not to swallow the water. She says this is not a pool for swimming. “Stop splashing,” she says. We go under three times. Afterward, my mother renews her wedding vows with wet hair. Someone says “Mazel tov.” We celebrate with cheeseburgers and cherry pie at a Denny’s down the street. My hair dries in a frizzy puff. L’chaim.

Years later, I would learn that the aforementioned experience was a conversion ceremony, that the water was not a Turkish bath but a mikveh, the purpose of which was to ritually cleanse and secure our passage into Judaism. Now, I ask, where were ‘The Mikveh Monologues’ and Mayyim Hayyim when a new naive secular Jew needed community and direction?

“The Mikveh Monologues,” a collaborative work-in-progress by best-selling author Anita Diamant and director Janet Buchwald, is based on testimonials — à la Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” — of life-altering mikveh immersions at Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters), an interdenominational community mikveh and education center in Newton, Mass. The monologues, featuring local celebrities such as actress Annette Miller — who won the 2003 Norton Award for the Boston production of “Golda’s Balcony”— will honor the first anniversary of the facility and convene for one performance only, at a nearby synagogue.

“The stories about why women and men have been using the mikveh for centuries are fascinating and usually untold,” said Aliza Kline, executive director of Mayyim Hayyim. “There’s a lot of mystery around who uses the mikveh and why, which gives it an almost exclusive air.”

Mayyim Hayyim dispels this air of exclusivity by making the mikveh — best known for the ritual cleansing it offers married Orthodox women after their menstrual cycles are complete — accessible to all Jewish strands, regardless of gender, age or sexual slant. Since opening this past May, Mayyim Hayyim has had more than 800 immersions — and each splash tells a story.

“People would tell us stories about the time when they were in the mikveh and a fire alarm went off and the police had to come,” Kline said. “And then there were really touching, powerful stories about going after physical abuse, or after recovery from an illness, or how powerful it felt to go as a bride.”

Personal accounts flooded in as e-mails and oral histories, which compelled Diamant, author of the novel “The Red Tent,” to compile the texts in a written anthology. In recent years there have been a range of published texts on the subject, the more popular being “Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology,” edited by Rivkah Slonim, and “Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law,” edited by Rahel Wasserfall. There’s even a mikveh blog of sorts on the Web at www.mayimrabim.com, allowing women worldwide to send articles and thoughts on ritual, religion, feminism and water. From the beginning, however, Diamant felt there was something inherently theatrical about the tales.

“It’s the power of the story, of the voice and of the words,” said Diamant. “I also wanted to try my hand at writing something for the stage.”

Following Ensler’s example, Diamant and Buchwald used both interviews and written accounts as the basis for “The Mikveh Monologues” — whose subject can be as confoundingly taboo in some communities as the V-word. The 10 voices pulled from their mikveh pools range from a lesbian bride to a woman healing from breast cancer treatment to a man and his son celebrating the Sabbath. There are also various stories about conversion — one of the more common uses of the modern-day mikveh.

“People come to Mayyim Hayyim really from all over the place,” Diamant said. “We could have easily written two hours, but we wanted people to leave wanting more.”

Diamant also credits Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” — the visually alluring Broadway adaptation of Ovid’s myths, set in and around a shimmering pool of water — as inspiration for the piece. The next incarnation of “The Mikveh Monologues,” Diamant hopes, can incorporate the actual architecture of the mikveh into its staging.

For its premiere, “The Mikveh Monologues” will play to a gallery seated in the congregation of Newton’s Temple Emanuel. Despite the seemingly niche audience, Diamant sees the show’s inherently broader reach.

“All religious rituals use water as a metaphor for change and transformation and purification,” she said. “It’s telling people stories and when you tell people stories honestly, there’s a potential for universal appeal.”

Kline agreed. “We’re trying to raise awareness,” she said. “We certainly have hopes of taking it on the road.”

“The Mikveh Monologues”: coming to an off-off-off Broadway bimah near you.

Mayyim Hayyim presents “The Mikveh Monologues,” an original play by Anita Diamant and Janet Buchwald, starring Annette Miller, Susan Wornick, Ted Reinstein, Judith Black, David Brezniak, Sheree Galpert and Rachel Kramer. Sunday, March 20, at 3 p.m. Temple Emanuel, Newton. For more information, contact Mayyim Hayyim at 617-244-1836, info@mayyimhayyim.org

Michelle Memran is a freelance writer and illustrator. She is currently filming a documentary on Cuban American playwright Maria Irene Fornes.

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