An Exhibit Invites Viewers Into The Mikveh

Photography

By Richard Mcbee

Published November 05, 2004, issue of November 05, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For many modern Jewish women, there is no more contentious image than the waters of the mikveh. The ritual bath is fraught with notions of uncleanliness, impurity and inferiority that traditional male-dominated Judaism has imposed upon Jewish women. The curse cast upon menstrual blood is seen as a primitive and punitive denigration of the female body.

“The Mikveh Project,” a stunning exhibition of photographs byJanice Rubin and with author Leah Lax at the Hebrew Union College Museum in New York (until January 12, 2005), challenges this one-dimensional notion with creativity and sensitivity. The exhibit gently invades the mikveh with the photographer’s presence, offering us 20 photographs that allow viewers to join Jewish women in their most intimate moments while still managing to preserve modesty and privacy. We are, via the photographer, as immersed and vulneraas her subjects are.

The woman with a shaved head draws us into her innermost thoughts by her intense concentration, made all the more acute as the top of her head pierces the water’s surface. The edges of the photo fade just enough to give the illusion that the crown of her skull is supporting the entire watery environment. Anxiety and emotional pain seem to seethe in the water’s agitation as we ponder the marrative of her baldness.

Another image focuses on dark hair floating upward dramatically, reaching for the surface, as a woman crouches down, facing the corner of the mikveh. Her posture is of physical concentration without shame. The downward gesture is countered by the ascending stairs and by the motion of her own hair rising. This counterpoint reflects an act of submission that will lead to ascent and emergence, a feminine transfiguration from one state to another. Paradoxically, physical exposure becomes a gateway for heightened spirituality.

Some of the images reflect an embryolike floating concentration that begins to capture the elusive moment of transformation. By offering us a sense of that moment, caught in

the peaceful tranquility between taking a deep breath and the effort of holding it, Rubin’s photographs evoke the vulnerability of being entirely in God’s hands, as close to the Divine as in the most passionate prayer.

Interspersed with these contemplative images are 20 equally evocative anonymous portraits of Jewish women alongside texts that explore their personal histories with the mikveh. In one, a 76-year-old woman is thrown a mikveh engagement party, an experience that evokes a particularly profound insight: “I’m sure that in the womb that is how you feel, and we’re probably going back there. It’s like home, after you die, and we’ll feel at peace, without worry or anything.” In another, as a widow lights Sabbath candles, she reminisces about her husband: “[T]he first thing he always did after I went to the mikveh was touch my hand. And he told me, ‘You are so, so holy.’”

Indeed, hands form an important visual motif in these works as agents of action and surrogates for the individual. A Jewish lesbian sought solace from her family’s rejection: “Mikveh was a turning point for me in living with my sexuality.” The images create a poetic relationship with the adjacent text. One woman recovering from a physically abusive relationship uses the mikveh as a means of healing. Her hands are gently cleaning her toenails in preparation for immersion. She ponders; “I think about the actions of different parts of my body since the last time I was there… my feet… where have my feet been? What did they run to do? It’s sort of a private Yom Kippur.” It becomes clear that for many of these women, the mikveh is a unique kind of prayer, combining their feminine physicality with intense introspection and connection with the Divine.

The mikveh is a realm where the overwhelmingly sensual collides with the intensely spiritual in a markedly private experience. By refusing to find the waters of the mikveh demeaning or threatening “The Mikveh Project” refuses to let women be denied their spiritual heritage.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, One West 4th Street, New York, N.Y. 10012; for more information, call 212-824-2205.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.