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.