In the preparation room at an Israeli mikveh, I read the list of instructions for getting ready. I’m an impostor. This is espionage. I’m not married; I’m not even engaged. I’m not even particularly religious, but I came in a skirt with my hair covered, so no one would be suspicious. This is the strangest kind of whim. I’m here because of a revelation I had at 2:30 in the morning on the Tuesday before I left for Israel — the revelation being: I need to try harder. I can’t let things go the way they’ve been going, in which I’m cynical and lazy about observant Judaism. I will suspend what I think I believe about the misogynistic underpinnings of mikveh. I will take action.
For a long time, I was afraid of water. I refused to get my head wet in the bathtub, I clung stubbornly to the wall of the pool during swimming at camp, annoying my counselors endlessly, and further contributing to my reputation as the weird kid. Now, standing in a towel, waiting to be inspected, it’s not the water I’m worried about; it’s the nudity. I have been in Israel for a month, resulting in the weirdest tan imaginable. I have mosquito bites in suspicious places, I’m not skinny, and I haven’t shaved my legs in two years.
The mikveh lady is small, with terrible posture and is wearing a snood. She has seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of bodies. Her job is to get them all this mitzvah (and me through my spy operation), and while she’s at it, to hold all the secrets of our bodies. She’s maybe the most powerful woman in this neighborhood.
We walk down the small hallway past a woman stepping out of another pool. She looks right in front of her, at the other mikveh lady holding out the towel. Watching her emerge is beautiful, her wet, white shoulders and her hair, slick, brown, clinging to her head. It is over too quickly.
She asks if I’ve taken care of everything. Have I cleaned the bottoms of my feet? Have I cleaned underneath my fingernails? I hold them out for her. She picks some stray hairs off my back. I’m standing naked in front of her, and I feel calm.
All day, I have had a very clear image of myself, bereft of my glasses, falling down the stairs on my way into the water. This does not happen. The mikveh lady reminds me to say the blessing. I looked at it earlier today, but now I’ve forgotten it. The jig is up. I tell her in clumsy Hebrew that this is new to me. I repeat the blessing after her.
I immerse slowly, the water closing over my head with firm pressure. This is what I used to be afraid of, this feeling of being sealed inside. I push further below the water. I come up. “Ka-sher,” she says — my immersion, as far as she knew, was kosher — and I’m astonished at myself. She sounds proud. I immerse twice more, and then it’s over. I climb out of the water towards the towel that’s she’s holding out. She shakes my hand, like she’s the principal and I just graduated.
Outside, everything is stone and cool and quiet. It’s elation, this emotion. Or maybe it’s relief. It seems like something has shifted — like something, I don’t know what, is new.