When the Mikveh Is an Ordeal of Faith
Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh
The first time I prepared to immerse in the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, I was 18 years old and four days away from my wedding. I sat naked in a white bathtub as the mikveh attendant scrubbed my back with a washcloth and a dollop of baking soda.
“You’re lucky you will only have your hair this one time,” the “mikveh lady,” as she was commonly referred to, informed me in Yiddish. (Satmar Hasidic women shave their heads after their weddings and cover them with a wig or kerchief.)
Scrub, scrub, scrub. I pulled my hands in over my chest. Scrub, scrub, scrub. As I wondered if she was looking at my naked body, I shifted uncomfortably, making ripples with the water beneath my feet.
My mother accompanied me on this first visit to the women’s mikveh in the Satmar Hasidic village Kiryas Joel, one chilly December evening 11 years ago. She rang the doorbell of the vast grey brick building that sits on the corner of one of the village’s main roads and is surrounded by tall pine bushes to obscure the views of passersby. There was a buzz to let us in.
“Welcome to the woman’s palace,” the attendant at the front desk exclaimed cheerfully in Yiddish. “This is the place to relax.”
We were given the key to a room, as well as a basket that contained soap, a nail clipper, shampoo and other seemingly misplaced items, such as baking soda and chlorine (for the heavy-duty scrubbing). I remember being fascinated by my mother’s nonchalance as she thanked the lady in the navy blue turban and matching striped housecoat, or, what we called a “duster,” and briskly escorted me to our designated room.
My first mikveh visit was the culmination of six weeks of lessons on the laws of niddah, the biblical term used to describe the period when a woman is menstruating and what that meant for a married couple: no physical contact or sexual relations until she immerses at least three times in the mikveh seven days after the menstruation has stopped.
Niddah had determined my wedding date. A few days after my engagement in June, my mother pulled the calendar off the wall, inquired about my cycle and began to intently count the days until December. Then she called my future mother-in-law; together they chose a wedding date. Two months before the big day, I was sent to pick up a bottle of little pink “natural” pills (I suspect they were birth control, though I can’t verify it) from Mrs. Blumenthal on Forest Road in Monroe. They regulated my cycle so that I could be niddah-free on my wedding.
And there I was, four days before my wedding, sitting alone in that room in a white bathtub and scrubbing my body free of anything foreign — such as fallen hairs, dead skin, nail polish (not that I wore any at the time) — that could potentially render the immersion invalid. My mother had left the room after instructing me on the essentials and the properness of cleaning the tub after use. I pressed a button when I was ready for the mikveh attendant to “check me” before being escorted down to the deep stone pool.
The mikveh lady came in and sat on the ledge of the bathtub. I had been told that mikveh ladies were so used to seeing women naked that they paid no heed to skin anymore (something ladies who wax nether regions say, too), and I was aware that everyone, including my married sisters and friends, underwent the same procedure. Still — I was raised to believe that modesty was essential, the be-all and end-all of my existence: No other eyes ever saw me undressed. And the mikveh lady was uncomfortably close. I held my breath for longer than necessary.
Every month for four years, between two births and getting to know my husband, whom I’d met only once before agreeing to the match, between bouts of happiness, postpartum depression and insomnia, I sat in the bathtub and lifted my legs so that the mikveh lady could inspect my toenails, file the rough edges and nip the outgrown cuticles — all of which may be considered a chatzitzah, a “barrier” between the body and the ritual waters, if not properly removed. I winced as she put a needle through my earring hole to remove chatzitzaot there (something I later learned is superfluous according to Halacha, Jewish law). I seethed inside when, on one of my last visits, after I covertly let my hair grow out to a stubble, the mikveh lady demanded to know if I had shaved on the day before. If I didn’t, she said, she’d bring a shaver to do it right away.
Growing my own hair — a violation of Satmar modesty codes — forced me to use an out-of-town mikveh. There I discovered that the invasive and uncomfortable checking was not halachically required. In no other mikveh, Orthodox or liberal, are women expected to sit in the bathtub, exposing themselves completely to the attendant. Women don a robe after they get out of the tub and then call for the attendant to inspect their nails. (In more liberal mikvehs, she doesn’t even do this.) Then women are escorted to the waters, where the attendant holds up the robe to shield the view until they are fully immersed.
Years later, while exchanging mikveh stories on Facebook with fellow Satmar ladies, I learned that some Kiryas Joel women insist on getting out of the bathtub, covering up with a robe (in my days, there were only thin, white bedsheets), and having their nails inspected outside the bathtub. Doing this never occurred to me.
For four years, I did not ask why; this was the only way I knew for women to experience the mikveh. I didn’t question my obligations to adhere to this invasive checking, which is certainly less intrusive and abhorrent than the abuse of power by a male rabbi who was charged with installing hidden cameras in the mikveh. After a while, it ceased to faze me to have a middle-aged woman scrub and inspect me — for habituality has the power to extinguish reasoning.
Frimet Goldberger is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @FrimetG.