Though neither of us was as observant as our parents, because both families belonged to the orthodox Fifth Avenue Synagogue on New York’s Upper East Side, that’s where my fiancé and I would soon be getting married.
“I’ll have to get a get,” Martin told me, which sounded redundant until he explained that, despite being divorced legally, according to Jewish law, neither party may remarry without a get. The rabbi required it, which was why the two of us were at something called a beit din, where a team of men were deciding if Martin was entitled to serve his first wife with papers needed for us to be married.
Finding out that we were comedy writers, one of the threesome got excited and interrupted the otherwise serious proceedings to ask, “I hear all the comedians have Jewish writers. Is that true?”
“Steinberg,” the older, bearded man serving as the scribe, admonished him, “sha.”
“Cosby? Even Bill Cosby?” He refused to be silenced.
We nodded and moved on, stopping to answer Steinberg’s other questions about Jews in show business. Ultimately, the tribunal ruled that Martin had enough evidence to warrant them issuing a get, entitling him to take a second wife. We rushed out to celebrate our victory by having a meal in Chinatown.
I knew that weddings were often complicated by disagreements about who will be attending, the wording on the invitation, who gets to stand under the chuppah or sit at the head table, but I wasn’t prepared for these specifically Jewish hurdles. “Will you be going to the mikveh?” the rabbi asked when we met with him. His line of questioning felt like a pass/fail quiz, and having already scored poorly to the ones about attending services (“mostly at the High Holidays”), keeping kosher (“no”) and celebrating Shabbat (“no”), I was nervous that he might refuse to marry us.
The Fifth Amendment wasn’t available to me so I felt compelled to say, “Yes” to the mikveh. My mother had repeatedly boasted that she hadn’t gone before getting married; she felt proud of the independence she’d displayed by defying her husband’s more traditional customs. But she did then conform to his strict standards except for sneaking an occasional store-bought shrimp cocktail into our home. Since this predated recycling, the telltale glasses always announced her transgression. Though both of my Russian-born parents spoke Yiddish — and not only when they didn’t want us to understand — my parents clearly had a mixed marriage; my mother eagerly went out for lobster dinners while my father refused to eat treyf.
I was not opposed to going to the mikveh and actually embraced the idea of a symbolic purification that marked the end of my single days. I knew where it was located because we had friends who lived in the same building. Their name was on the door followed by the notation, “Not the Mikveh.” Being a newbie, I had to make an evening appointment so I could be shown what to do. Martin and I agreed to meet afterwards at an Indian restaurant.
I was alone with the mikveh lady, who greeted me in a white tiled room with showers and a mirrored area for hair drying that could have been the dressing area of a health club. “After you take a shower,” she said, “you’ll get into one of the pools and repeat the prayers after me.” This was simple enough. Standing in water that reached the top of my chest, whose temperature was comfortable, I was ready for her to tell me what came next. “You will submerge yourself three times,” she instructed, “and make sure you never touch the sides of the pool.” “Baruch atah adoshem,” she said, indicating it was my turn to say it.
“Baruch atah adoshem,” I copied her.
“Baruch atah adoshem,” she said again.
“Baruch atah adoshem,” I repeated.
We continued to say these same three words, which didn’t seem strange to me as there were times during services when things were repeated. She was sounding more agitated, now hitting the last word harder as she said, “Baruch atah adoshem.” Taking my cues from her, I emulated her tone and put the stress where she had. After several more rounds of this, she fell silent before saying, “Baruch atah” and then after a pause, said, “other word for ‘adoshem’.”
I burst out laughing, losing my footing and swallowing water. When I finally recovered, I knew to say “Baruch atah Adonai,” allowing us to complete the prayer.
Eager to share the story with Martin, I rushed out with wet hair to tell him I’d stumped the mikveh lady and that she’d obviously never encountered this before. “If I hadn’t gone to Hebrew school,” I told him, “and learned that ‘adoshem’ is what you say to avoid taking God’s name in vain, I might have been in the mikveh biz hundert un tsvantsig.”