Skip To Content

An Exhibit Invites Viewers Into The Mikveh

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.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.