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Don’t Blame Mikveh Attendants for a Broken System Created by Men

I’m not big on manicures. This is in part because my life is filled with things like typing and piano, so manicures make my hands feel pretty but useless – good for appearances and bad for actually creating stuff – and in part because cuticle-cutting is painful and often infection-inducing.

One advantage of infrequent manicures is at the mikveh, the ritual bath, where the polish is considered an “obstacle”. Immersing Jewish women are taught to remove every potential speck of every possible obstacle between our bodies and the water before immersing, giving mikveh attendants the thankless job of checking bodies for tiny minutiae, like a spot of eyeliner on the eye rim, an unattached hair on the torso, or a remnant of nail polish.

The mikveh attendant is like a cross between pot-scrubber and a religious cosmetologist, searching skin for dots of dirt and plucking away unwanted microbes in order to declare women’s bodies perfectly pure before God and husbands.

Of course this perception of God as one who needs women’s bodies bleach-scrubbed clean came to us through the writings of Jewish men over the ages, which explains a lot about what the rabbis really thought about women’s bodies. In any case, avoiding nail polish altogether ought to make this experience a little less dramatic.

Still, this is not a foolproof plan. I will never forget the time a mikveh attendant took umbrage at my clean cuticles. She had already interrogated me about my body parts like I was a machine on an assembly line – “Eyes, ears, navel…” – but then decided, upon close inspection, that there was something wrong with my hands.

She magically whipped out a cuticle scissors and started pulling away at my skin. She didn’t ask me or inform me, but simply began cutting away at “obstacles” that were actually still attached to my body. I protested, but she did not stop. Until I started yelling – which naturally turned me into the crazy one in the situation. But I didn’t care. I eventually screamed at her, and said that if I never go to the mivkeh again, that will be on her conscience and she will have to explain that to God. She stared at me and let me go.

The problem with mikveh attendants, who were the source of several agitating Knesset and Supreme Court events in the past few weeks, is not that they have an innate desire to pluck, scrub, and kosherize women’s naked bodies. (Yes, they really say “kosher” when women dunk correctly, ignoring the implication that our bodies are like meat.)

This perception of God as one who needs women’s bodies bleach-scrubbed clean came to us through the writings of Jewish men over the ages.

The problem here is not the attendants but the rather the attendants’ bosses who make the rules that the attendants enforce. Attendants who go rogue and allow immersions that the rabbinate consider wrong – such as single women immersing or non-Orthodox conversions – are at threat of losing their jobs. Attendants are instructed to call the rabbi with any doubt. And so, earlier this year, when a woman came to a mikveh asking to be allowed to immerse alone without being checked by an attendant, the attendant called the police on her. I am pretty sure that this is the first time in history that a Jewish woman was threatened with arrest for using the mikveh. And it happened in Israel, of all places.

The results of the recent governmental discussions on mikveh have been a mixed bag. The Knesset Interior Committee voted to send through a bill which would continue to make Reform and Conservative dunking illegal, but would allow women to dunk without an attendant. In a Supreme Court petition this week, the state agreed that women will be able to request dunking without an attendant – so that hopefully the police-calling scenario will be a thing of the past. (I say “hopefully” only because the rabbinate has a history of non-compliance with orders from the state.)

In any case, these events are good news for Orthodox women who want to dunk alone – which also includes may women who have experienced body trauma, sexual abuse, or body-image issues. In the Orthodox world especially, where girls are groomed to obsessively cover their bodies from the age of five, the practice of suddenly standing naked in front of a stranger who is checking every inch of your skin can be excruciating. And all this is supposed to be preparation for sex, so we can imagine what the real impact on women’s intimate lives might be. The Knesset and Supreme Court discussions did not go into much detail about women’s trauma but I am sure that many religious women heaved a sigh of relief.

This entire story of legislating mikveh highlights the deeply disturbing culture of Orthodox Judaism in which men discuss women’s bodies ad nauseam, and women’s jobs are to obey.

But the impact on the mikveh attendants is less clear. In good news, the women finally received a salary hike of 17% that was promised to them two years ago. The position of mikveh attendant, one of the few jobs in Israel’s Religious Ministry that can go to a woman, is on the lowest possible pay grade in the government.

Women working several night shifts a week will take home less than 2000 NIS ($500) per month. And yet, when the Finance Committee chair discovered that the Religious Ministry had failed to give the mikveh attendants their promised raise, and he asked the ministry representatives why, they shrugged and said, effectively, “We didn’t feel like it.” (Hat tip: Rachel Stomel who live-tweeted the event).

At least now the women will get their due, though I doubt it will be retroactive, and it is still not a salary that will get them a vacation in Eilat.

Mikveh attendants should not be scapegoated for what goes on in the mikveh. The obsessive need to control women’s bodies comes down through the men in authority who watch us without even being present. Mikveh attendents – like female “halakhic advisers” and “kallah teachers” and other religious women whose job it is to get women to obey religious laws about our bodies that have been created entirely by men – are just pawns in a bad system. They are vehicles of the rabbinate.

This entire story of legislating mikveh highlights the deeply disturbing culture of Orthodox Judaism in which men discuss women’s bodies ad nauseam, and women’s jobs are to obey. That women may immerse alone is good news, as is the fact that attendants may get slightly better pay now. But the patriarchal culture of state-backed Orthodoxy and the obsessive rabbinical need for control remain unchecked.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a Jewish feminist educator, consultant and award-winning author — a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council award. She is the founding director of The Center for Jewish Feminism and blogs at www.jewfem.com

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