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Mikveh And The American Jewish Woman: It’s Complicated

The ultimate training for a rebbetzin is not, in fact, hosting a Shabbat dinner, or remembering the name of a congregant during Kiddush.

It happens, actually, in your dining room on a late weeknight. When you’re basically still a novice bride yourself, your wig sitting awkwardly on your head, not yet molded to your crown, and you sit across from another young Jewish bride, who comes in her gym-wear wearing a tank-top and leggings. You smile at her, take a deep breath and say, “Let’s talk about your period.”

Quickly, all proprieties fall to the side, and Jewish family purity laws — centuries upon centuries of rabbinic texts — are laid out: The moment a woman menstruates, she and her husband are forbidden from sexual intercourse. This separation (in Hebrew, nidda) continues through seven days after the completion of her period, during which she must check that she is clean of any blood. After the seventh day, she then immerses in a mikveh, the ritual bath (after intense preparation), and relations between husband and wife can now resume.

When I first started teaching, I was shocked by how much I stammered. How would I explain these intricate laws — and translate the ancient and medieval intents behind them! — to a modern Manhattan woman who has lived with her boyfriend for three years?

But teaching these laws, interestingly, has forced me to crystalize my own beliefs, my own relationship with those waters, with Jewish womanhood, wifehood, motherhood.

I am teaching these traditions just as the definition of the mikveh is being expanded. While in my traditional community, the mikveh is synonymous with a married woman’s space — inextricably tied to menstruation, to the laws I observe and teach — progressive groups insist that it is time to open that space to all, for all occasions, for all reasons, and that the traditional use of the bath is patriarchal.

Yet I wonder if, in reimagining this ritual, a foundational aspect is being lost. In expanding the mikveh to apply to anything and everything, are we minimizing the history of this millennia-old female ritual, and the way it forces us to meditate on our sexuality?

The history of the American Jewish woman and the mikveh is long and complicated.

Long before financiers dashed around Wall Street, a small Mill Street Synagogue once stood, constructed in 1730. Somewhere there, early American Jewish women would lurk in the dark of night, immersing in a nearby spring that the community used as a mikveh — under the cover of a shed that was constructed over a brook.

Later, in the minutes of a 1760 meeting of the board of Manhattan’s Shearith Israel, lay leaders approved an annual budget of 50 shillings for mikveh maintenance: “The [sexton] is to be particularly carefull (sic) in keeping the Bath in good order by cleaning it from time to time & to heat the water when required, and to prevent his being at any Expence (sic) for wood. The Parnassim and Elders add an allowance of Fifty Shillings yearly.”

Early American Jews were fervent believers in the powers of the mikveh, Laura Leibman of Reed College argues in her book “Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life.” The ritual bath was a centerpiece of the mystical belief that they were on the precipice of redemption, that the Messiah could not come until Jews were spread all over the world (“to the four corners of the earth,” according to the prophets), and now that there were finally Jews in the New World, they must be ritually pure in preparation for the imminent messianic age.

Though the oldest mikveh found in the United States is from circa 1840 (Baltimore’s historic Lloyd Street Synagogue), there are various textual references to much older constructions. We know that Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel Synagogue built a mikveh in 1786 (until then, Jewish women allegedly immersed in the Delaware River); that Newport, Rhode Island, had a secret community mikveh built in a private home near the historic synagogue; that the Charleston, South Carolina, Jewish community constructed a bath in 1809, while German Jewish immigrants constructed one in Buffalo, New York, in 1847.

“One of the first things these immigrants did in the communities they founded was to build mikvehs,” Joshua Hoffman writes in “The Institution of the Mikveh” in the book “Total Immersion.” Even as far west as San Francisco, there was a mikveh constructed in 1857.

“The more we know, the clearer it becomes that the mikveh was important to early Jews in America,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University told the website lubavitch.

Yet in the late 19th century, something broke. As first-generation Jewish immigrants began to assimilate, ritual immersion was one of the first traditions to fall away.

Hyman Grinstein, in studying New York’s Congregation Anshe Chesed, found that over a seven-month period in 1851 only 100 women used the mikveh. He concluded that while newer immigrants used the mikveh, their daughters did not. Even New York’s Shearith Israel, so scrupulous in building a “Bath” on Mill Street in 1759, did not construct one when it moved uptown to Crosby Street in 1833.

The mikveh records of 20th-century New York are tellingly sparse.

“If you do the math, look at the book published by the Jewish community of New York, which lists every imaginable New York Jewish institution at the turn of the century; look up the number of the mikva’ot — it’s very small,” Sarna said. “There’s no conceivable way that such a small number met the needs of a million plus Jewish women. Women stopped going.”

Family purity quickly became less and less relevant for most American Jewish families, a complicated mitzvah, with intricate details: Mikvehs and their mystical associations were an anathema to modern American Jews who were trying to shed the trappings of Old World life.

“In the shtetl, people were unlettered, untutored,” Rivkah Slonim, author of “Total Immersion”, told me. Slonim is a Chabad rebbetzin at the Binghamton University campus and is a popular speaker on ritual immersion and family purity. “They may have done it in the old shtetl, because that’s just what was done, and there it may have made sense once a month to get a good soaking after your period. But when they came here, the mikva’os on the Lower East Side were horrific, in a state of great disrepair.”

In the years leading up to World War I, the New York City Board Department of Health shut down many of the city’s mikvehs, estimating that an average of 300 people used a mikveh before its water was changed.

The secrecy inherent in the ritual also contributed to its eventual decline. As a tradition that was kept private between married women only, it was harder to transmit over the generations, especially with limited formal Jewish education for girls in pre-World War II America.

“It seems that women didn’t go,” said Anita Diamant, writer and founder of Mayyim Hayyim, a progressive community mikveh outside Boston. “Perhaps they bathed at home and then maybe said a blessing, but we really don’t have any record. There was a need to become Americans. Jewish women experienced a physical and imaginative liberation. You could call it assimilation, but I see it as a way of finding a new way to be Jewish.”

At the time, the Reform establishment grew to dismiss the practice entirely. In the 1930s, Rabbi David Phillipson of Cincinnati’s Rockdale Temple was horrified when the Orthodox rabbi Eliezer Silver tried to raise funds to renovate a mikveh. Phillipson took to the pages of The Cincinnati Enquirer on May 6, 1932: “The institution of the mikveh or ritual bath… is entirely foreign to our modern interpretation of Jewish faith and practice.”

“The mikveh, to Phillipson, was a symbol of everything that’s wrong in Orthodoxy,” Sarna told me. “To him, this was medievalism taking over, an undoing of everything he hoped to accomplish.”

Perhaps there was something too primal about it, the associations with blood and the female body and sexuality, the act of immersing naked in rainwater. It was too uncomfortable for upwardly mobile Jewish women more interested in their Judaism rituals being contained to Rosh Hashanah brisket, mah-jongg and Sisterhood luncheons. And later, for Jewish feminists in the ’1970 s, it was self-demeaning to subject oneself to male rabbinic rules over a woman’s body. In 1975, Sally Priesand, the first woman to be ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, wrote in her book “Judaism and the New Woman” that the laws of nidda are “senseless and irrelevant to modern society.”

In the meantime, some Orthodox rabbis went on campaigns to educate communities about proper nidda observance.

But it was with the influx of Holocaust refugees, and with improved formal Jewish education for girls, that mikveh construction began to pick up. A large percentage of refugees were observant and required mikveh access in their new communities. The Upper West Side got its first mikveh in the 1950s, and shortly afterward, in 1958, even the Fountainbleau hotel in Miami Beach — a popular destination for religious Jews and a status symbol for those who “made it,” — installed one for its visitors.

In Brighton, Massachusetts, the Hasidic Bostoner rebbe had the Daughters of Israel mikveh renovated in the 1960s, to become the first American-style mikveh for the “modern woman.” “I remember how that was advertised,” Sarna recalled to me. “They were very proud of how luxurious it was. The Bostoner was American born and understood the world of American women, that this must be modern, at least according to standards of the ’60s.”

In 1978, Leo Jung, a Modern Orthodox rabbi at The Jewish Center of the Upper West Side, published a guide to “The Jewish Way to Married Happiness,” urging modern Jewish families to embrace the laws of family purity. “Judaism,” he wrote, “develops the proper attitude through a system of marriage laws which serve not as a restriction, but as a safeguard, of freedom, growth, beauty in marriage.”

But these were rare voices. Somehow, even mainstream Orthodox leaders struggled with publicly articulating the importance of the mikveh. It was a women’s thing, something squeamish, laden with the shames of menstrual blood and sexuality, something only a rebbetzin could privately instruct a bride about, hush-hush.

It was, in a way, Chabad that dared to start talking about it publicly and consistently — as the movement campaigned to build modern mikvehs worldwide. (Take my neighborhood, the Upper East Side, for example. Our first mikveh was built only in 2004, and by Chabad.) In a 1974 talk, the Lubavitcher rebbe famously wept over the empty mikvehs, standing unused by Jewish women, and called for his followers to build “beautiful” mikvehs worldwide. Chabad is genius at branding. Gone was the disgusting old mikveh — here was a “spa” for the busy modern woman to “rejuvenate,” and while she’s at it, keep Jewish marriage alive, too.

For Lubavitchers, there was also a matter of some self-interest: Lubavitch Hasidic definitions of what constitutes an ideal kosher mikveh are slightly different from other Orthodox groups’ definitions (the difference lies namely in the water source), and thus Chabad women prefer mikvehs that conform to their customs, optimally.

But all that aside, it may have been thanks to Chabad’s obsessive “rebranding” that the way religious American Jews talked about the mikveh changed entirely. Rebbetzins and high school teachers started opening up, switching tactics to warm, enthusiastic explanations of the benefits of mikveh observance: This, young ladies, is the secret to a happy Jewish marriage, a busy woman’s time to herself, a moment of self-care, of “me time.”

Outside Orthodoxy, too, there has been a recent return to the waters among the very groups that once dismissed the mikveh as something backward and anti-feminist.

The first Reform mikveh was built by Temple Israel, in West Bloomfield, Michigan, in 1995. Slowly, several more synagogues opened their own mikvehs. In 2004, Diamant started Mayyim Hayyim in Boston, and in August, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan announced that it is taking over the mikveh education project ImmerseNYC, the first JCC to encourage ritual immersion.

These immersions, though, are less about menstruation and purity and more about marking life transitions.

“In the last generation, there has been an embrace of tradition by learned and learning Jewish women who have redefined mikveh, re-understood it in womanist and feminist terms,” Diamant told me.

Whether you’ve gone sober, gone through a gender transition, or are preparing to go to an anti-Trump demonstration — take a dip.

While women are welcome to use these new mikvehs for traditional uses also, the focus is on individual interpretation. It’s about “mining” an “outmoded ritual rife with sexism” ritual for “its spiritual potential”, according to the Union for Reform Judaism’s website.

“It’s a feminist reclaiming for some of the women who are finding their way back to it,” said Rabbi Abigail Treu at the JCC Manhattan’s Center for Jewish Living. “It’s for women, men, queers, gender non-binary. We have female and male [mikveh] guides, as well as trans guides.”

In 2018, the American mikveh is whatever you want it to be.

And so, we come to an interesting crossroads. American Jews are going back to the mikveh once again. And while traditionalists insist that the mikveh is primarily a married woman’s place to prepare herself for sexuality, progressives deem tradition as deeply patriarchal and redefine the bath as a place anyone may visit whenever one’s kavannah [intention] inclines one to do so.

As ImmerseNYC’s founder Sara Luria told me earlier, for many people who attend her classes, the association of the mikveh is negative because of its ties to menstrual impurity, and it is her mission to remove that association.

“Mikveh is in line with the unbundling of religion,” she said. “It used to be that if you were Jewish, there were certain things you did to keep a Jewish life: kosher, Shabbat, mikveh, prayed a certain amount of times a day. That is what it meant to be Jewish. Because identity is fluid, now you can say to someone ‘I am a Jewish Buddhist’ with a totally straight face; ‘I am not religious,’ ‘I am a None, and I celebrate Shabbat with my friends.’ This is the era of religion that we find ourselves in — whether we want it or not. This is the era of unbundling and of fluid identity.”

Some find the non-Orthodox embrace of the ritual as heartening. “A woman might be motivated to use the mikveh for one reason, but she might like the experience that brings her renewal that she wants to make it part of her life. That would be my hope ,” Rabbanit Chana Henkin, founding director of Nishmat, a women’s Torah institute in Jerusalem, said. “I think that even if someone is cooking a meal on Shabbat, which I would prefer they not do, I think it is a good thing that there be Shabbat candles on the table.”

Others find the expansion inauthentic. “The mikveh immersion is being taken out of its larger context of its biblical prescription,” Slonim told me over the phone. “You’re taking what’s a really sexy part of the mitzvah and you’re re-appropriating it. In a consumer society, that’s what you do. But in Judaism, the emphasis is on the divine and not the self.”

These tensions are, in a way, a microcosm for larger tensions of faith between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities — a conflict between the rigidity of divine covenant and the fluidity of self-interpretation.

These self-designed rituals can be personally meaningful, to be sure. What a beautiful way to bring healing into one’s life — especially after enduring hardship, after chemotherapy, after divorce, after grieving a loved one. One can almost imagine the ancient Israelite hopping into a spring near home, purifying himself after a long battle with the Philistines. Indeed, mikvehs have historically been used for all sorts of occasions, from recovery from leprosy to purification after being in contact with a corpse.

But I wonder if the total expansion of the ritual will come at the expense of erasing the intimacy of this women’s space. It is perhaps that very menstrual “baggage” that makes traditional ritual immersion so powerful — the discomfort, the way it forces us to face our human bodies, our limitations, on a relentless monthly basis, the callouses on our feet and the grime underneath our fingernails and souls.

There is, after all, a risk one takes when sterilizing the mikveh from any mention of menstruation — its most frequent use.

Recently I was struck reading a Lilith essay, by T.S. Mendola about attending a Mayyim Hayyim fundraiser. “When the flagship of the liberal mikveh movement can hold an entire fundraiser without saying the word ‘period,’ we run the risk of reinscribing the very stigma around menstruating bodies Mayyim Hayyim was built to escape,” Mendola wrote. “Without a nod to that link between blood, water, and the Covenant that first wrote mikveh into the medieval Jewish imagination, liberal Judaism and the progressive mikveh movement miss an opportunity for sex-positive, body-affirming discussion of what it means to be a person who can get pregnant.”

Indeed. The enduring, ancient power of the mikveh lies in the messiness of being human. If we pretend that our bodies do not menstruate, do not carry within them hopes and disappointments — both physical and spiritual — are we not ignoring the very heart of this ritual? There is a return to fearing menstrual blood, a trap that progressivism seems to fall into, by pretending that it does not exist.

Ironically, the Orthodox use of the mikveh — a use that is practically and deeply tied to sexuality — has the potential to most candidly face the role of eros in our lives. It is the rare aspect of Jewish observance which engages with our most carnal, private selves. For centuries, Jewish women have used the mikveh as a consistent opportunity to meditate on love. Argue that this is the patriarchy forcing women to cleanse themselves all you want — but that moment of reflection on sex may be lost in the new, careful language we adopt around the ritual.

Go to the mikveh for whatever you want, whenever you want — but let us not pretend that the power of this ritual is not grounded in the incredible mechanics of the female body.

Talking about menstruation can, actually, be a point of bonding between women.

When I take a woman to tour the mikveh, often it is there — as we stand above the blue still water, the Jerusalem-esque limestone all around us, in the utter silence of this secret place — that we talk.

Strangely, the details of the laws that we just studied — of blood and counting days — fall away for a moment. It is almost as though the graphic, forced intimacy of instruction allows one to talk about the larger things in life. We already talked about sex in Judaism, so why not talk about the pre-wedding anxieties on your mind? Why not talk about the children you want to have? Why not talk about the dream job you’re hoping for? Why not talk about an ongoing issue with a fiancé that is gnawing at you?

There we take a moment to recognize that we are standing on the shoulders of millions of Jewish women before us, and that we are part of something much, much greater than ourselves.

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the life editor at the Forward. Write to her [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @avitalrachel and Instagram @avitalrachel

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