Immersing in the mikveh is often portrayed by its advocates as a woman’s rebirth — not merely a religious commandment, but a spiritual experience that sustains marital harmony.
Jewish tradition holds that couples are forbidden to have sex during menstruation and for a week after, until the woman immerses in a ritual bath, or mikveh, a practice upheld by many married Orthodox women.
But for women struggling with infertility, the mikveh can sometimes be a symbol not of rebirth, but of un-birth – yet another failed cycle, another flicker of hope lost.
“Your body failed, and it’s a very, very depressing time,” said Elie Haller Salomon, a Hebrew school teacher and former television producer in Edison, New Jersey, about her experience immersing in the mikveh as she went through 10 fertility procedures and six miscarriages.
“You’re crying, and your tears are going into the water and you’re like, ‘Is it going to be this month?’” she said. “All these mikveh references – being in the womb again and being reborn – it’s such painful imagery, because you’re thinking, ‘When will there be a child in my womb that’s going to be born?’”
After giving birth to her four children, now 8, 5 and almost 4 (the youngest two are twins), Haller Salomon co-founded Yesh Tikva (“There is Hope”) with executive director Gila Mond Block, who lives in Los Angeles. The group provides resources and community for Jews facing infertility, and is distributing a new mikveh guide to the 160 synagogues across the U.S. that are participating in its Infertility Awareness Shabbat this week.
The guide, a booklet called “Birkat Emunah: A Mikvah Resource” (the title means “Blessing of Faith”), provides prayers (in Hebrew and English), practical suggestions and personal stories to help women gain more control over their mikveh experience while facing infertility or pregnancy loss.
“Our point in creating this resource was to allow mikveh to actually be a positive moment in a person’s process, as opposed to just feeling bereft or unable to face it or challenged yet again,” said Naomi Marmon Grumet, founder and executive director of the Jerusalem-based Eden Center, which is publishing the mikveh guide in collaboration with Yesh Tikva. The English guide is being sent to U.S. mikvehs in addition to the participating synagogues, and The Eden Center, a nonprofit aiming to turn the mikveh into a hub for resources on issues such as women’s health, abuse and intimacy education, plans to publish an all-Hebrew version to distribute in Israeli mikvehs and other locations.
“A few people came to us and said, ‘You know, the mikveh is really kind of a hard time for people who are going through infertility or have experienced pregnancy loss. Can we do something to make that better?’” said Marmon Grumet. “We have to recognize that pain as a community, and the booklet is really trying to give a framework for recognizing, mourning, finding closure, and also just to say we’re with you.”
One of the people asking for such a resource was a woman who had given birth very prematurely. Her baby died at a few weeks old and she ended up immersing in the mikveh on what would have been her due date, Marmon Grumet recalled. “She said, ‘I really need to get something to direct my thinking – to make me think that I’m not alone, to just frame my words. I just didn’t have any words.’”
A time to speak and a time to keep silent
Twelve percent of women aged 15-44, or about one in eight, have difficulty getting pregnant and carrying a baby to term (a condition called impaired fecundity), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That rate rises to one in six for women in the 40-44 bracket. (The numbers are better when you look at infertility alone, which affects about 1 in 15 married couples.)
Yet, like the bereaved woman who approached Naomi Marmon Grumet, women who are struggling, often silently, to get pregnant or stay pregnant may often feel alone – especially when they are part of a religious community that places a premium on procreation and parenting, when everyone around them is pushing a stroller or talking about their kids’ schools while they are left wondering if it will ever be their turn.
That’s a big part of why Yesh Tikva, which organizes support groups and lectures on various aspects of infertility, launched the Infertility Awareness Shabbat three years ago.
Synagogues that are participating in the awareness Shabbat – 160 signed up so far this year, up from 125 in 2016 and 136 last year – are asked to mention infertility during the rabbi’s sermon or in some other way this Shabbat. The program takes place shortly before Passover, because the emphasis on teaching the story of exodus to one’s children at the seder can be very alienating for those who are unable to do so, said Haller Salomon.
While speaking up can help those dealing with infertility get the help they need, there are times when saying something can increase people’s pain – for instance, when a curious onlooker is tempted to ask when someone is going to have a(nother) baby already and that person is finding it difficult to get pregnant at all (primary infertility), or to get pregnant after having had a child (secondary infertility). Even a seemingly innocuous icebreaker that asks women to introduce themselves by saying how many children they have can cause unnecessary distress.
The sense of feeling alone while trying to conceive can sometimes be compounded by the isolation of immersing in the mikveh – a ritual performed alone – leading to a sense of “double isolation,” said Chaya Houpt, a kallah teacher and sex educator in Jerusalem who experienced infertility in the early years of her marriage.
Houpt said she would recommend the guide to women who approach her about fertility difficulties, particularly its suggestion that women associate a specific intention with each of the standard three immersions in the mikveh – mourning the past, accepting the present and maintaining hope for the future.
“It adds an element of mindfulness and ritual on top of the existing ritual, something that’s special and particular for a woman who’s experiencing infertility or loss,” said Houpt. “I think because of this double isolation, there’s a kind of power there in really giving focus and structure to the role that the mikveh is playing in a woman’s life.”
Of course, many Jewish women don’t immerse in the mikveh in the first place, and not all the women who do so while contending with infertility or pregnancy loss will necessarily find the immersion to be a particularly difficult element of that process.
“Not everyone is faced with a challenge going to the mikveh, but for many women, mikveh is an association of hope and loss at the same time,” said Yesh Tikva’s Gila Muskin Block. “It holds within it a lot of grief and a lot of potential. You’re holding onto the hope that this is the last time this happens, and the next time will be the one. As the cyclical process continues, for many, that hope is very hard to hold onto.”
“We ensure that hope is never let go of,” she said. “No one should ever have to suffer alone.”
Shoshana Kordova lives in Israel, where she is a journalist and house mother to a small sorority’s worth of daughters. She is a former editor and language columnist at Haaretz, and has written for publications including Quartz, Smithsonian, Prevention, The Daily Beast and New York Times parenting blog Motherlode. You can reach her @shoshanakordova.