This past June, the night before my wedding, I was told I would not be permitted to immerse in the mikveh.
Like many young religious Jews in Israel, my now-husband and I are vehemently opposed to the Israeli Rabbinate and its policies, many of which we view to be blatantly against halakha. Because of this, we decided that we could not in good conscience get married through the Rabbinate.
To us, to do so would be complicit in the hurt they have caused for many and their crimes, crimes that are beyond the pale and often flouting the halakha (such as revoking their own conversions). The way they treat Russian, Ethiopian, and Reform and Conservative Jews is appalling and a “chilul Hashem”, a desecration of the name of G-d. They are coercive and corrupt, holding onto their religious monopoly in this country with an iron first.
Instead, we opted to have an Orthodox wedding officiated by an Orthodox rabbi outside the auspices of the Rabbinate in Israel, and get married civilly abroad on an upcoming trip to the States to visit my family. While illegal, this practice has become increasingly common in Israel among both religious and secular couples.
We booked the venue, found a wonderful rabbi willing to marry us, and navigated the various tasks planning a wedding entails. We found a florist, discussed dining options for the meal with my husband’s family who are vegetarians, designed and sent out invitations. I bought a dress. I took classes in Jewish marital laws and bought head-coverings.
Like many, we participated in the custom of not seeing each other the week before the wedding, and I spent the Shabbat before our chuppah with friends who are like family, laughing, telling stories, eating delicious food, and drinking good wine.
On Sunday, I spent the day with my sisters and sisters-in-law at a spa outside Jerusalem relaxing. Once nightfall approached, my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law picked me up, and we went to a mikveh in Jerusalem highly recommended by my kallah teacher [my instructor in Jewish marital law], who had sent multiple brides there without a problem.
I opened my bag and double checked that I had my makeup bag and the dress I wanted to wear to the mikvah party my mother-in-law and her family were throwing for me. For a second I thought I had forgotten my towel, but after pawing around frantically, I saw it at the bottom. Everything was there.
At the mikveh I punched the button on the machine outside, I selected the kallah package without thinking, feeling a giddiness as I did so. The reality that I was getting married tomorrow was slowly dawning on me. My sister-in-law clapped and ululated as we walked in.
I held out my receipt to the woman behind the desk. She looked at it, and asked to see the letter from the Rabbinate. I was confused. No one told me that I would have to produce a letter to use the mikveh. I had only just started my five-month Hebrew course as a new immigrant, and I thought perhaps I hadn’t understood. She repeated herself.
I stammered, saying I didn’t have a letter. She pursed her lips, no longer smiling, and told me she could not let me immerse without one, that I would have to call and get one from the Rabbinate.
I took a deep breath. “I can’t get a letter from the Rabbinate. My wedding isn’t through them.” I thought if I told her the truth that maybe she would understand, have some sympathy.
She narrowed her eyes.
“Is it a Jewish wedding?”
My sister-in-law stepped forward. “It’s a religious Jewish wedding”, she snapped.
I stepped back while my sister in law spoke rapidly in Hebrew with the mikveh lady. I was following the majority of the conversation, but there were several words I didn’t know.
And then I heard the mikveh lady say: “…you have to understand, this is a holy place”.
As if my presence in the water would desecrate her mikveh.
Shaking, I stepped outside and called my kallah teacher, who was irate on my behalf. She offered to speak to them, but they refused to speak to her.
We left, and I went to another mikveh nearby. I did not say I was a kallah.
I keep Shabbat, I keep kosher, I dress according to the laws of tzniut [modesty].
Now that I’m married, my husband and I observe the laws of family purity.
And yet — that is not good enough for the religious establishment of the Jewish state, where I have chosen to make my home. My wedding ceremony, performed well within the boundaries of halakha, is good enough for the Jewish sages, but not for the modern-day rabbinate.
At the mikveh, there was no singing, no special blessings. I immersed quietly and left. Afterwards, I had requested to have a few moments in the mikveh alone, where I stood in the warm water and tried to summon the will to pray. There is a tradition that says that the gates of heaven swing open for a woman as she immerses, but I have never felt the gates of heaven more impenetrable than in that moment.
I closed my eyes and thought about all the people and things I wanted to pray for, but all I could picture was the first mikveh lady’s voice, insisting that she ought to protect her mikveh from me. I started shaking and crying with complete and utter fury. All the good that I was trying to summon fell away.
The moral stand we chose to make as a couple did not seem worth the humiliation I felt. Since my wedding, I have been back to the mikveh exactly once. Afterwards, I visited my local ob-gyn clinic for oral contraceptives to keep myself from having a period and becoming niddah.
Seven months later, I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to go back.
Yael Hochma made aliyah in 2015 from the United States. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently a graduate student in archaeology at Tel Aviv University. She lives in Tel Aviv.