An Israeli art student’s short animation shows how a ritual meant to allow for physical intimacy between Jewish couples can actually drive them apart.
The animation, created by Tiferet Sigala, a third year student at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, shows two women’s radically different experiences at the mikveh, as one scowling ritual bath attendant turns a routine monthly experience into a humiliating one.
In “Side by Side,” the attendant studies the woman’s naked body, with an annoyed expression on her face, towering over the woman as she immerses herself in the water. The woman cries as she returns to her husband and does not touch him.
The second woman has a better experience. Her mikveh attendant smiles as she holds up a towel to guard the woman’s privacy when she disrobes. After immersing, the woman returns to her husband, and the couple embraces.
Jewish law requires women to immerse in a mikveh following menstruation before resuming sexual relations with their husbands.
“I like challenging issues in Judaism and in the religious community, from a place of love and respect,” Sigala told the Forward, adding that the animation was based on her own experiences using the mikveh. “For a while I have been very interested in body positivity and feminism in the religious context.”
The topic of ritual baths is a hot-button issue in Israel. Women have complained that Orthodox attendants at the country’s public mikvehs are unnecessarily strict, in some cases humiliating or turning away unmarried women or those they see as not complying with the stringent laws of ritual immersion.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers are fighting for more stringent rules for mikveh use, including barring non-Orthodox converts from using public ritual baths and requiring attendants to adhere to stringent interpretations of Jewish law. Meanwhile, progressive groups are pushing for women to be able to immerse without an attendant present.
Sigala said she supports the right of women to use the mikveh in privacy, she wanted to show the impact an attendant can have on the experience. “Balaniot [mikveh attendants] work very hard and dedicate so much of their time and energy to help other women. But, not every women is suited to be a balanit, and not all balaniot [attendants] are trained properly,” she said.
Watch the animation here:
Contact Josefin Dolsten at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @JosefinDolsten