years ago, my mother died, after a long illness, and after a catastrophic
fall that the inept but well-intentioned neurologist likened to a
high-speed automobile impact. Her illness was only fatal, without
treatment or cure, and every visit we'd had over the three last years
of her life had been a 'goodbye' for me: Every unspoken essential
was voiced, and what wasn't said didn't need to be. We settled on
a kind of peace, a loving truce, at last. But seeing your mother leave
this world for the next which I did, and which is best left
for another telling seeing her deeply comatose yet alive, then
in the space of a few breaths waxen and utterly not, to go from dying
to dead no matter how one prepares intellectually, psychologically,
is a shock: a tsunami, inside the body; a flood of loss.
After her death, there was the funeral. I spoke. And then,
the shiva, which because my father is as assimilated as a
Holocaust survivor can be, which is to say, plenty took not
the traditional week but a truncated three days. And then, the flying
back to New York, to my home base, to the embrace of friends and
a freezer full of well-intentioned condolence suppers, to the real
work of mourning.
In Jewish practice, mourning is divided into a few discrete
areas: First, there's the immediate period after the loved one's
death which should last no more than 24 hours, but can extend
to 72 hours or more, if holidays, when the work of the world is
prohibited, intervene or if family must travel great distances to
gather and mourn. After the burial begins a week of shiva
visiting, talking, praying, eating, weeping a bit, sharing stories,
laughing, too. In the ideal world, the mourners don't leave the
shiva house for a week, until the end, when they 'get up' and walk
out into the world for the first time since the funeral. In the
real world, which I inhabit, we had to fly back to Brooklyn in the
midst of shiva, and pick up the mourning in our own time zone.
In any event, after the week of shiva, there's a month of continued
mourning, where one shouldn't cut one's hair, enjoy music, have
sex (for any reason, though traditionalists eschew all intimacy
that doesn't lead to more Jews). This month is called "shloshim,"
and it's a brilliant, ancient innovation, bridging the time of the
most intense, acute mourning to the everyday lives we all lead.
Ask anyone who's gone through a loss and they'll tell you, the first
month is a bitch, a complete scramble: Your emotions are haywire,
sleep is broken, dreams are bad, it's a mess. So it's kind of wonderful
that Judaism gives a person an excuse and a framework to be scattered
and at loose ends. For me, it was a true solace: I liked knowing
that I had a month, at the end of which it was my obligation to
collect my wits, as best as possible, and return to the business
of the world. But then, my rabbi asked me a question, and a new
"What will you do to mark your Shloshim?" he asked me. We had
taken a walk in the park and were sitting under a shade tree; the
flowers had fallen and everything was green. "It's traditional to
teach something, to give a lesson, and then to host a meal."
Teach? Host? He had to be kidding. I was barely functional,
coping with a bit of work and the ongoing routine of family life.
My kids were very young at the time; the routine demands
of their lives became my defense against an immobilizing depression:
They needed, I had to do; I was too tired at the end of the day
to be both conscious and sad, for long. But gather a group for some
scholarly learning? Torah study? A festive meal? No way, completely
impossible. And far too public for so intimate a loss.
But still, the structure of Shloshim itself appealed to me.
I had found the hierarchy of mourning, so far, very helpful, and
entirely attuned to the internal emotional consequences of putting
your mother in a box in the ground and walking away. So I thought,
ok, what can I do for Shloshim? What can I do, that's mine, and
private? Yes, I will say Kaddish for 11 months, the custom for parents,
but not for spouses, siblings, or even those mourning lost children.
But what about marking this month? What can I do to set it apart?
It's a big theme in Jewish practice, separation. We separate
things all the time. I didn't grow up with the rituals, but I took
them on decades ago, and now, they're mine, familiar and internal.
They give me a framework that's so personal it's hard to describe.
Somehow, the investment of meaning into the mundane, like the business
of paying attention to what's on a supper plate, lifts me up. I
become a little more aware of the world beyond my appetites; I think
a little bit more. And I like it. So I separate meat from milk,
and kosher from treyf. In Jewish practice, the business
of separation extends from the appetites to the temporal world,
too, in the separation of time, which heightens the awareness of
its passage. Every week, we divide the workaday from the sublime
with Shabbat; at holidays, we separate from the present with ancient
rituals, like the Passover Seder, or remove ourselves from time
entirely, renouncing the distractions of the flesh both edible
and sensual on Yom Kippur. So the idea of separation, of
demarcation, made sense. But I didn't know how to do it.
Some days passed. Soon, the month would come to a close; I
didn't want to let it fizzle away without some kind of demarcation,
some division. I decided I would go to the mikveh, the ritual bath.
But first, I had to find one.
This, like so many apparently simple decisions, was a big choice.
Mikveh has been a part of Jewish practice for millennia; every ruin
you visit in Israel boasts a mikveh hewn from stone. Traditionally
used by brides in advance of their weddings, and monthly, by married
women, the mikveh is a complicated place. It's a place of freedom
and oppression, where women rule without men (although there are
mikvaot for men, too, and some switch-hit, depending on the day
of the week or the time of day). Oppression isn't too strong a word,
though traditionalists may protest: women over centuries had to
go to the mikveh every month, a week or so after their period ended,
in order to resume sexual relations with their husbands. (To the
devout, women are strictly off-limits during and immediately after
menstruation. Even today, Orthodox and Hasidic couples have zero
tolerance for contact during and just after menses, to the point
that couples sleep in separate beds, pushed together half the month
and apart the other half).
The issue is the blood, a big no-no for the stringently observant.
Blood, of any sort but in particular that flow which women experience
monthly, is considered a profanation of all that's holy, a nearly
infectious, toxic, malign presence to be avoided at all costs. Which
is how oppression comes into play: all of the prohibitions against
women in ritual life have to do with "defiling" holy places and
texts with their menstrual blood. Very second-class citizen, if
not outright chattel.
Chattel I'm not, but still, I'm seeking some ritualized framework,
some structure, to separate this month of mourning from what's yet
to come. Is it hypocritical to go to the mikveh for a self-made
ritual if I don't go every month? Yes, a bit. Is it boutique Judaism
to take what I need and essentially reject the sexist rest? Yes
again. Does this stop me from thinking about the mikveh? Does it
deter me? No. Contradictions and gray areas notwithstanding, I'm
interested. After all, I reason (or rationalize), maybe it's not
the patronizing, diminishing experience I expect. No way to find
out without going. Even with my reservations, I think it's the right
thing: it's a place of intense privacy, an utterly female domain
(right for a daughter honoring her mother's life, I think), and
for me, a wholly new experience, which feels like the kind of dividing
line that will bracket Shloshim and set it apart from the balance
of my life. I contact a friend who, despite staunch left-wing politics,
hews to traditional practice meaning she goes monthly, just
like the Orthodox and ask if she can tell me where to find
a good mikveh.
The right mikveh is very important, because the keeper of the
mikveh the all-seeing and thus all-powerful Mikveh Lady
sets the tone of the place. She is the one who greets women as they
arrive; she sees who isn't coming in (and who may be pregnant).
She also sees who doesn't come to the mikveh on a regular basis,
raising doubts about piety and the Laws of Family Purity, which
codify marital relations, including detailed directions about when
and how to have sex, and which every Orthodox home is expected to
uphold. The ML can be bossy or snobby, welcoming or suspicious,
a gossip or a confidante. I was a little intimidated at the idea
of going to the mikveh, even as my decision was made. What would
the ML say? Would she be nice to me, or mean, like some of the women
I've encountered shopping in the very frum, or devout, neighborhoods
of Brooklyn? These women, in their expensive wigs and fine suits,
have looked through me as if I were a pane of goyische glass, because
my dress and demeanor say that I do not belong to their world. What
can be seen as cultural insularity separation, again
is experienced as snobbishness, superiority. I didn't want to put
myself in a setting where I'd feel defensive or otherwise less-than-sufficiently
Jewish. So I needed the right mikveh and the right ML; no one too
nosy or judgmental, please, and no one too frum.
Mikvaot themselves are hidden presences; they exist behind
unmarked doors, on side streets in residential neighborhoods, where
women can safely walk alone in the evening when women go
to the mikveh, it's nearly always under cover of darkness: women
want to protect their modesty. To come out of the mikveh in midday
is to broadcast what you will do that night. So the ML is the gatekeeper.
I wanted one who wouldn't give me a hard time, and a mikveh where
strangers weren't ostracized, a tall order in tight-knit communities
hyper-suspicious of outsiders. My friend knew a place in Crown Heights.
The ML had a sense of humor, she said. It would be a good place
We arrived on a Tuesday night, just after dark. Mikvehs open
at sunset and close by 10 or 11, unless they're being used for ritual
conversions in which case, daytime dunking is entirely permitted
or by men, who often immerse by daylight, before the high
holidays. But for women, it's all hush-hush and shadows, all skulking
and on the sly, discreet to the point of invisible to the non-observant
eye. My friend and I turn from the sidewalk to a small concrete
path and arrive at an entirely neutral door. There's a bell; we
ring. And wait.
I remember the smell of the trees and the grass as we stood;
I remember wondering, what am I doing here? And thinking also that
my mother, ironically, would kill me for this - non-traditionalist
that she was, she felt shamed by the conformist ways of the Orthodox
and saw none of their beauty. But I felt a kind of satisfaction
about this, as petty as it seems now, and also the dawning awareness
that the time for acting out against my devoted, domineering and
now-dead mother was past. It was time to move forward.
The door opened and a woman of indistinct age welcomed us inside;
in house slippers, her steps were inaudible, fleet. She clambered
onto a kitchen stool and checked what seemed to be a reservations
list (table for 2?). "Shalom, shalom," she said to my friend, who
she knew, and to me, "Welcome, welcome! Do we have a kalleh on our
Kalleh is the word for bride; that's the logical explanation
for a first-timer at the bath.
"Oh, no," I said, flustered out of proportion to the moment.
"I'm far from a Kalleh very much married, for a long time."
"Who knows?" said the ML, eyes gleaming under the heavy, tawny
bangs of her wig. "You could be a recycled Kalleh. I was, once upon
" and she rolled her eyes up and rocked her head from
side to side, grinning. "It's maybe better, the second time."
"Oh?" I said, befuddled. I didn't get what just happened. An
Orthodox lady which the ML certainly was, judging from her
wig and tent-like clothes and entire aspect had just made
a kind of bedroom joke to me. Woman to woman, she liked what men
had to offer. I was floored. Just by coming into the mikveh hallway,
I was privy to unexpected intimacies with total strangers. I got
a little more nervous.
"OK," the ML said, "even though you're not a real Kalleh, we'll
give you the Kalleh room it's your first time. But you don't
get the good towels! Those we keep for the real brides," and as
softly as she'd climbed up to her perch, she trundled down, led
me through another short hall, opened a pale wooden door, and walked
inside. "Here it is," she said, like a bathroom-happy real-estate
broker. "Gorgeous! But let me take the towels," and as she spoke,
she gathered an armload of plush, peach bath-towels (far nicer than
anything I had at home) and called to an attendant to bring fresh
supplies. The helper came with a stack of regulation white terry
cloth towels a step above gym towels, but snow-white, clean.
I said "thank you," and the helper left. The ML stayed.
"Do you know what to do?" she asked me.
"Not exactly," I said.
"OK, here's what you do: Shower here and wash everything. Everything,
you understand me? Then, comb your hair, here and here," and she
motioned to her head and below the waist, "there can be no tangles."
Tangles? I thought. You're kidding. Who's going to know?
"Then, after you've combed, take off all the loose hairs. From
everywhere." This time, she didn't demonstrate, but I was getting
the idea. "Look here, there's a checklist," and she pointed to a
framed list on the wall, like a hotel's room rates and check-out
times. "Pay attention."
I was, but I was short-circuiting. I tried to focus.
"OK, then next, you clean your nails, hands and feet, and clip
them to the skin. There can be no dirt, nothing. And clean your
ears" she gestured to a glass canister of Q-tips "and
don't forget to take off the nail polish," again showing me a bottle
of remover. "When you're done, put on the robe, and knock on the
other door." She gestured to the door opposite the one we'd used,
on the far side of the bathroom. "Someone will come for you."
"Thank you," I said.
"OK," she said, "it's ok. It's your first time, you need the
help. Take your time, and knock when you're ready. And Mazal Tov!"
she said, with the same sparkle, "your husband's a lucky man." She
left the room and closed the door.
The bathroom, paneled in blush-colored marble, was spacious
and new. The floor was marble, too, with soft scatter rugs to warm
the tiles. There was a large tub and shower with glass doors (and
very fancy shampoo, I noticed), a vanity area loaded with trimmers,
scissors, combs, files and other groomers but no creams or
lotions, as these were prohibited in the mikveh's mayim chayim,
or living waters. (The water must flow from a spring or river, or
be in some measure composed of rainfall. In Brooklyn, where I live,
it's hard to imagine a bubbling spring, but subterranean aquifers
course below the streets, and supply many of the local mikvaot.)
A tiny stool sat in front of the vanity; a plush robe hung on a
hook. Nothing to do now but strip and shower. I did.
I showered, I washed my body and hair, I combed everything
I could find, I cleaned and trimmed my nails, all in silence. I
clipped a hangnail and thought, what am I doing here? Can I leave
now, or am I in too deep? The strangeness of it all was stunning
I could hear nothing of other women in the mikveh an
essential privacy, closely guarded and nothing at all of
the outside world. I looked at the checklist: I had to check every
orifice of my body and even some I'd never considered orifices:
the conventional openings, of course, but also inside and behind
the ears, nose, armpits, folds of skin at the thigh and knee and
elbow. Places never before erotic became charged, because of the
need to assure their purity. I picked all the loose hairs I could
see off my skin amazing, once you start to hunt, how much
is shed and not even missed. In the mirror, I saw myself, clean,
hair combed back, naked. Pink. I put on the robe.
Knotting the belt, I thought to myself, why knot it? You're
just going to take it off. But that part was still a minute or two
away, and I was eager, despite my curiosity, to delay it until it
was upon me, so I knotted the belt. Twice. I knocked on the far
Right away, a heavy-set woman in a uniform opened the door
from the other side, like an out-of-place lunch lady, but without
the hairnet. She wore soft-soled, sensible shoes. She said little
no welcome-wagon like the ML, but businesslike and neutral
and gestured me into the large, tiled room that held the
Tiled floor to ceiling in celadon green, the room echoed with
my footsteps. (The ML had thoughtfully left me plastic shower shoes
for my walk from tub to tub; regulars know to bring their own.)
All around the room, the walls were punctuated with doors, four
to a wall, and I wondered who was behind them, and what were they
there for were they women waiting to return to the marriage
bed after two weeks' hiatus? New mothers, at the mikveh for the
first time after giving birth? Brides, immersing for the first time
before their weddings and before decades of monthly immersions,
as their mothers and grandmothers had before them? Well, no, no
brides I had the Kalleh room and would've been bounced if
a real Kalleh had come in. But I felt that I was there for my own
reason, one I hadn't shared with the ML and wasn't about to: in
a ritual that bound women to women for centuries, I was remembering
my mother, and also separating myself from her, and from the time
of intense mourning for her death. It was all very profound until
the woman said, "Please to take off the robe."
I didn't realize it beforehand, but the attendant had work
to do: she had to inspect me, to make sure I was kosher enough to
go into the water. There could be no razor nicks or cuts
remember, no blood no sores, nothing breaking the surface
of the skin. No loose hairs or lint; she lifted one of my breasts
and plucked some bit of fluff away. No one but my husband had inspected
me so closely in more than a dozen years; she made me turn, slowly,
and checked the folds of my skin every place you can imagine and
that I'm too shy to mention. She combed her hand through my hair,
north and south. It was, plainly, weird.
She checked my nails and my ears; my mouth, like a horse. But
I was in it, and she was serious, so I turned around and she searched
my body. "OK," she finally said, "good. Go under."
I had to give up my glasses to go into the water. You can't
go in with anything no earrings, wedding ring, other jewelry.
Everything must be submerged; there's even a right way to go under,
in a kind of crouch, with arms open and hands loose, so the water
touches every part of your skin. A person is not supposed to open
their mouth or eyes hygiene does, occasionally, trump ritual
but as the water is replenished for every dunkee (for how
could one cleanse one's impurities, then offer the water to another
to bathe?), I decided I would keep my eyes open, to see what the
world looked like from the little green pool. After all, I might
never see it again. I walked the few feet from the attendant to
the steps that led to the pool; a steel railing guiding my short-sighted
passage down the slippery steps.
"Stand please in the middle," said the lady. I stood, in water
as warm as a bath, up to my waist, in the center of the square pool.
It was about six feet square; I couldn't reach the sides.
"Please to go under," she said.
I did. I dunked below the surface, holding my breath, then
releasing a chain of air bubbles, wondering, what's the protocol
for breathing in a mikveh? Is it improper to come up quickly, or
to linger too long? Who knew? I stayed under, opened my eyes (green
gloom), then bobbed up.
"Now, the bracha,"
More news to me; I hadn't figured, somehow, that a prayer was
involved. She led me through it word for word while I stood, dripping,
in the pool. (It's considered highly improper to pray in the nude,
but the ancient rabbis made an exception for people in the mikveh,
where water is said to be a sufficient covering.) She had to repeat
it in parts. She did, I did, and she said, "Again, go under." And
I did, again, open to the power of the experience, seeking the transformation
that would divide before from after, blank as a page, waiting.
And I have to say, nothing happened. After all the buildup,
and all the preparation the anticipation, the deliberation,
the investment of so much symbolism into the novel ritual event
zip. I was wet; I got out and into the robe; went back to
the Kalleh bathroom, dressed, and waited for my friend to finish
her turn. Odd, no? But it's the truth: nothing profound. I did it,
it was done, and so was I. I read an outdated magazine while I waited.
After a month overwhelmed with feelings too dense and complicated
to tease apart, I felt nothing, neutral, blank. I didn't realize
it then, but for the first time in weeks, not feeling was its own
pleasure. In retrospect I see the beauty of it was the blankness,
the absence of illumination. Life has ecstasies, life has drama,
and in between, you live. That's the lesson the mikveh taught me.
But even so even in the face of an experience designed
to be profound and, in the end, utterly pedestrian mikveh
gave me what I'd desired. Or perhaps I gave it to myself, via the
mikveh, the strange ritual, the nakedness, the water. Like so much
Jewish ritual and all of life, truth be told what
you take away reflects what you invest. The more you pour in, the
more flows out.
The mikveh, to which I'll likely never return, was the first
step in a shift in my life, to being a mother without having one.
It's been eight years; my youngest child is now the age of his oldest
sister when their grandmother died. Much of the world has changed,
yes, but much more has stayed the same. If, as the civil-rights
pioneers tell us, we make the road by walking, then maybe, in this
Jewish life I'm living, I made my road, or that part of it that
led me from the past to the future, by dunking.