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The Moments Between

My Mikveh Adventure

Helen Zelon

In life, we aim for the Big Moments, the extremes, the pinnacles and valleys that define life's contours. "The Moments Between" tells instead of the unsung and small, those experiences that somehow resonate and linger, the questions that are hard to answer, that nag in the small hours of the night. All drawn from life, the stories stand alone or together, an entirely subjective record of one life's accidental illuminations.

Previous installment: Your Shotgun is my Subway


Eight 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 problem surfaced.

"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 to start.

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 hands?"

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 a time…" 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 but seductive.

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 door.

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 actual mikveh.

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.