Today’s post comes to us from one of my best friends in the whole world. I met Tehilah Eisenstadt in a college poetry class. After two classes together, I stopped her on her way out and told her that I liked her poetry and that we should be friends. That was 18 years ago. She lives in Brooklyn and I live in Minneapolis, but we talk every week. (Or at least try to.) She is one of the smartest, kindest, most resilient and amazing people I have the honor to know and I am certain we’ll be friends until we’re absolutely ancient old ladies. And beyond.
Tehilah and I have talked a LOT about the mikva over the years, and because she has had a variety of experiences with the ritual herself and countless conversations with others in the Jewish community about its significance, I’ve asked her to write about this fascinating practice here. Although it has nothing to do with style, it has plenty to do with body image, womanhood, community, healing, strength, and so many other issues central to the mission of this blog. I’m sure you’ll find her experiences and reflections as fascinating and inspiring as I did.
Reclaiming the Ancient Girls’ Club
By Tehilah Eisenstadt
I imagine in ancient times, there existed a world of clear, rigid, gendered roles in which a Jewish girl became a woman, wife, and mother within a 2-year span. She led a domestic life: mothering, wife-ing, cooking, and teaching. Creating, and creating order out of chaos; A godly role. Then, once a month when she was not full of life or nursing a child, she bled and went to a ritual bath, the “mikva.” The mikva is the culmination of a Jewish religious cycle of separation that usually occurs when a woman begins her period, and ends a certain number of days after bleeding ends. Immersion in a mikva pool marks a change in spiritual status, including a transition back into her sexual relationship with her partner, which has been on hold since the onset of bleeding. At the mikva, she marks time, maybe notes a few stretch marks or crows feet, and nurtures her friendships with those on her cycle who also revel in the rare in-between moment. Released from being a life-, food-, and love-giver, she joins her fellow-cycled women for a leisurely catch-up. I imagine them wrapping each other in storytelling, recipes for healing, theories on small-joy-taking, while they wait for their turn and the touch of the mikva waters.
That’s how it might have been. And though I readily see the drawbacks of life in ancient times, I like the image of what might have transpired at the mikva and how it could have been a place of healing and remedy. In modern times, the way I have most commonly experienced this women-and-body ritual can best be encapsulated by the night before my friend’s wedding. We went to a secret building. (Really, the city cab driver was convinced the address didn’t exist.) There, we passed silent, ancient men staring down their noses from picture frames above us, and my best friend prepared her body in a tiny bathroom for one hour. Next at the ritual pool/mikva, a woman looked her over, urged her towards the pool, and watched my friend immerse. She received bridal blessings and candied almonds afterwards.
Except for my friend, myself, and the ritual attendant (“the mikva lady”), the women who shared this ritual space with us did not speak to or look at each other. This silent isolation reflects the modern-day Eastern European tradition, encouraged by religious societal norms. Since mikva rituals mark when a religious couple can return to one another sexually, this private celebration is considered inappropriate to share with anyone other than your partner and the “mikva lady.”
What feels inappropriate about this ritual for me is that – as a city girl, used to small living quarters – trips to the mikva are among the only times I find myself in front of a mirror allowing a 360-degree view. As a mom to a young son, I seldom have the bathroom all to myself with no one calling my name or banging on the door. What do I end up doing with this time? Scrutinizing myself for flaws, every extra pound, and (potential) wrinkle. I find grey hairs I swear don’t exist anywhere except for when I am within the mikva’s walls. I pluck my eyebrows, I shave, and I say to my reflection “Is this really what you look like?” Then – though I perfected the art of changing underneath a towel in day camp at age eight – I have to stand before a woman I barely know so she can ritually scan me to make sure that there is nothing between me and the water and to make sure I am fully immersed. An experience that could offer a rejuvenating way to connect with other women – or, at the very least, an opportunity to relax and meditate alone – becomes an exercise in self-scrutiny and criticism with a bit of meditation (often focused on the self-scrutiny).
The first time I stepped into this ritual for myself was quite different. Two incredible friends (disclosure: one of them created this incredible blog space) accompanied me to the mikva a little less than 24 hours before my wedding day. They took my phone (genius) gave me loving smiles, and sparked conversations that led to joy and laughter. We celebrated together and then they sent me off to soak and meditate. Afterwards, we shared some chocolate from my family. This was my first reclaiming of mikva, and one of the only times I prepared for “inspection” with care and love instead of major-to-minor self-loathing.
Because I wanted more women to experience the mikva the way I had that night before my wedding – as a communal and enjoyable sacred ritual – I joined ImmerseNYC’s “mikva guides” dedicated to helping each other (and strangers) mark important transitions by joining bodies with water. We help women acknowledge divorce, childbirth, abortions, marriage, menopause, a new job, a round of chemo, and more. The list of transitions varies, but vulnerability is the common thread. Most importantly, we help shift the mikva experience away from the alienating rooms, staring at body flaws, being inspected by a stranger doing her job (sometimes kindly, sometimes by rote), all amidst other silent women cloistered off unto themselves.
Mikva experiences with best friends or ImmerseNYC guides turn the ritual bathhouses into female spaces for laughing, crying, asking, and sharing intensely intimate transitions. Women from different generations, neighborhoods, socio-economic strata, and religious streams meet without barriers. For me, this practice reclaims the ritual from Rabbinic ownership and places that ownership firmly in the hands of the women who undertake the ritual. It also transforms those moments of staring forlornly at a mirror image that can’t compare to Photoshopped advertisement facades into moments of gazing at the warmer image of myself as a friend, partner, mother, leader, and teacher.
Before I bring a woman to the mikva with ImmerseNYC I have two ritual blessings/meditations I’ve created in preparation:
- May I be able to facilitate an experience that is meaningful for each woman.
- May I recognize every body as holy and thus beautiful.
Interestingly enough, while I’ve been changing into and out of bathing suits behind a towel since my day camp days, I have also been careful to avoid looking directly at other female bodies, assuming we all shared levels of bashfulness or modesty. As a mikva guide I am sometimes asked to witness a woman’s immersion. I’ve had fears of how I might react to seeing strangers’ or friends’ bodies because it is so uncommon for me. But on the few occasions a woman has asked me to witness her immersion, I have been struck by how sacred the moment becomes. It’s not about her body being “right” or “wrong.” There’s no notion of judgment, just the beauty of sacred water met with great intention. As I head into my first experience with an ImmerseNYC guiding me as I dip into the mikva, I hope that this realization can transform my self-judgment. Bodies are sacred, including my own, and judgment – at least in the mikva – is misplaced.
Even if mikva is not a part of your spiritual life vocabulary, I urge you to find a friend with whom you can celebrate your physical self. Together, consider any and all of your significant transformations on a monthly or a yearly basis. Mark changes in community, not in solitude – where, with only one perspective, scrutiny can flourish. I believe a lot of female body self-hatred comes from solitude. It is far too unusual for close female friends to share all the intimacies of the hard, physical reality of being a woman. It is rare and precious for us to come together to usher each other into something new. I would love to see a world in which we hold hands, share stories, sobs, questions, or maybe just a towel.
Tehilah Eisenstadt is a Jewish educator, consultant, community builder and storyteller. She has worked in various leadership roles with prominent Jewish educational agencies and non-profits: Covenant Foundation, Huntington Jewish Center, Pardes Institute and Storahtelling. Recent projects include helping to open Kings Bay Y’s new community center in North Williamsburg, creating programs that serve multi-faith families and developing a unique 5-day a week Jewish cultural after-school program for children of all backgrounds in Sheepshead Bay, and working as an ImmerseNYC volunteer guide. She has been hosting poetry workshops since she met Sally in Binghamton, and has been hosting mikva conversations on and off since 2005. If you have questions or are interested in ImmersionNYC, please drop her a note.
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Before I open things up for comments, several points must be made:
- This post discusses a religious practice. Even if you are not a member of this religion or disagree with this specific practice, bear in mind that what has been described is sacred to some people. Express your views respectfully and civilly or they will not be published.
- Be courteous and kind to each other when responding to remarks from other readers.
Huge thanks to my dearest Tehilah for being willing to share her experiences with and views on the mikva with us all.
Image courtesy Rose770