Not Your Mother’s Mikvah
Putting a modern twist on an ancient tradition.
The age-old custom of mikvah is taking some new turns as modern Jewish women expand the tradition and dispel some of the negative beliefs that have long been associated with the ritual.
Use of the mikvah has become more widespread in recent years, with a proliferation of ritual bath facilities throughout the United States and Europe. Many of these are quite spacious and luxurious, even with custom tile work, like Mikvah Israel in Oak Park. While the mikvah once was used primarily by prospective brides and observant wives in accordance with the Jewish laws of family purity, now the mikvah is used for a variety of other life-changing situations, including recovery from illness, becoming a grandparent or surviving a death or divorce.
Mikvahs are featured in many articles, websites and books, including The Ritual Bath by Jewish mystery writer Faye Kellerman. Even Oprah has gotten into the act, visiting (but not immersing in) a mikvah during her televised tour of two New York Hassidic neighborhoods.
What Is A Mikvah?
A mikvah is a body of water designed for immersion according to the rules and customs of Jewish law. According to the website www.mikvah.org, the pool, which contains about 200 gallons, must be filled with living waters from a flowing source that has never been dormant, such as fresh spring water, rainwater or even melted snow. The tradition is based on the belief that water, as the primary source of all living things, has the power to purify, restore and replenish.
The original purpose of the mikvah was to facilitate the observance of the Jewish laws of family purity, or taharas hamishpachah, which require periods of separation and reunion as part of married life. The separation, a time when the couple refrains from physical intimacy, begins with the onset of the menstrual flow and continues for seven days after it ends. The woman visits the mikvah after sundown on the seventh day, and then they can resume their sexual relationship.
Dispelling The Myths
Some modern Jewish women have eschewed the tradition because they believe it fosters a negative view of women. One woman remembers her mother’s horror stories about the stern mikvah attendants who examined her fingernails and admonished her for being unclean. Itty Shemtov, religious educator and wife of Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov of The Shul in West Bloomfield, says quite the opposite is true; the mikvah provides a symbolic rebirth that enhances the spirituality of the woman and the marital relationship.
“The tradition of mikvah introduces sanctity to marriage,” she said. “It promotes greater intimacy between husband and wife.”
Shemtov explained a pre-wedding visit to the mikvah is part of the spiritual and physical preparation for marital intimacy, which Judaism considers a holy act.
“The ritual is based on the Jewish concept of water as a source that cleanses, refreshes and rejuvenates,” she said. “Each detail relating to the mikvah — its size, the type of water used — has a mystical origin.”
She said the ritual of mikvah brings an element of romance to marriage and provides an opportunity for women to do some private soul searching about themselves and their relationship. A woman’s monthly visit is usually anticipated by both husband and wife.
“It’s considered a special night; some call it their own private monthly honeymoon,” Shemtov said.
This view is shared by Rachel M. (not her real name), who uses the mikvah on a regular basis, according to the laws of family purity.
“I like having my own space within the marriage,” she said. “It’s a spiritual time, and it’s given us a deeper level of respect for one another. It also makes the marriage more romantic.”
She believes that, like the ritual of mikvah, the role of observant women is misunderstood by much of modern society.
“People do not understand the empowerment that women have and how they give that to their families. We’re not walking three steps behind; we’re not turning the necks and heads of men; we’re helping to enrich the souls and minds of our husbands and children.”
Creating New Traditions
At Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, the first Reform congregation in the country to build its own mikvah, Rabbi Marla Hornsten is constantly looking for new and creative ways to use the facility.
In addition to the traditional uses, which include conversions, pre-wedding visits and High Holiday preparation, Hornsten has helped women use the mikvah for various kinds of healing ceremonies, both physical and emotional, including dealing with cancer, divorce, death, miscarriage or other life crises.
“Part of healing is moving forward,” Hornsten said. “Some people are carrying baggage or bitterness, and this helps them let go.”
For nontraditional situations, Hornsten often writes a custom service with personalized prayers, poems or readings.
“If you can dream it, we can do it,” she said. “We want to be as creative and innovative as we can. I like taking something old and making it new again.”
The Temple Israel Mikvah is widely used by members of the Reform and Conservative movements; it is available to the community regardless of synagogue affiliation.
In addition to accompanying brides, often with their mothers or close girlfriends, Rabbi Rachel Shere of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills has taken women who are recovering from illness, going through divorce or trying to start a family to the mikvah.
“The word mikvah comes from the same Hebrew root as tikvah (hope). When using the mikvah, for whatever reason, we immerse ourselves in a pool of hope,” she said.
Although primary patrons for the mikvah are women, Hornsten said some men do come to commemorate the holidays as well as other occasions.
Rick Larson, and his wife, Mary Jane, each participated in the ritual when they converted to Judaism.
“I was ready to take on my Jewish identity, and the mikvah experience was very enlightening and spiritual,” he said.
Those doing the ritual as part of conversion are given a “mikvah bag” provided by Temple Israel’s Sisterhood and community donations. The bag contains a Kiddush cup, towels embroidered with the words “Mazel Tov,” a Tzedakah box, Shabbat candles and a cookbook.
Kari Provizer, director of the Family Life Center at Temple Israel, visited the mikvah with a group of women studying Kabbalah with Hornsten.
“It was a two-and-a-half-hour ceremony, very emotional,” she said. “Many of the women connected with their Judaism in ways they never thought they would.”
In her role as a social worker, Provizer recommends the mikvah experience after any kind of loss, such as death, divorce or miscarriage. She also encourages people to use the mikvah for good occasions, too, such as becoming a parent or grandparent, or celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah.
“It’s a way to shed the old and come into the new,” Provizer said.
More Modern Uses
Many women are choosing to include family and close friends in what used to be a private ritual.
Pam Salba of Farmington Hills and her daughter, Leslie Salba Garthwaite of Chicago, visited the mikvah prior to Garthwaite’s wedding several years ago.
“It was a beautiful experience,” Salba said. “We both did the mikvah; it was very moving and emotional. My sister was there, too.”
Linda Roberts of West Bloomfield visits the mikvah at Temple Israel every year before the High Holidays with her friend, Mary Jane Larson of Livonia.
“It really gets you ready for the holidays,” said Roberts, who also observed the ritual after recovering from ovarian cancer. “It helped me get better spiritually in addition to physically.”
Larson’s first visit to the mikvah was a requisite part of the process when she became a Jew by choice 12 years ago. Although she tried to prepare herself by reading extensively about the tradition, she found the actual experience to be different than she imagined.
“I was a blank slate,” she said. “Rabbi Marla talked me through it. I remember stepping into the water and looking around. It was very exciting. I passed a mother and daughter on my way in; their hair was wet and they had the most beautiful smiles.”
By Ronelle Grier, Contributing Writer
• Mikvah Israel, Oak Park
• Bais Chabad Community Mikvah, West Bloomfield
• Temple Israel Mikvah, West Bloomfield
• Mikvah Israel of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor
• Lubavitch Mikvah, Flint
• Mikvah Mei Menachem Lansing, East Lansing
• Mikvah, Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, Windsor
• Congregation Etz Chaim Mikvah, Toledo