Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Swallowed Up in the Mikvah

I just stepped out of the bathtub, after watching steam rise from my legs and feet, the air much colder than the water and the now-temperature of my body. I sat in the tub, candles oozing light, music crooning, and I tried to imagine myself back at the mikvah, standing in that warm pool of water, after taking the literal steps into a Torah-binding agreement with HaShem. I couldn’t. The experience, a true one-time experience, is best left to the memory in its warm and welcoming embrace of the wings of the shechinah. But I want to do my best to share some of it with you. It’s just who I am to tell a story.

The entire thing happened suddenly, in a swirl of phone calls, organizing, and haste. I’d anticipated at least the weekend to consider names, to call friends to be there, to let everyone know. And then, in a quick whish of winter wind, the plans were made and I was set to be at the mikvah on Friday, not today as originally planned (which, by the way, was quite surprising and sudden as it was). To describe it as a whirlwind experience would be understating the actual whirlwindedness of those 25 hours.

You see, I met with my beth din, for the second time, at 10 a.m. on Thursday. By the next day, at 11 a.m., I was sitting on a couch in the very nice waiting room of a very nice mikvah on the Upper West Side. I didn’t sleep Wednesday night, and I surely didn’t sleep Thursday night. I was tossing around names, scenarios of what we’d do if the weather got bad as it had been Thursday morning (every route into NYC was closed for a time, and by the grace of G-d all the rabbis made it in). But everything, miraculously, went like clockwork.

On Friday, I arrived at the mikvah, I spoke with the mikvah lady, I prepared, I went into the mikvah, I accepted a variety of covenantal and binding sentiments and laws upon myself, I dipped, I said a b’racha, I dipped again, I said another b’racha, and I dipped again. I ascended those literal stairs, I entered my dressing room, and I cried. I cried with a smile that I cannot even put into words. I can feel the feeling right now, the confusing smiling, laughing, crying, crying more, and smiling feeling. I stared at myself, drenched in mikvah waters, in the mirror and I could see the change. I stand firmly by the idea that my entire life I have carried within me the Jewish neshama that has shined so brightly these past six or seven years. But standing there, looking into that mirror and later listening to the rabbi bestow upon me my name as a Jewess, I felt different. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

In the mikvah (if you want more details about the procedure, feel free to email me, but this is just for those going through the process who might want to know what to expect), the water was warm, at a temperature that I can’t even describe. “Warm” doesn’t do it justice. Similarly, it didn’t really feel like water. It grazed my skin like a thick liquid, holding me firmly in place, pressing the heat against my chest, like I was being cradled tightly with the kind of pressure that is welcoming. I’m not a very touchy-feely kind of person. I shy away from hugs, and as a child my father couldn’t cradle me, he had to cross his legs and place me there in order for me to stop crying. But the warmth and pressure of the mikvah waters were the most comforting I’d ever felt – those waters, they cannot be replicated. I could see the rabbis reflection in the water beside me, and as he spoke I answered confidently with tears in my eyes “I Accept” with every statement he issued. And as each statement came, I shook more and more. Like tons of little shivers up and down my arms, I was shaking, almost shivering in the warm water. I was anxious, nervous, excited, and my body was processing the emotion in any way it could.

At last, I was told to dip. I grabbed my breath, and dropped into the water, floating freely, fingers apart, toes apart, my body a mess of limbs in the warmth. Through the echo of the water I heard a muffled “KOSHER!” being yelled by the rabbis as they departed the room. And the funny thing? I couldn’t find my footing afterward, I floated, my short little limbs unable to find the ground. After all, the water reached up just at my shoulders, and that was with me on my tip-toes. I was swallowed up by the water, and it was beautiful. At last I found the floor, and the mikvah lady assured me I just need to be down for a second. I guess for her, it’s nothing new. For me? I could have floated freely without air, mindlessly twisting and turning, wrestling with the shechinah in that water for eternity. I dipped two more times, after saying the b’rachot clearly, and heard the mikvah lady shout “KOSHER!” (I have to tell you, this was one of my favorite things – hearing that KOSHER! being yelled really loudly; it was empowering and affirming!)

I came out after having dressed, and cried, and laughed, and was greeted by mazel tovs from friends and the rabbis. The rabbi read a document aloud for everyone to hear, proclaiming me Chaviva Elianah bat Avraham v’Sarah, and I cried again. Chaviva is the name I chose at my Reform conversion in April 2006, it holding the same meaning as my given name, Amanda: “beloved.” Elianah I chose because I wanted something that included and named HaShem. I had very, very little time to officially decide, and I chose Elianah, meaning “G-d has answered,” because I felt as though my neshama was officially, finally, being recognized as having been at Sinai as my deep visions and memories have shown me. Thus, Chaviva Elianah bat Avraham v’Sarah was born on the 15th of Tevet 5770.

And then? Well, we’re back to where I left off.

My first thought, after everything, was this: No one, NO ONE, can deny me anything as a Jew anymore. Period. No one. I immediately thought back to my having applied to Aish HaTorah’s birthright program and being turned down, told harshly and degradingly that I wasn’t a Jew, and issued materials on conversion programs. I thought to myself, “Now, now they can’t do that to me. NO one can treat me like that!” Everyone is quick to assure me that they’ve always thought of me as a member of the tribe, and I’ve always thought of me as a member of the tribe, too. But this one thing makes it different: No one has to feel it anymore, because it’s so. It’s halakicly so! It’s so empowering, I can’t stress this enough.

After the mikvah, an outing for bagels, and wishing farewell to friends heading off on a cruise (oh, and seeing Alec Baldwin!), we headed out to prepare for Shabbos. After a flurry of calls to family and friends, and the realization that my voice was going – fast – I stopped, let my arms fall to my side, and told Tuvia that I was exhausted. I’d been running on adrenaline the past two days, not to mention the past two years, and I was ready to stop. My neshama looked at me and said, Chaviva Elianah, it’s done, it’s really done, and we need to rest now. And so I slept all of Shabbos, save for mealtime (of course). I really can’t put into words that feeling, that exhaustion that I felt (and still feel a little bit) after such an arduous journey.

And that, I suppose, is the rest of the story. I feel like I’m leaving so much out, but the memory, well, it’s so much my own. I want there to be some mystery, some mystique, some feeling that is just between me and that mikvah and HaShem.

As an aside: I’ve received emails, calls, Twitter replies, Facebook messages and comments, and so much more, from dozens and dozens of friends and strangers alike, wishing me mazel tov on my conversion. Save for one individual, the response has been nothing but welcoming and positive. This weekend, there are meals in honor of my simcha. Something else I fail to put into words is how I personally am reacting to everything, that being the mazels and the welcoming and the kind words. It is, in a word, overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, it’s overwhelming in the most positive way, but I’m the kind of person who shies away from praise, I always have been. To put it simply, I honestly don’t know how to take a compliment. So, over the past few days, I’ve been overwhelmed by the kind things people have said to me, and I almost feel as though I am not serving people right in my responses. I say thank you, I say thank you again, I feel awkward, and I say thank you again.

Am I alone in this? This is such a big thing, and I know that I’ll experience this again when I get engaged (if?) and married and have kids and all of the other major simchas. Will I ever learn how to be properly responsive? I feel as though others think I’m being ungrateful, but the volume is hard to respond to. I love my friends, my blog friends, my Twitter friends, my Facebook friends. I think I am the most blessed and lucky person in the world right now. I’m quite good at writing, especially when it comes to experiences and emotions, but this is just something for which I can’t figure out how not to be awkward. Sigh. Just know, I love you guys. You and this blog and everything that surrounds my efforts to really light a fire under every neshama out there, those are the things that keep me going, that keep my hopes high and my fingers tapping.