Monday, December 20, 2010

The Mikvah is Lost on Me

NOTE: Please feel free to leave a comment anonymously. I know this is a very personal topic for ladies!

The mikvah: a strange, sometimes spa-like, place where there are mikvah ladies, cleaning ladies, and a pool of water that you hope is clean and lacking floating hairs. The ritual bath, required of women after their niddah period (i.e., days of menstruation + 7), is a part of the lives of many Jewish women, from the secular up to the most religious. Men, too, use the mikvah, but the command to go to the mikvah and "tovel" is one for women, which really binds the greater community of Jewish women the world over. We go, we clean, we dip, dip, dip, we leave, we return to our spouses, and we resume the duties of, well, let's say physical interaction.

I've been waiting to blog about my mikvah experiences, simply because I thought if I posted too soon after marriage y'all would be able to plot my entire life, and that, well, would defeat the purposes of modesty. So here I am, many months post-marriage, and many times mikvah'd. Of course, I attended the mikvah three times prior to my wedding day. One for my Reform conversion in 2006, another for my Orthodox conversion in January 2010, and again the day before my wedding. So, even before that third dip, I was a mikvah pro.

What I wasn't a pro at, however, was the evident truth that the act of toveling would lose that charm, that feeling of floating, of weightless abandon in the presence of G-d. Like living next to the Eiffel Tower. It loses its historic charm when you see it every five seconds, right?

I've been to the mikvah quite a bit where I live. I've never had the same mikvah lady, and they all vary -- in looks, in mannerisms, in friendliness, in chatter. I'm a "say something to me" kind of mikvah-goer. Several times it's been this mechanical ritual without any sense of comfort or ease, but rather more of a factory-style approach. Rush, rush, rush. I've had the awkward experiences (including my pre-wedding dip) where the mikvah attendant neglected to embrace that whole "modesty" thing and removed the robe while giving me a once over, only to watch me walk into the pool (talk about creepy). I've also struggled to figure out exactly how long I'm supposed to be prepping. As in, from front door to back door -- how long is a woman in the mikvah building? To bathe or shower, to futz around while getting ready.

There is a rhyme and a reason to the way the mikvah dip itself goes, hence my comment about the creepy-tendencies of some of the attendants. You go into the mikvah room with a robe on. The attendant pulls the robe down and checks your back for loose hairs (which never made sense because they'll float off in the water anyway, like any loose hairs on your head), and then the attendant fully removes the robe, holding it up to shield the attendant from seeing you walk into the pool. Once you're in, you give the go-ahead, and do your first dip. Up, you say the blessing. Down again, the attendant yells "kosher!" And then, a third time, you dip and get a "kosher!" The attendant holds up the robe, again, and you walk up the stairs and pull it on, and then you're shuffled back to the changing room where you were. On your way out, (at least at my mikvah) there's a room of lotions and hairdryers and the like. And then? You're off homeward.

There are varying opinions about whether to bathe post-dip or whether to take the mikvah waters home with you. I used to do that, but then my very astute dermatologist and I had the following conversation:
Him: So ... you're Orthodox Jewish, right?  
Me: Yes ...
Him: So you go to mikvah, right?
Me: Um, yes ...
Him: You should bathe immediately afterward, because of the chemicals in the water. They're horrible for eczema.
Me: Oh ...
So bravo to my dermatologist!

But that's the practical. It's all simply practical. I feel like I've lost the spiritual, the emotional, the lightness that I felt during both of my conversion mikvah experiences. That clarity of knowing I'm close to something so much bigger than myself. Is it me, or have I awoken to the true nature of the mikvah as nothing more than a practical pursuit of the commandments?