The Non-Denominational Mikveh

An anonymous reader sent me a link to an article containing an interview with the founder of the non-denominational mikveh in Boston called “Mayim Hayyim.”


“For a lot of people, the mikveh’s been associated with a lot of negatives — the second-class status of women, the denigration of women’s bodies,” says the play’s co-author, Anita Diamant. Premiering in 2005, the play was created as a means of fundraising for Mayyim Hayyim, a state-of-the-art nondenominational mikveh opened in 2004 in the largely Jewish community of Newton, Mass., near Boston. Diamant, best known as the author of “The Red Tent,” founded that mikveh, which has spawned a movement for alternative ritual baths nationwide, including one that is planned to open in 2010 in Los Angeles.

It’s interesting to me that self-described liberal Jews have decided to rally around what is generally considered one of most misogynistic, archaic, politically incorrect mitzvot and one of the first to be dropped by Reform Judaism, and dressed it up into something empowering to women and even friendly to homosexuals.

My anonymous reader (AR, not to be confused with my commenter Regular Anonymous or RA) pointed out that the article is full of problematic statements or implications.

AR objects to the depiction of a mikveh lady as stern: I got married in Israel so have not had too many opportunities to use a mikveh in America, but have never heard of a mikveh lady there as a “stern supervisor.” Where are these women going? Or is this all 3-generations-old hearsay?

When I lived in the US, the mikveh lady would examine me very carefully. She used to tell me monthly that I did a much better job with my nails than women who had been married a lot longer. (I’ve always wanted to put that on my blog. Thanks for giving me the opportunity. I still haven’t figured out what’s so special about the way I cut my nails.) Here, the balanit just rattles off a list (Hair? Navel? Contact lenses? Temporary fillings?) and takes a quick glance at my nails before ushering me into the water. But I’ll never get used to having my towel tossed onto my head when I say the bracha (blessing). They didn’t do that in America.

Half the women at your Israeli neighborhood mikveh would never be identified as observant if you saw them on the street. One woman told me that she chose that mikveh because they don’t make a fuss about her long nails. (You are supposed to cut your nails in preparation for the mikvah, but there can be exceptions.)

RA continues: The “only mikveh in the Boston area open to non-Orthodox Jews…was not built to welcome people to Judaism”. Excuse me? Then what was it for? Taharat Hamishpacha?!

My first thought is that Diamant must be referring to people who are undergoing a non-Orthodox conversion. Presumably every mikveh is open to anyone who wants to use it, except for non-Jews and men (at least at the same time; in a traditonal mikveh men only immerse during the day). If a lesbian woman wanted to use the Orthodox mikveh, would anyone stop her? If she is talking about conversions, I find her complaint that the mikvehwas only available to them on Mondays from 9-11 a.m.” baffling. How many converts do they have in Boston anyway? Does she expect people to convert without making an appointment? She’s upset that they have to take off a day of work?

A check of Mayyim Hayyim’s website indicates a bit of overcompensation in this area; it’s open seven to eight hours five days a week and two additional hours in the evenings. This is despite having only three to four immersions per day (3800 over three years, according to the article). In contrast, at least 20-30 women pass through my local mikveh each evening.

My second thought is, well, I don’t have a second thought. Non-Orthodox women shouldn’t need a separate mikveh. But I can see how some mikveh attendants might give some women a hard time. Or maybe the issue is that non-Orthodox women want to immerse during the day, something that Orthodox women, except for brides, generally don’t do.

Here’s why AR thinks the mikveh has been reclaimed:

I think mikveh is attracting attention because it is post-feminist, that is, there is no competition from men. Unlike shul, or school, and even though they have immersions for men, too, it is a very clear to everyone that this is mostly for and about the women and their uniquely female experiences (menstruation, birth, lo aleinu breast cancer…), although I am not sure the subjects of the article would accept that.

And she asks, “Wouldn’t it be great if all the women who are committed to mikveh as part of ol malchut shamayim (accepting the yoke of the Torah) also thought it was the most wonderful thing? And had beautiful mikvaot to go to like the one in the picture?”

Taharat hamishpacha is a very difficult mitzvah for many women, even with stunning, rabbinate-sanctioned mikvaot like the one that recently opened around the corner from me. Maybe liberal Judaism’s adoption of this mitzvah will make it easier for the ones who struggle with the concept.

What do you think?

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Comments

  1. I find this whole thing fascinating because I’ve been considering going back to the mikveh. I’ve been to the mikveh in the past, but not in years and never regularly. Our current shul doesn’t have one, but the one where our kids go to Sunday school and where I want to join does have one that would be open to me.
    I’m a liberal Jew, but I’m also an observant Jew (yeah, I realize I’m an odd mix). I must say, though, that I’m not an O Yid, so my experience/interpretation will vary from many.
    I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m a feminist and I don’t like being told I can’t/must do something just because I’m female. On the other hand, like you mentioned, I also like to celebrate my unique experiences as a woman.
    I think much of our reaction to it comes down to our outlook. If we view it as something we’re forced to do, we find it repressive. If we see it as something we get to do, then it’s something we can celebrate.

  2. This is my mikveh you’re discussing, located on the grounds of my synagogue. I think the article was a bit disingenuous, and the comments a bit off-putting. The mikveh was originally conceived and built by the traditional women of our community. Anita Daimant is many things, but she is far from traditional. THat the mikveh exists for women of all denominations does, in no uncertain terms, mean that it isn’t Kosher, and that the women that use it aren’t observant. Before the mikveh was built, there was not a lot of alternatives in the Boston area, despite a large O community. And the mikveh wasn’t open or friendly to anyone outside of their community. Regardless of whether or not you want to believe that, it’s absolutely true.
    This mikveh is well used, not only for women who observe Taharat hamishpacha, but for conversion, for kashering dishes, etc. It is a highly respected addition to the Jewish community of Boston, and it is welcoming to women of all denominations, regardless of their level of observance. Rather than disdaining, I think it’s important to realize that having such a welcoming mikveh in our community has been a huge addition to all the Jews in the Boston area.

  3. mominisrael says:

    Margalit–
    The comments were more on the tone of the article in the Jewish Journal, which AR found to be condescending.
    I accept what you say about some mikvaot being unfriendly, which is why I wrote: “Non-Orthodox women shouldn’t need a separate mikveh. But I can see how some mikveh attendants might give some women a hard time.”
    AR and I live in Israel, where fortunately the mikvah attendants (at least in the places I’ve been) welcome everyone. It’s a public place, not a club.

  4. mominisrael says:

    In the meantime I edited the post quite a bit.
    Reiza, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Interestingly, the way you describe the role of the balanit in Israel is very similar to the cursory review I get with the attendants here, and ditto on the mixed crowd. And they’ve got towels for your head here too.
    It may be because the attendants are predominantly Israeli, and a good number of neighborhood women who use the 2 local mikvaot I’ve been to are Israeli as well.
    Though as I’m in a cycle of nursing or being pregnant most of the time, I’m not there that frequently . .

  6. As a young single jewish woman Ill do all i can to aviod the Mikva

  7. mominisrael says:

    Abbi, you’re right of course. But in a traditional mikveh, they never go at the same time as the women.

  8. “except for non-Jews and men”
    Huh? I know plenty of men who go the mikveh weekly if not yearly, at yom kippur.

  9. In Jerusalem, men and women do not use the same mikva’ot. There are women’s mikva’ot and men’s mikva’ot.
    Not surprisingly, there are many more mikva’ot for women than for men.
    I for one, would love a mikvah that looks like the one in the picture.
    For years, I’ve had ideas of what a mikvah should be like — primarily in the form of a women’s gathering place. With a warm reception area that encourages dialogue.
    I always thought it very odd that 15 women could be waiting in the reception area in complete silence.
    I think there should be coffee and tea available while women wait
    And, ideally, women should be able to get manicures on the spot — with their nails cleaned and cut before the immersion and the application of polish afterwards.
    Also hair cuts.
    Why not. The mikvah can be a sort of all-in-one salong for women.
    Not to mention a source of information about breastfeeding, breast cancer, and other women’s issues.
    Hey — a woman can dream!

  10. mii- right, but i guess your sentence was confusing- “open to everyone” seemed to refer to its general accessibility, not specific opening times.
    RivkA- yes, but separate mikvaot are a luxury of Israel and probably very frum/wealthy communities in NY. Most mikvaot in Chul have men’s and women’s hours.
    I’ve only been to two mikvaot here in Israel, but I far prefer the one Katamon to the one here in raanana that i went to a few times before i became preg.In katamon, no one ever threw a towel on my head and the balaniot were the sweetest and most tzanua women I’ve ever met, in every sense of the word. the only time i ran into trouble was when they had a substitute- it was very clear she wasn’t “a regular” by her haughty and judgemental attitude.
    My parents live in a pretty wealthy suburban community near NY and the shul is huge and beautiful. The mikva just had a “remodelling” but it still looks like crap. It’s really a shame.

  11. mominisrael says:

    Abbi, I clarified the point in the post.
    RivkA, I always chat in the waiting room. The staff is always talking among themselves. I have heard many women object, though, that there isn’t a separate exit. Apparently that is usual in most mikvaot?
    I don’t believe haircuts are permitted on mikveh day, because the cut hairs could be a “chatzitzah.”
    My mikveh often offers snacks, brought by the families of brides. The mikveh I attend is a fairly warm place, even though my neighborhood isn’t necessarily.
    Abbi, maybe I’ll go to Raanana sometime.

  12. mominisrael says:

    Galit, when the time comes look for a mikveh like the one in Raanana!

  13. Oy, sorry, now i wasn’t clear!
    Ranaana= bad mikveh (annoying balaniot who throw towels on your head)
    Katamon, Jerualem= GOOD mikveh. No head towels, wonderful balaniot.
    What IS the point of a towel on your head? For heaven’s sake, you’re completely naked! (I know, water is considered a covering, but still, it seems silly). I had one mikveh lady chastise me for keeping my fingers up instead of facing down when i dipped. (She actually made me do it over again) Have you ever heard of that? I always learned to keep hands up and spaced .

  14. I don’t usually want to hang around chatting and getting haircuts after I’m finished in the mikveh…My husband is waiting at home, after a separation of at least a week and a half, if not more (after giving birth, for example), and I want to get back to him. I don’t even stay to blow dry my hair! The mikveh in Telzstone is really nice. I went there before my wedding, but it’s not accessible for everyone…

  15. 1. one would get her hair cut *before* bathing and other preparations. it would be part of the preparations.
    in fact, all of what I’m suggesting is for time spent preparing or waiting.
    I’m not suggesting that women hang out in the mikvah after they are done dunking!
    Having one’s nails done and hair set, is part of the final preparations of coming howm to one’s husband feeling beautiful.
    (I can’t believe I have to explain this — I don’t even wear make-up, I never had a manicure and the only time I ever had my hair was set was for my wedding and for my brother’s wedding!)
    2. I also chat in waiting rooms. However, I have often entered a waiting room with 7-10 women sitting in utter silence. It is wierd.
    3. The mikvah in Old Katamon was redone about 10 years ago and is one of the nicer mikva’ot in Jerusalem.
    4. There are a number of nice mikva’ot in Jerusalem. And plenty of not-so-nice ones as well
    5. Some balaniot (mikva ladies) do the towel thing. Some don’t. I mostly ignore them. Occasionally I tell the balanit that it’s not necessary. But I’m not going to argue with her about Halacha, while standing naked in the mikva.

  16. Aliza Kline says:

    I am the director of Mayyim Hayyim, the mikveh and education center referred to in the Jewish Journal article. I am excited to see the conversation that the article inspired. Our goal is to make mikveh as accessible as possible, to women, men and even children who are immersing to mark important life transitions. We also offer about 90 education programs annually to groups of kids and adults from area congregations and day schools. Finally, we house an art gallery currently showing a photography exhibit called, “The Mikvah Project” (see http://www.themikvahproject.com). Each person who immerses here has a unique experience, whether it is a man who is finding spiritual healing after prostate cancer treatment, a woman immersing for niddah, or a family celebrating the conversions of their adopted children. When appropriate, people bring friends, family, clergy and mark the occasion with a festive meal. You are welcome to come and visit the next time you are in the Boston area!

  17. I am a non-Jewish woman, a feminist, a wife and mother, and and a liberal, and I would love to embrace the mikvah experience. If only I was a Jew! Everything I have read leads me to see the mikvah as a wonderful place that honours women and is a place of renewal and healing. I wish there was such a thing in my culture.

  18. mominisrael says:

    RivkA, I’m going to ask the balanit not to do the towel thing. I’ll let you all know what happens.
    SS, yep.
    Abbi, thanks for the clarification. I think this reflects the attitude that there’s nothing more unholy than uncovered hair.
    Thank you, Aliza for stopping by and offering the invitation.
    Des, I have heard of some non-Jewish marriage experts who recommend a regular period of abstinence.

  19. You inspired me.
    I told the balanit that the towel wasn’t necessary and she recinded her hand.
    I had a much easier time focussing on the bracha, without the towel on my head.

  20. mominisrael says:

    Good for you! By the way I did not find a source for not being able to cut your hair the day of the mikva. It must be some kind of custom or chumra (stringency); I’m sure I’ve heard of it and did find a mention on a website, but the website didn’t give any source. I also asked my rabbi, who said it’s not an issue as people are constantly losing hairs.

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