Once a month when I was kid, I would watch my mother remove her nail polish, gather her small bag, and head out from home in our station wagon after dinner. We always knew where she was going.
Even though the ritual immersion (mikveh) traditional Jewish women do monthly is done at night and is considered a private affair, my brothers and I were pretty nosy, we lived in a small house, and my parents were very open. That and coming home from an appointment with wet hair at 9 or 10 p.m. was certain to elicit questions from little children. She always spoke about this time in the ritual bath so beautifully–the warm waters, the time alone, the space to think and feel whatever she did without the voice of my dad, her co-workers, or her children in her head.
It felt magical to me, but I did not totally understand it; when she came home she was a different person, more relaxed, more herself.
I always assumed I too would go to the mikveh, but as part of a same sex couple there isn’t always a clear road to such a traditional mitzvah. In fact, it took me a while to find the right person, the right partner in life and all things religious. When we started dating and the laws governing sexual intimacy and encounters came up in our many conversations about our Jewish life, it was much less complicated than I imagined. She was committed and so was I, so we studied together and made some decisions about how we would practice this ancient rite as a rather modern but traditional couple. The mikveh going commenced.
At first the logistics were simple and easy–a walk or a bus ride, a lovely mikveh with a gentle attendant and the time at night to be alone. But, the truth was I didn’t get much out of going, spiritually. It just was a task, required of me, a demand on our relationship that we took care of–I found many other mitzvot more meaningful. At times the physical separation was certainly a challenge but really it was simply not a moment of profound spiritual fulfillment. Then we decided the time had come to try and have a child and we were blessed that this happened rather quickly and without much fanfare. We felt so blessed that we did not struggle in the way so many of our friends do, in awe and excited to become parents; thus, for the time ending my mikveh attendance.
During the pregnancy it was kind of nice not to go–one less place to schlep. Then something happened around three months after our twins (yes, we got two at once) were born: I started to yearn for the mikveh. I missed the blessing my mikveh attendant would give my family (though she made some assumptions about the gender of my partner). They were beautiful and peaceful. I missed the time to walk and be silent under the cover of night. I missed the water and its power to fully wrap my body. I missed the brief moment of prayer I would offer. I missed the cold night air on my wet hair but most of all I missed the chance to be me, just me.
I realized on those nights I wasn’t anyone’s mother or child, I wasn’t anyone’s partner or rabbi. I didn’t have to nurse anyone or cook dinner or write a sermon. I was just there for me, for my own self, my own soul, and my own heart, only I didn’t realize how precious it was. But I was nursing our babies (still am).
But finally, just a few days ago, my period returned. So in a few days, after 21 months, I will return to the mikveh, return to heading uptown, and most importantly return to myself. I am so looking forward to taking the bus in the cold night air, readying myself and walking down those steps alone, and immersing in the living waters once again. I understand now exactly how my mother felt.