mikveh

Why I Yearn for this Jewish Women’s Ritual—Even Though I’m Not Observant

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Years ago, while reading Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” I waited for my period to arrive so that I could enter womanhood. A few dozen periods later, I began to realize that menstruation, the accompanying hormonal fluctuations, cramping, and PMS were not as glorious as Margaret and I imagined it to be.

Over the following years, my period would be a reminder that I was a fertile, yet unpregnant woman. After marriage, it would become the disappointing end to another month of trying to conceive. Eventually, when I did conceive, pregnancy’s 9 months of being period-free seemed blissful.

Observant Jewish women first go to the ritual bath, the mikveh, before their wedding day and continue to go every month, after bleeding has commenced. As I was preparing for my own wedding, I discussed this custom with a good friend of mine who happens to be a Rabbanit (wife of a Rabbi). She shared her fondness of this ritual immersion, purifying her body and soul before reuniting with her husband. With life as hectic as it is, we don’t always have time for ourselves, So one evening a month, her husband watches over the kids as she has some time to herself to be purified and cleansed—both spiritually and physically. I was left intrigued—and despite my lack of observance, I decided to take part in this custom.

The only time I was at a mikveh was the night before my wedding. I went to a relatively new mikveh recommended by my friend. Although the entrance was neatly hidden between residential buildings, once inside, the waiting room offered massage chairs around a lovely koi pool. The bathroom in which I was able to prepare was big, and looked like a fancy hotel bathroom, with a bathtub and all the necessary amenities needed to get ready. There was a private sound system that offered a range of relaxing music as well as enabling one to communicate with the balanit (mikveh attendant) when ready to immerse. And of course, there was a big, fluffy bathrobe and towel.

For me, there was no spiritual revelation nor a transformative moment where I felt attached to some higher force. But despite the lack of fireworks, the experience was still a positive one. It reminded me of the Friday morning ritual I maintained during my university years—taking time to do my legs, apply my favorite face mask, do my nails, and take care of my body. It was a ritual I enjoyed but abandoned when that kind of time became a luxury I could no longer afford. More than that, I found a partner who loves me just as I am (unshaved legs and all), and I forgot how important that ritual once was to my own positive feeling.

And now, having recently given birth, I look down and see the legs and bikini line I haven’t seen in months. Hair abounds. My nails haven’t been cut and filed in weeks and I can’t recall when I last applied a face mask or used my favorite body scrub.

Although I am at home with my daughter most of the time, we still don’t have a schedule. Between nursing, sleep, eating, and endless piles of laundry, I find it difficult to make time for myself. I have mastered the art of short showers, as well as brushing my teeth and combing my hair while holding my daughter as she breastfeeds, and eating with one hand.

Guilt fills me as I selfishly wish for a quiet Friday morning where I could wake up late and take time to pamper myself with the home spa experience. I remember my conversation with my friend and secretly envy her, and the religious beliefs that encourage her to take time each month to care for herself. I wish I had a legitimate excuse to tell my husband to take care of our daughter as I go to the mikveh. I tell him this and he laughs, reminding me that he loves me and doesn’t care about body hair. I need to explain to him that it’s not for him, it’s for me.

I know I won’t go. Our daughter is still too unpredictable in her feeding demands and I wouldn’t be able to relax knowing she may be crying to be fed while I’m taking “me time.” As night falls and I get ready for bed, I toss the shirt I’ve been wearing for the last three days into the laundry basket. Tomorrow, I’ll hunt around for a clean shirt that still smells of laundry detergent. It’s the least I can do, but it’s a start.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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