When I was a kid, I would see the women gather at the mikveh. Mothers would leave the kids behind along with the dishes, laundry, shopping trips and soccer practice. They would bring trays of sweets, nuts and dried fruit to share, making a half day “off.” It was a time to get together when they could just be women, sharing the exasperations of parenthood and the tribulations of marriage.
I imagined each voice finding an open and receptive ear—unlike family life that generally centered around the kids needing something or questions about how to stretch the family budget, pay for tuition and get the family to Israel next year.
But I never went to the mikveh myself. We were Orthodox-adjacent, with lapses into a secular life that lasted years, part of the community but not quite observant enough for mikveh use. But I always wanted to go, though I wasn’t that fond of the idea of being naked in front of the attendant, who walked you into the water.
For that and other reasons connected to my feelings about being a lesbian Jewish mom, my own convoluted connection to the observant community, and my complex relationship my body, I couldn’t find a way into the water myself. Also holding me back? My fascination with the peeping rabbi, Rabbi Barry Freundel and his victims—he spied on women in the mikveh using a clock radio.
I have written a play that is in rehearsals now about Freundel, trying to explain why he did it. I had spent so much time researching him and his actions, I knew that I needed to complete my own journey to the waters to reclaim the ritual.
So last week I finally took the plunge(s), three to be exact.
When I was in the changing room, I found myself thinking about Freundel. I knew I was safe in my temple’s female-run space but I glanced around looking for a clock radio, anyway.
It was a few days before the bat mitzvah of my daughter. I had planned this trip to the mikveh for my daughter, mother and myself. My temple’s mikveh director is an amazing woman who has created a new identity for the ritual so it is not a burden, but a celebration of ourselves, our bodies and our lives. She spoke brilliantly when the Freundel scandal broke about the need for women to assert themselves through the reclaiming of the mikveh. She also happened to be my daughter’s bat mitzvah tutor. She suggested that it would be nice to add the mikveh ritual to our preparations for the ceremony.
After a brief tour of the mikveh, I went first. It was a little unnerving, I felt exposed. Being naked in a dressing room is normal but here at my temple it felt a little strange. I wondered if Freundel’ victims felt the same way.
I was vulnerable standing naked before the mirror. Looking at the visible scars that my continued survival has left me: the C-section scar smiling back at me, hidden by my post baby belly and subsequent weight gain and loss over the years, yielding stretch marks and dimpled skin. The scar on my left breast where they cut out the non-malignant growth, the midline incision where I birthed soccer ball-sized cancerous tumor, the foolish choice to increase my breast size in the late 80’s, in small half circles below my now jam jar lid size nipples. It was all me. There in the mirror for me to see alone, not through the eyes of a partner or doctor or that gross man at the pool who keeps looking at my cleavage when we talk.
After the shower, I brushed my teeth, combed my hair and approached the seven steps. Walking down I kept expecting something miraculous to happen.
And slowly but surely step by step, it did. We have many lines of demarcation in our lives. We are single, then with the word yes, we are engaged. When we are students, you turn your tassel and become a graduate. Our lives are just a series of moments where things are one thing then they change to something else. The mikveh for me was a kind of finish line, a point where I could say that was then and this is now.
The first time I plunged it still felt awkward and maybe a little silly but by the third time, I believed it. I look forward to going next time, and I am going to bring my daughter and other women with me to talk, to share, to reclaim this Jewish ritual for myself.