While I’m a modern woman, I find the age-old—dare I say, ancient—traditions have deepened my spirituality the most. My favorite is the mikveh, the traditional Jewish communal bath where ritual purifications are performed.
I will admit, the mikveh is an acquired taste. And I do take issue with some traditional aspects of it, such as the labeling of women as unclean during parts of their cycle. I physically shook with fear during the car ride to my first visit to the mikveh 14 years ago. Currently, I go to the community mikveh at Beth Hillel outside of Chicago. I hadn’t felt that scared since staring down from the high dive for my swim test when I was 9. Some of my mikveh nerves were from the physical nakedness and vulnerability awaiting me, but most came from the enormity of the spiritual commitment I was making. This was a literal spiritual plunge.
My first mikveh experience was different than it is for most, because it was for my conversion. That time, I felt like a spy in a house of faith. The other times I’ve gone since haven’t been frightening, but consistently moving, energizing, and clarifying.
It goes like this: After being escorted into a prep room—not unlike a locker room—I’m instructed by a female attendant or shomeret to shower, wash my hair and trim my nails—paying special attention to remove all makeup and nail polish. All jewelry must be removed. She gives me serious, detailed instructions as to how clean I need to be, and then asks me to meet her out by the mikveh wearing only a towel. This is no quick skip through the shower on the way into the public pool.
Here comes the uncomfortable part. When was the last time someone checked you for cleanliness? The shomeret does just that when I come out. While I’m still wearing my towel, she inspects me. No dirt under my nails. No stray hairs have fallen onto my shoulders. It’s unsettling to be nearly naked and under such intense scrutiny. She then stands behind me, takes my towel and holds it up as a privacy screen as I walk down into the mikveh, which reminds me of a large spa hot tub—minus the jets.
An otherworldly feeling takes hold as I step into the warm water—a clarity of purpose and being settles over me. My conversion mikveh was different. I was distracted by my fiancé and three rabbis standing behind a screen at the end of the mikveh. But the feeling did come after we said prayers when I began to submerse myself.
On my average trip to the mikveh, I go under three times, saying a prayer after each dip. (There is a cheat sheet with prayers on it, both in Hebrew and transliterated.) After each prayer and submersion, the shomeret calls out, “kasher”—like a chant—to let me know I have met the immersion requirement. If even one hair doesn’t go under, I have to repeat the plunge. After my second submersion, the shomeret steps away giving me time for my own private prayer. I take a few moments before calling her back for the final submersion and recitation of the Shehecheyanu. I then exit back to the shomeret who again holds the towel above her eyes to preserve modesty before wrapping me in it with a smile.
Each time I’ve gone to the mikveh, I thought about how fortunate we are to have a community mikveh near Chicago, open to Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews alike; there are only 35 or so of these open mikvehs in the country.
Most of my Jewish friends don’t know much about the modern mikveh and what they do know isn’t appealing. Some see it as blocked off to them—a ritual just for the Orthodox, converts, or soon-to-be-married. Some say they aren’t big on rituals that are required of women, but not men. One friend told me the idea of people bathing together grosses him out. (For the record, you’re bathing alone.)
I fully understand those misgivings. But in being forced to push past them, I found that there is something for modern Jews to explore at the mikveh. For me, it’s not about the physical cleansing. It’s about a spiritual cleansing, a pausing at a soul level. I’m only the better for using this time-worn ritual to take stock, give thanks and set my intentions for the future.