The first time I considered going to the mikveh was before my wedding. While this was a completely typical time to think about going to the mikveh, I was marrying a woman, not a man, and I identify as queer. I didn’t know if going to a mikveh would be right for me, or whether I would even be allowed to use it.
My partner and I studied at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. While neither of us grew up incredibly religious, we decided separately that having a traditional Jewish home was important to us both. After we got engaged, we knew it would be useful to meet with a kallah (bride) teacher who could tell us about using the mikveh and the niddah (family purity laws) tradition that we had never heard about until coming to Israel. We were lucky to meet with a kallah teacher who had taught a religious lesbian couple before us, and we even had a chance to talk with the couple to discuss their experience with niddah and the mikveh, as a way to determine how it works for a non-heterosexual couple, and what might work for us.
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Eight months later, we were living in Denver and about to get married. We decided to separate for the seven days prior to the wedding, during which point we each went to the mikveh. There was no open mikveh in Denver, like Mayyim Hayyim that is not affiliated with any one religious movement, allowing women and men of any age to dip in the waters for reasons that the mikveh has not been used traditionally, such as surviving cancer or following a gender transition. I knew I would have to go to the only mikveh in my area or to the Aish mikveh in south Denver. I was involved with Aish in Israel, a movement that seeks to bring Jews to a more traditional Judaism, and had my own perceptions of the community’s perspective on queer people. While I don’t have QUEER written on my forehead, I was concerned that someone may ask something about my fiancé, or somehow know automatically that I didn’t belong there.
I thought the mikveh was a space solely for Orthodox Jews, that it was a place where I would need to hide my authentic self, just as I had when going to Shabbat dinners all over Israel. I thought maybe I would be cast out, or treated poorly just because I didn’t fit into the community where a mikvah existed. At the same time, I was determined to access this space, and I wanted to reclaim it as a place where I could feel comfortable.
The first time I went, the mikveh was in deplorable condition–with cracked flooring and dim lighting–nothing like the beautiful spas I had heard of. While the attendant didn’t ask about my wedding or fiancé, I knew I was hiding, and I would need to lie if she did. Luckily, I left without any incident, and surprisingly, I felt that the mikveh was more about the woman as an individual, rather than as a wife or a mother. I couldn’t bring myself to return, and ironically, this mikveh closed only a few months later.
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When I was seeking some special prayers a few months later, I went to the Aish mikveh, despite my own doubts. This mikveh was immaculate, just like the ones I had heard about. The bathroom was gorgeously tiled, and the mikveh felt clean and inviting. But as before, I was concerned that someone would ask about my partner, or know that I didn’t belong in this community. I dunked and left quickly yet again.
We recently moved to Atlanta, and I wanted to go for special prayers once more. My partner works at Bet Haverim, a gay and lesbian founded synagogue, and I’m involved with SOJOURN, an organization that supports the Jewish and queer communities. I mentioned to a friend about my experience at the mikveh, and she told me that a new community mikveh called MaCOM was opening in the city. We were invited to speak at a queer women’s house meeting about the mikveh, which included the director of MaCOM; I felt completely comfortable knowing that I was welcomed and encouraged to use this mikveh.
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Because MaCOM just opened, I have only gone once, but I intend to go in the future as much as I can. Dipping makes me feel closer to God and gives me a sense of connection to Jewish women in the past, present, and future. Now I don’t have to appear to fit in any box, and I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not. When I dunk, I approach my prayers as my full self, and it makes all the difference.