When my menses returned, it was as healing as a spring flower blooming, a blessing of blood to mark the passage of time. I wanted to celebrate the occasion and instinctively turned to the ritual mikveh bath that traditional Judaism requires a woman to take seven days after the end of each menses. In the Jewish tradition, the menses are viewed as a time so charged that the mikveh ritual is needed as a gateway back to ordinary life. I was 38 and had never before used a mikveh. As I stood before the mikveh building’s locked door, breathing in night air, soft and sweet with the early spring’s scents of azalea and rhododendron, it was ordinary life that I wanted after a temporary and too early menopause.
Six months earlier, just a few days before the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I had undergone surgery for endometriosis, a disease of the reproductive tract. Already destroyed were my left ovary and fallopian tube. To restore my one remaining ovary meant embarking on a six-month regimen of artificial hormones that would suppress estrogen production: a temporary menopause.
After morning services on Yom Kippur, the day when we face our sins and prepare for the year to come, I received my first hormone shot. Although my menstrual period had started a few days earlier, it disappeared before night arrived to end the traditional fast. It would not return until just a few weeks before Passover marked the ancient journey from mitzraim — the narrow place of constraint — to freedom.
The winter between Yom Kippur and Passover was a gestation of painful and unwanted changes: I discarded jobs and lost lovers; I traveled across an ocean and came home again; I cried my way through questions that followed me like hungry ghosts. How could I have been so sick for so long and not known it? What other secrets didn’t I know about myself? During those six months, I had jumped ahead ten or so years to glimpse the woman I was to become.
I needed a gateway, a transition ritual at once womanly and Jewish, to help me find myself amidst these changes. I had heard of mikvehs during the long journey from my parents’ half-hearted Orthodox Judaism to my own eclectic exploration of my religion. After almost two decades of participating in non-sexist liturgy and helping to create progressive seders and other services, I naively thought that the mikveh ritual, too, could be transformed to meet my feminist values and personal needs.
I had forgotten, though, that rituals have their own power. I wanted the mikveh to help move me into a new springtime of my life, but instead the mikveh returned me to a past I thought I had left long ago.
My call to the local mikveh was my first inkling that all would not go as I wanted. The regular mikveh lady was visiting Israel and a team of volunteers was filling in for her. A woman named Rivka gave me a long and daunting list of preparations: clip my toenails and fingernails, removing any dirt that remained under them; brush and floss my teeth; clean the wax out of my ears and the lint out of my belly button; finish it all with a shower and shampoo or, preferably, a 45 minute bath. No make-up, Rivka warned. No contact lenses, either. I had to be completely naked in the water, and the lenses would cover my eyes.
Rivka made a sudden pause after reciting the long list. She cleared her throat, nervousness crackling over the phone line. Finally, she said, “You do know that you must wait seven days until after...after...”
Her voice faded into a series of coughs and stammers. Perhaps cruelly, I said: “Until after the last drop of blood?”
“Yes.” Another throat clearing. “Yes. That.”
Why is she being so oblique, I wondered. It was absurd for two grown women to be so reticent. Concern pushed past my annoyance, and I said, “I’ve never been to a mikveh. It’s important that this be a meaningful experience.”
“It is.” Rivka’s voice was confident, clear, even serene in heartfelt wisdom. “It’s a very moving, deeply spiritual experience.”
Rivka believed that. There was no doubt. Out of faith and trust, she was opening the gate for me to experience something that nourished her. We set a time, and a week later, I found myself ringing the doorbell of the mikveh.
As I waited for Rivka to unbolt the door, I thought that it was right for night, moon time, to be the traditional time for a woman to use the mikveh. Moonlight and menstruation had an ancient, perhaps evolutionary, connection. I knew the other reason for night usage had to do with a concern for modesty. The mikveh was housed in a squat, unobtrusive building reached only by driving behind a local synagogue to the far corner of a parking lot. Impossible to view from the street, the building seemed designed to avoid notice. Painted a dull brown, faint rims of light shone out from behind its dark shades.
The door opened. I saw a woman as thin as a rail, her hair neatly hidden beneath a turquoise madras scarf with silver threads. Her frail body seemed swallowed up by an ankle-length jeans skirt and a pink chamois shirt. Even her brown eyes seemed concealed beneath her thick glasses. The Orthodox stress modesty in dress, and this woman was so well covered it took a moment to realize she was my age.
Rivka introduced herself and stared for a brief moment at my jeans. She didn’t say a word, but I sensed instantly that pants were a mistake. Too late I realized I was in a different culture and should have dressed accordingly.
I sunk into a deep, slow shock as Rikva locked the door and led me back to a changing room. A different culture? Aren’t we both Jewish? Yet there it was: a feeling of not belonging. It was a feeling I had not experienced since my girlhood when Orthodox Judaism seemed a religion not of heart but of rules that no one seemed to understand yet which were to be obeyed. As I had sat in the women’s section of the synagogue, my Hebrew education ignored because girls would never be called to read from the Torah, I had watched the men praying, davening back and forth in their white tallit shrouds, seeming ghostly and ancient in the light filtering through the stained glass windows. Engraved on those windows were Abraham and the Patriarchs, Moses and Daniel. In the siddur books were prayers to God our Father, Our Lord, He and Him. It wasn’t until decades later, when I saw women wrapped in tallit and reading from the Torah, that I realized God could be female. I thought I was years away from all that, yet by entering the mikveh building, I had unexpectedly returned to a tradition I’d gladly left long ago.
“You’ll need to shower before using the mikveh,” Rivka told me at the door to the changing room.
“But I already have.”
Rivka was polite but firm. A second shower was needed. She told me to ring for her when I was finished and left me alone. The changing room was a fully equipped bathroom complete with make-up remover, nail files, several kinds of soaps and shampoos, and even contact lens solution. As I stood in the shower for the second time in less than an hour, I could feel my body tensing. Intellectually, I knew that the preparatory cleaning was to stress the spiritual cleansing that comes from using a mikveh. Over the years, I had discovered varied and contradictory Jewish interpretations of menstruation; some rabbis and scholars viewed it as an altered state but not an impure one, while others stressed that menstruation was an unclean condition that requires seclusion before a return to normal life. Using a mikveh marks the transition from one form of existence to another, be it menstruation, conversion or marriage. (Men will sometimes voluntarily use a mikveh to mark entry into a special time, such as the start of the Sabbath.) Confused as I was as to how Judaism viewed menstruation, I knew that American culture viewed it as, at best, a recurring nuisance. Behind that this allegedly enlightened view were all the unacknowledged taboos stemming from centuries of misogyny when menstruation was viewed as dirty, disabling, and a punishment to women.
Once again checking my toes and belly button for lint, I felt a rising paranoia. My body, so porous and receptive to the world, with its dead skin and dirt in odd cracks and crevices, would never be clean enough. Nor was it meant to be. Drying off in the tiny bathroom, surrounded by Q-tips, nail polish remover and tweezers, I wanted to hide my body for being inherently, stubbornly dirty, all too physical and never spiritual enough.
Yet if the last six months had taught me anything it was that spirit could not be so arbitrarily split from body. Through the discovery of a hidden yet chronic illness, I had first learned the extent of secrets I keep from myself. Through the loss of my fertility, I had realized the redemption of my life would rest solely on my own actions; there would be no comfort of second chances occurring through my offspring’s lives. As for my ancestors, their ghosts were in my genes, and their lives would end with me. To make my way through these and other unwanted illuminations, I had to trust the chaos was occurring for a reason. A rationalization, perhaps, but at the time it seemed as if a divine yet seemingly arbitrary hand was guiding me towards some poorly glimpsed end. I didn’t feel God as an abstract and distant Force, but as an all too close presence causing me to bring to light all the questions I’d buried beneath my certainties. My body’s all too physical nature had launched me on this spiritual journey. Having taken me through so much during the last six months, my body deserved better than this incessant washing.
As I took off my earrings, my fingers lingered over the yin/yang stud and the Star of David in my right ear. I had worn those earrings every day for the last three months, since the mid-point of my journey from Yom Kippur to Passover: when the hot flashes of menopause had just starting to lick my body, and a New Zealand healer had given me a bodywork session. Her touch had opened doors of grief I thought I had forced closed. When she finished, my body was tingling, charged with its own power. As I looked at myself in the mirror after our session, I first saw the yin/yang stud, the black and white curves co-mingling as two bodies. I reeled slightly in shock, understanding suddenly that my body was like that now. One ovary gone, only darkness in its place; the other ovary damaged yet healing. My body was split in two, light and dark; divided parts, life and death within me. Which one to choose? Which one to follow? And then, as I saw the Star of David in my ear, I heard words I’d heard for years in synagogue, words I only dimly understood: ...I call heaven and earth to witness before you today: life and death have I set before you, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you and your children may live.
What did the words mean? How was I to choose life? I hadn’t known and so had worn the earrings every day to keep the question always before me. Sadly, I put the earrings on the counter, wrapped my naked body in a pink towel, and rang the bell for Rivka.
The door separating the changing room from the mikveh opened. Rivka was there. Her serene face receded into near-sighted fuzziness as she took away my glasses. She checked my damp hair to make sure it wasn’t matted. She asked me to spread my fingers so she could check my nails for dirt and then wiped the soles of my feet with a bit of tissue.
“Did you brush your teeth?”
I nodded. No part of me can be blocked before I entered the water, but how could I clean away the nagging questions of how to turn the extraordinary experiences of the last few months into a daily wisdom? I looked at Rivka’s calm, dark eyes, at her polite smile. I wanted to talk with her. Why was she here? What did this mean to her? My stammered questions sounded mundane — you’re volunteering here? the regular mikveh lady is in Israel? Rivka’s face, so joyous and yet so distant, left me feeling there was a secret I was slow in uncovering. Rivka never asked me why, so late in life, I had chosen to use a mikveh. There was something paradoxically matter of fact and yet deeply spiritual about this ritual for her. She would not share it with me. I did not know how to ask.
Gently, Rivka unwrapped the fluffy towel covering my body, careful to avert her eyes as she lifted it high. She was trying to protect my modesty, but the gesture annoyed me. Below the landing was a small square pool of water rather like a hot tub but without the benches or air jets. Not until I walked down the blue tile steps and immersed myself in the shoulder high water did Rivka look toward me. The water was warm enough for my body to accept it without cold shivers of rejection, yet cool enough that I could not sink into its soft, caressing embrace.
Dimly I saw Rivka gesture toward a laminated sign on the wall. I would have to read it aloud, she explained, and in Hebrew. She would help me with the words if necessary.
I stumbled over the transliterated Hebrew, confident with some words, awkward with others. Long ago, I’d decided my embarrassing lack of Hebrew could be put to good use since it forced me to check the English translation before reciting any prayers. That way, I wouldn’t find myself reciting words that contradicted my own experience of God.
Yet there was no time to read the English first. Rivka’s unspoken hurry was plain. From the other side of the wall I could hear voices and the splashing of water. Startled, I realized that there must be several small mikveh baths in the building.
The prayer haltingly stammered out, I walked to the center of the small pool. Under Rivka’s soft-voiced direction, I immersed myself three times, my fingers spread wide, my heels kicked up with each dip. In and out, I rose above the water, my mouth gulping air, and then immersed myself again, my body suspended in the water’s embrace. I felt held between worlds, like a child playing in the waters of a square womb. Our life begins in water; our first world where we float in the currents of birth and growth. I was a woman and a child at once, going in and out of the waters of birth. I was naked at last, open and accepting of any contact. Illness and my far harsher recovery had been a gestation of its own: coming now to life was an essential but still unknown self.
Then it was over.
“That’s all,” Rivka said. “You can come up now.”
“Wait. I want to read what the prayer said.”
I sloshed back toward the wall, my eyes squinting at the black letters. My heart sank as I read a prayer to the God of our Fathers calling for a rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem. I should have expected it, of course, and yet I hadn’t. I had wanted with me the God of Sarah, Rachel and Leah, of our too long ignored mothers and grandmothers, of Miriam and Dina. Worse than a slap in the face, the prayer was irrelevant to the peace I found in the waters.
But that moment was past. I walked up the stairs to where Rivka was once again holding the towel high, her gaze averted from my naked body. Don’t be afraid to look at me, I wanted to say. There’s nothing wrong with my body.
She said nothing as I wrapped the towel around myself. I, too, was silent. Rivka and I were women but not sisters, Jews but not of the same tribe. Within moments, the acceptance I had felt in the mikveh slid off my skin with the drops of water falling at my feet.
“Does it always happen so quickly,” I asked lamely.
Rivka smiled, a wall of courtesy between us. “Oh, yes. It’s a very simple ceremony.”
With that, she opened the door to the changing room and walked off.
I dressed quickly, careful to put my earrings on first. Once outside in the soft air my flesh felt newborn and silky. The purity went only skin deep. Beneath that was a sense of something newly wounded. The yearning for healing remained.
The feeling stayed until my birthday a week later. This year, I decided, I would celebrate not simply my birth but the opening into new life my menses signaled. I baked a cake and woman friends hung red bunting from the pillars and ceiling crossbeams. Between dinner and opening presents, we told stories: the first time one of us saw a hair in her armpits; a schoolgirl crush on another girl, never forgotten for some 60 years; the life growing in a first pregnancy; the mother who followed the old Jewish customs and slapped one of our faces when learning of that first period so long ago; the mother who was never told when her daughter started to menstruate.
After dinner we gathered in a circle of women and turned out the lights. We each had a white candle shaped like an egg. One by one, we lit our candles in honor of another woman: a battered woman still in jail for murdering her husband in self-defense; a mother-in-law recently dead of cancer; a sister poet; the grandmothers we never knew; the friends we have not seen in decades; the women we have never forgotten.
Finally, only one candle was left. One of the women lit it, saying: “For all the women who aren’t here.”
Unexpectedly, I thought of Rivka. She was not here. Yet she was part of our circle, too. Rivka had been my guide through the mikveh, and without her help, I would never have found this night’s blessings. We were so very different, yet at least once our lives had brought us to the same waters. Perhaps one day, there will be mikveh rituals that celebrate how our bodies guide us through life. Until then, we will need to keep creating these small circles of women telling stories.
Candlelight shown in the darkness. I looked at the faces around the circle and gently touched my own. Body: my spirit’s second skin. Body is where the world touches us, and it is in this world that our spirits live. I had found the ritual I needed.