By Varda Polak-Sahm
photojournalist, artist, author
For the Jewish community, the High Holy Days are a time of personal reflection and atonement. For men, these Holy Days are an occasion to immerse in the Mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, to purify their souls. Jewish women, both secular and Orthodox, do not immerse according to the Jewish cycle of the year, but according to the monthly cycle of their body. We, the women, are given our own time and place to literally cleanse off our impurities, awaken our feminine spirit and reconnect with God. This sacred place, the Mikveh ‘for women only’, is the place which I explore in my book The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh.
According to Orthodox rabbinic law, immersion in the mayyim hayyim, or living waters, removes the impurity left by menstruation and transforms the woman’s status from contaminated to pure. This is an essential element of Jewish existence. Before a synagogue is built, Jewish communities install a Mikveh. Without purification, Orthodox men cannot even touch their wives. Thus, without purification in the Mikveh, there is no future for the Jewish people.
Nobody can force Jews, in this case Jewish women, to observe the strict rules of the Halakha, the Jewish law. Yet in modern Israel, the Orthodox rabbis have a monopoly. Only they can perform weddings in the Jewish sector. Without a certificate attesting that the bride has immersed, there can be no marriage. Therefore every married Israeli woman, even the most secular, has entered the Mikveh at least once in her life.
I immersed twice, prior to my first wedding at the age of nineteen and twelve years later, before my second marriage. My first experience with the Mikveh was dreadful. I’d thought of the Mikveh as a repellent and dirty place where numerous women immerse in the same pool of water without the benefit of disinfectant, an idea I’d inherited from the Sephardic women of my family, who vigorously rejected the idea of monthly trips to the Mikveh but upheld the tradition of immersion before one’s wedding. However, in stark contrast to my first experience, my second immersion left a strong physical and emotional impact on me. I realized that the immersion is a woman’s private moment of communion with herself, with her body, and with the spark of the divine that resides within her.
This colossal dissonance between my two immersions piqued my curiosity. Studying folklore at the Hebrew University, I decided to research the virtually unknown world of Jewish women in their ritual purification bath. Over a 10-year period, I regularly visited the Mikveh, without immersing myself so as to maintain the researcher’s necessary distance.
I discovered an autonomous kingdom of women.
The Jewish laws, formulated exclusively by males, are implemented by their proxies, the “Balaniyot” who are in charge of the Mikveh. No male can ever set foot in this exclusive enclave of women. Over the generations, a women’s theology developed in the Mikveh, free of male supervision. Fertility rites are performed there in celebrations that combine prayer, dancing and song, as the aroma of piquant festive foods permeates the Mikveh.
Many women visiting the Mikveh are non-observant secular women. Besides using the Mikveh as an aphrodisiac, secular young Israeli women perpetuate the tradition of the ritual bath as part of their quest for spirituality, rediscovering their own femininity and reclaiming authority over their own bodies.
“The Mikveh has the power of an atomic bomb” says Miriam, the head Balanit. “The woman must immerse, yet only she decides if she will allow her husband to make love to her.” In Maimonides’ time, Jewish women in Egypt implemented their threatening power and engaged in a Lysistrata-style “strike.” They insisted on purifying themselves like the Karaites by pouring water without immersing. For four years, children were born in sin and the Rabbis desperately sought to rescue the Jewish community from the curse of extinction.
Today, women from Israel and the U.S. are reinventing the traditional Mikveh by reshaping the immersion experience. Israel’s new age style Mikveh centers resemble spas. Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh allows brides and their groom to be present (while dressed) at the other’s immersion ceremony. They also call on women to purify themselves before the Holy Days and on any other occasion. These Mikvehs, and others like them, reflect the needs of their societies and offer an alternative to the Orthodox model of purification that is based solely on halakhic authority.
Read an excerpt of “The House of Secrets.”
Varda Polak-Sahm is author of the new book The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh.