By Chris Arpe Gang
Sally Rosenberg first experienced the magical waters of the mikvah soon after her daughter, Kayla, was born some 20 years ago.
“I was so nervous and worried about caring for her, someone suggested the mikvah might calm me down,” said Rosenberg, a Reform Jew who decided to plunge into a ritual regularly used by traditionally observant Orthodox women to mark the end of their menses and period of abstention from intimate relations with their husbands.
“I discovered that when I was under the water, time was suspended and I was peaceful,” she said. “It allowed me to focus on myself and what was really important in my life.”
Ritual immersion is an ancient practice required for conversions and often used by brides before their weddings. Men may use it prior to Shabbat and holidays.
After she tried it, Rosenberg loved the experience so much, she began describing herself to friends as a “mikvah-holic.” She shared her enthusiasm with women she encountered as a leader of Torah study groups and Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) observances at Temple Israel.
“When I started reading what the mystics had to say about the mikvah and thought, ‘This has so many possibilities for us,’” said Rosenberg, who teaches foreign languages at St. Mary’s Episcopal School.
Today she serves as a “mikvah lady” or guide for immersions before weddings, for healing after divorces or illnesses, conversions, celebrations of special birthdays and other times of significant life transitions.
Susan Hiller, who grew up in an orthodox synagogue, remembers going to the mikvah almost 40 years ago right before her wedding to her husband Richard.
“My mother told me I had to go,” she said. “I had no idea what it was. I had no preparation for what the experience would be like.”
She remembers feeling some fright and embarrassment but little else.
“I remember going into the water and dunking three times,” she said. “I don’t think I got anything spiritual out of it.”
But after learning more about the meaning of mikvah in study groups at Temple Israel and being spiritually moved while witnessing a friend’s immersion for conversion, she decided to mark her 60th birthday in the mikvah.
Like everyone who goes to the mikvah, she came to it completely clean bare, without any jewelry or even contact lenses.
“You enter the mikvah as you were on the day you were born,” Rosenberg said. “When you hold your breath under the water, you are enter an environment you can’t live in. When you come up, you are coming back to life.”
Unlike her bridal experience, Hiller found her trip to the mikvah on her birthday rewarding.
“The lights are low, candles flicker and the water is warm. It starts out shallow on the first step and then deepens so much that by the seventh that you are almost under water. You say a prayer before you go under three times and when you come back up. This time I understood exactly what I was doing.”
All orthodox synagogues have mikvahs, small pools deep enough to allow a full immersion of the body. By Jewish law, “living” waters — either collected in cisterns when it rains or from other natural sources such as streams — must be mixed with water that is publicly supplied.
Many conservative synagogues, including Beth Sholom in Memphis, have them but they are rare in Reform temples.
“One hundred years ago, a Reform synagogue would never have a mikvah, but now several do” said Katie Bauman, associate rabbi of Temple Israel, Reform synagogue, which does not have mikvah. Its members and conversion candidates use the mikvah at Beth Sholom.
Reform Jews are encouraged to adapt rituals in ways that are relevant to them rather than because they are required do them, Bauman said.
“So Reform women are not bound to go to the mikvah monthly, but they may still value the ritual intrinsically and use it in meaningful way,” she said. “In Judaism, rituals are the way we marking holy moments with more than words.
For example, not only do Jews say blessings at Shabbat, they light candles. They read the story of the exodus from slavery in Egypt at their Passover seders and they also refrain from eating bread for a week.
“Rituals are our unique path to God,” she said.
Susan Tobey went to the mikvah as a way of healing after a difficult separation and divorce.
“Part of grieving after a divorce is forgiving yourself so you can allow new growth to happen,” said. Tobey, a former Memphian who now lives near Philadelphia.
Rosenberg, who is her sister-in-law, suggested she mark her transition to a new life by going to the mikvah.
“Sally used her amazing way of finding meaning in Jewish texts and rituals and applied them to my situation,” Tobey said.
Rosenberg and Tobey symbolically “buried” the bad aspects of the marriage in a container filled with soil. Then they tucked a plant into the soil so Tobey could be conscious of her own transformation as she watched the plant change and grow.
For every positive aspect of the marriage recalled, they placed a small rock in a glass container to be preserved and remembered.
“I cried a lot and laughed some,” she said. “It took a little while for the closure to settle in.”
She would do it again to mark another time of transition. “It’s a way of using a traditional ritual to help delineate and sanctify challenges in our lives,” Tobey said.
Julia Calkins immersed in the mikvah three years ago when she converted to Judaism and again after her divorce. She plans to celebrate her healing from a serious surgery in the near future.
“Being immersed in water is so elemental,” she said. “When the water rushes over me, whatever chaos that may be happening in my life stops. I feel re-energized and in touch with who I am and why I am here. I feel loved. Mikvah can give us the spiritual connection we are craving.”
In Natalie Jalenak’s formative years, Reform Jews eschewed many traditional rituals like men wearing yarmulkes and prayer shawls and certainly, visiting mikvahs except possibly for conversions.
“I never even heard of the mikvah until I was out of college and the whole concept of regaining purity every month seemed foreign. I was scornful of the whole idea.”
But as she learned more about the other ways the mikvah can be used from Rabbi Tara Feldman, formerly of Temple Israeli, she decided to experience it herself.
“My whole attitude about it has changed,” she said. “I don’t know that I would ever use it again, but I know I will never sneer at it as an outdated practice.”
To make their mikvah experiences meaningful, Rosenberg blends elements unique to each person’s situation with ancient prayers. She also draws on materials published by Mayyim Hayyim, a non-denominational mikvah in Boston that is arguably at the apex of modern mikvah use in America since opening in 2004.
Mayyim Hayyim, which means “living waters,” suggests ceremonies for immersions preceding for bar and bat mitzvahs, for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries, graduation, for ending treatments for illnesses, mourning deaths, after divorce, miscarriage or abortion; coming out as a gay, lesbian or bisexual; becoming grandparents; or embarking on or returning on a journey or sabbatical.
For those recovering from a divorce, Rosenberg might tell them to think of the water of the mikvah washing away the bad feelings and experiences and extinguishing the fire of anger.
“Water is a solvent that allows you to get rid of what you need to dissolve mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” Rosenberg said. “It helps us release what we need to release.”
For a bride, she emphasizes the transformation from being one soul to a co-mingling of two souls.
“I have yet to see someone walk out of the mikvah without taking a deep breath and smiling,” she said.
It’s what she loves about being a modern mikvah lady.
“I can see a lightening of being. That’s rare and a privilege.”
When Houston photographer Janice Rubin first decided to focus her lens on the mikvah, the ritual bath used primarily by orthodox Jewish women, she was met with indifference and disdain.
“Orthodox Jews thought it was too private for pictures,” she said in a telephone interview. “Reform Jews thought it was too orthodox to be of interest to a wide audience and too related to menstruation to be interesting.”
But the climate began to change in 2000 when she first exhibited her photos in an alternative gallery in Houston.
“Women, some of whom had never talked about their mikvah experiences, began telling me about them,” Rubin. “Others began looking at the ritual with new eyes. I found myself at the forefront of the movement toward greater use of the mikvah.”
Orthodox women still use it to mark the end of their menses and return to intimate relations with their husbands, but Jewish women and men of all denominations are immersing in its warm waters to mark other transformative moments in their lives.
Because Rubin did not want to breach the privacy, solitude and sanctity of the mikvah, she sought models to simulate the ritual rather than women who were actually performing it.
“I tried to find women who were at a place of transition in their lives so there would be an element of reality in the photos,” said Rubin, who also educated the models about the purpose and spiritual aspects of the immersions before she photographed them. “Several said they had their own spiritual experiences during our sessions.”
Interest in the exhibit, which has been touring nationally and internationally since 2002, is still strong.
After Memphian Susan Adler Thorp saw it at the Jewish Museum in Frankfort, Germany, she approached fellow members of Temple Israel’s museum board to consider bringing it to Memphis.
With approval from Rabbi Micah Greenstein, financial support from the Robert T. Goldsmith Fund and ArtsMemphis, the exhibit opened in October and will be on display until mid-January.
It can be viewed at Temple Israel, 1376 East Massey from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
“Janice Rubin shows a private ritual in an artistic and sensitive way,” said Thorp, a past president of the museum board. “It’s been educational and emotional for me.”
Rubin’s 40 black-and-white photos are accompanied with text revealing testimonials from women all over America on their mikvah experiences.
After the first exhibit of the photos, Rubin asked Houston writer Leah Lax to help her find women who would speak to them in a way that was “real, not canned.”
Their purpose was not to promote the mikvah but to reveal how the ritual shapes women’s lives — positively and negatively.
“When I first started the project, I had a negative attitude about the mikvah being a ritual that signified women were unclean at certain times,” she said. “But I when learned how it can be used for healing, I began to understand that we can use the ritual of the mikvah and other Jewish rituals as tools to infuse our lives with meaning.”