Total Immersion
by Geraldine Sherman

(Toronto Life November, 1997)

Leviticus 11:36
Ach Only
Ma'yan a spring
U'bor and a pit
Mikveh a gathering
Mayim of water
yihyeh [it] shall be
tahor clean
It's a long way from the Holy Land to Wilson and Bathurst, the location of Mikveh Mai Eden. In its own building, tucked behind a synagogue affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch sect, is a large tiled tub, or mikveh, where devout women submerge themselves in an ancient purification ritual. The Beth Yoseph congregation, always eager for new members, recently circulated a flyer inviting other Jewish women to discover "the Power of the Mikveh," promising a speaker, entertainment, refreshments, and a tour of their renovated facility.

According to ancient Jewish laws of family purity, women must refrain from sex until they have ritually immersed themselves -- before marriage, following childbirth, and seven days after menstruation ends. A community must build a mikveh before a synagogue: prayers can be offered wherever ten men gather, but there can be no marital relations without a mikveh.

These rules seem normal to the Orthodox, but most North American Jewish women are revolted by the rituals performed by their great-grandmothers, practices that echo blood taboos of archaic cultures. They reject the belief that menstruation makes them unfit to be touched by men and the dictum that procreation is the only important purpose of sex. In Toronto, where there are more than half a dozen public mikvehs as well as others in private homes and schools, few Jewish women have ever set foot in one. Mikveh advocates are struggling to overcome what they regard as prejudice and misunderstanding.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I join about sixty other women -- brides and grandmothers, true believers and sceptics -- in the book-lined sanctuary of Beth Yoseph to hear traditionalists speak about "the power of the mikveh." Most of the audience wear stylish ankle-length skirts and shoulder-length sable-coloured wigs. As wives, they are required to cover their own hair in public so they will appear attractive only to their husbands; their fashionable hairpieces comply with the letter, if not the spirit, of the law.

These beautiful matrons talk and laugh together, a chummy group of mikveh-goers, confident in their narrow world. Around them, older women in bulky dresses and running shoes, their heads covered in sequinned snoods, speak together quietly. For them, mikveh is a memory of youth. A few twenty-year-olds and grey-haired rebels like me wear slacks. We circle around the edges, avoiding eye contact. What if they ask me, a woman past menopause, why I'm there? Will it be enough to say that I am a Jew and a journalist interested in mikveh? But no one questions my presence, even when I take out my tape recorder.

Sara Karmely, a middle-aged woman, born in India to an Iranian Jewish family, has come from New York to talk to us. She's elegant in a silk dress and auburn pageboy wig. She offers a smooth and practised rationale for Orthodox mikveh. Despite appearances, she assures us, Jewish laws governing relations between men and women actually keep these unions strong. Refraining from sex twelve days a month "increases a woman's self-respect." She calls the seven days of abstinence after menstruation "the week of mink," when Orthodox wives can ask their husbands for anything. She tells stories about infertile women who became pregnant immediately after their first immersions and give birth to healthy sons. She warns that if we performed the mikveh ritual incorrectly we could die in childbirth. She recommends that we discuss feminine hygiene with our rebbe, who "knows all about these things."

Could any thinking woman accept this unholy mix of medieval superstition and feminine wiles? Four Lubavitch women, aware that mikveh has become something of a joke in the wider community, perform a skit to counter some obvious objections. First on stage is the Shomeret, or lady in charge of the mikveh, an adorable and chubby-cheeked Mrs. Heisswasser (Mrs. Hotwater). Her first client is a caricature of vulgar secularism -- a rake-thin, claw-nailed, Prozac-guzzling redhead in her mid-thirties whose husband has suddenly become religious. "Instead of a normal mid-life crisis -- ponytail, Porsche in the driveway, cowboy boots -- Robert has turned into this New Age Super Jew!" The mikveh lady tells her this is good. "Not only will this help to bring the Messiah, but I'll let you in on a little secret. When you get home tonight..." she whispers something, no doubt, about blissful sexual reunions.

The second visitor, Dr. Frances Snootgrass, an anthropologist researching "rituals repressive to women," is assured by Mrs. Heisswasser that none of her women are repressed. "They're all highly educated and sophisticated." Finally we meet Mabel, a regular mikveh-goer and no one's idea of a relic. She's driven her pickup straight from the farm. When Snootgrass asks if she feels "stifled by a patriarchal system," or "caged in by a menstrual taboo," Mabel drawls, "Nope!"

Eventually, Robert's wife, fresh from her first mikveh experience, races to the telephone: "Robert, I mean Reuven. I feel so special! Truly female." As she leaves she calls to Mrs. Heisswasser, "See you next month."

"Maybe not!" the mikveh lady shouts back. (Laughter.)

After nibbling Kosher petit fours, we head for the mikveh and crowd into the pale green waiting room. A pamphlet explains that the mikveh opens weekdays between 7 and 10 p.m. and charges $144 a year, roughly $12 for a monthly dip.

We tour three neat change rooms and admire the fluffy terry robes and baskets of mikveh necessities -- a Swedish foot file, hairbrush, Scope, peroxide, shampoo, a sample bar of Cashmere Bouquet soap, Kosher toothpaste, Bausch & Lomb for contact lenses. The blue tiled mikveh in the room at the far end looks big enough for three or four people to stand chest high. Everything is spanking new and clean.

When I was growing up my great-aunt Tillie was the only woman I knew who'd visited a mikveh. "They made me go before I got married," she said, "and didn't tell me a thing." She'd just come from the hairdresser and begged the Shomeret not to put her under -- but she did. She had to. Tillie never went back. Sixty-five years later, she's still furious.

Today, many Jews are coming to regret the loss of ritual in their lives. Even mikveh, with its obvious problems, is the subject of renewed interest by secular women. They suspect that when they stopped marking the monthly passage of their lives and acknowledging their unique role in reproduction, something valuable was lost, thrown out with the mikveh water. Unwilling to fabricate an entirely new ceremony, or to abandon mikveh to the ultra-Orthodox, they have begun to redesign this 3,000-year-old-ritual.

Sheila Maarkus [her name and identifying details have been changed], now 53 years old, went to her first mikveh in her late thirties, married, and the mother of three. She grew up in a non-observant family and the decision to lead a more traditional Jewish life came after years of searching her soul and carefully selecting the rules she would follow. The result of this spiritual makeover was a hybrid she calls "Conservadox." She doesn't wear a wig, she occasionally wears slacks, she eats in non-Kosher restaurants, salads only. The thorniest problems of her new life centred on menstruation and mikveh. "As you know, the only reason to go to mikveh is to prepare for sexual relations with your husband. My husband, who's better educated than I am, thought the whole business was primitive." They had been married for twelve years and there was no way that he was going to buy separate beds or sleep in a separate room. They stayed in one bed, but didn't touch until Sheila went to mikveh.

Curled up on her living room sofa in a room crowded with family photographs, Sheila recalled her mikveh experiences. "I liked going, and not just for spiritual reasons. I work for a catering company and lead a busy life. Mikveh was my night at the spa." She shopped around for a mikveh that met her needs before settling on the Koschitzky Mikveh at 694 Sheppard, west of Bathurst. Like most mikvehs they expected decorum from everyone. Women were told that their husbands should not pick them up to go home; it could be seen as sexual eagerness. "You would never tell anybody, 'I met so and so at the mikveh.' It was a very private thing."

Once a month, Sheila would take her turn in one of ten preparatory rooms off the mikveh itself. There she'd find a toilet, bathtub, and Styrofoam head to hold wigs. Instructions on the wall explained how to remove nail polish, false teeth, contact lens, even scabs. After a leisurely bath, she would cover herself in a towel and ring for the Shomeret, who then inspected every part of her body, picking off foreign objects, even loose hairs, so that every inch of skin could touch the mikveh water. "If you had a callus on your foot, she'd pull out a little pumice stone and clean it off, all the time holding up the towel, not making eye contact!"

Beside the tiled mikveh tub, described by Sheila as "a Jacuzzi without jets," there's a tub containing 40 sa'ahs, about 185 gallons of Mayim Chaim, or "living water," collected in a rooftop cistern or as natural ice. The number 40 is rich in associations: a person spends 40 weeks in utero, the Great Flood lasted 40 days, the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years. At the place where the natural water touches the purified water in a hidden pipe, they are said to "kiss," one of many lovely metaphors that swirl around mikveh.

Besides the appeal of poetic language, there remains the power of immersion, fulfilled in Christianity by baptism, in Judaism by mikveh. A woman walks down the steps of the mikveh into chest-high water as the Shomeret sees that her whole body is immersed, puts a special cloth on her head when she stands, and listens as she recites a prayer. The number of dips and the prayers vary.

For Sheila, mikveh-going was like a monthly meeting with Eros: "As you walked down the stairs, the warm water gradually covered your foot, your ankle, your knee, then your chest -- it was almost like a rebirth." When she came home her husband would often have flowers waiting on her night table. "It was very sweet and showed he had accepted the idea." Now, because she's past menopause, Sheila can no longer go to the Koschitzky Mikveh; she would be welcome at the Thornhill Community Mikveh.

In a multipurpose building at 36 Atkinson Avenue serving Reform Jews, the Thornhill Community Mikveh was built, certified by a Detroit expert, and opened in 1994. Even the Orthodox would find it Kosher. What they would certainly not find Kosher are the uses to which this mikveh is put, or the people who use it. A group of determined, non-traditional, Toronto women have liberated the mikveh from its automatic connection with marriage and its obsession with menstruation. They invite all Jewish women -- young and old, married and single, straight and gay, pre-menstrual and post-menopausal -- to celebrate being female. Their Thornhill Community Mikveh, only a few miles north of Mikveh Mai Eden, is also light years away.

Each autumn, before the Jewish New Year, Reform Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, director of Kolel, a Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, invites the uninitiated to tour the Thornhill Community Mikveh and, if they would like, to take "a dip." A small, high-energy woman with a braided rattail dangling beneath her white Yarmulke, Goldstein calls herself "The Mikveh Queen of Toronto." She preaches the joys of mikveh. She wants Jewish women "to celebrate their menstrual blood," not be ashamed of it. "One reason I go to mikveh is to negate society's negation of my body -- the anti-woman society which says that when I bleed I'm gross." She imagines a future ceremony to celebrate the onset of menstruation; a young woman, wearing a red prayer shawl, would be called to read the Torah during the week of her first mikveh experience. Mikveh could acquire a new meaning, separate from its role in the relationship between men and women.

Under her guidance, the Thornhill Community Mikveh has become a place where women go to give thanks and receive spiritual therapy -- women with cancer, women recovering from surgery. "We've taken people on important birthdays or at the end of mourning, whenever they need spiritual rebirth." She supervised one woman recovering from a rape. "She'd had psychotherapy for a long time and felt that Jewish tradition wasn't helping her deal with what she felt, so we did a ceremony at the mikveh. I won't say she was miraculously cured, but it helped." On such an occasion, Goldstein reads from Ezekiel: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean...I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.'"

She invites the women in the audience who wants to experience mikveh to make an appointment with their Shomeret, Catherine Bianco. During Rabbi Goldstein's talk I had glimpsed her in the back row, an apparently Anglo-Saxon blonde in her early forties wearing a handsome embroidered cap. We met privately to talk about mikveh in a Front Street building where she's a public relations executive.

She was introduced to mikveh five years ago when she was invited to accompany a friend to Rabbi Goldstein's first New Year's open house. "I'm 'A Jew by Choice,'" she said proudly, "so I don't have the same history as many other Jewish women. You mention mikveh to them and they say, 'How can you possibly think about doing that?' But there are times when you need a connection that is meaningful and deep. Ritual helps."

Catherine hesitated over her first visit. She had converted to Judaism eleven years earlier, after her marriage to a Jew and before all converts had to go to mikveh. By 1991, she and her husband had separated and she was completing a two-year religious studies program at Holy Blossom, Toronto's leading Reform temple. With the zeal of a graduate student and the appetite of a convert, Catherine studied Torah, Jewish history and the Hebrew language. She became a regular at the Thornhill mikveh and in 1995 was elected head of the Holy Blossom Sisterhood. She told her thirty new board members that she was committed to increasing their knowledge of ritual practices. "I had booked time in our mikveh in advance and encouraged everyone to go with me because it was the perfect occasion. These women were committing themselves to temple leadership and doing something challenging. I felt we had to mark the moment." Eight women showed up. "It was a tremendous experience for us."

As Sisterhood president, Catherine Bianco travelled North America, spreading the gospel of mikveh. "While there is a movement of women writing women's rituals, Toronto is a leader in the renewed practise of this ritual. When I tell women in the United States what we do in Thornhill they say to me, 'You do what?'"

For over a year she has been the Shomeret at the Thornhill mikveh. Her regular clients are between 35 and 55, many in their mid-30s. Many come because they're in distress. She's watched over a woman facing dangerous surgery and another who was recovering from an abusive relationship. "It was just before Rosh Hashanah and she wanted to enter the New Year feeling healed. She'd come with her mother and we were all in tears."

Most women who call her don't know what to expect. Over the phone she explains some of the history and procedure and suggests ways to personalize the experience. She follows the conversation with a two-page fax. It says that mikveh should be a moment between an individual and God, and that physical cleaning is only a prelude to spiritual cleaning. No one is asked about marital status although no woman can come if she's menstruating. As in traditional mikvehs, a woman must clean her body meticulously beforehand. "It isn't a bath," Catherine emphasized. "it's a ritual bath. To enter without being totally clean is not showing respect. I'm there to ensure that the rules are followed." The prayers she faxes are written in Hebrew and phonetic English.

Women about to be married also receive a warm covering letter:

Your decision to use the mikveh before your wedding is in the best tradition of our heritage -- in fact, it's the original bridal shower! In addition to the general guidelines, you may be interested in adding any or all of the following:

Best wishes and mazel tov!
Catherine Bianco, Shomeret

The Lubavitch presented their Shomeret, Mrs. Heisswasser, as a kind-hearted fiction; Sheila Maarkus found the Koschitzky Shomeret appropriately respectful; Catherine Bianco appears mindful of the needs of her clients. Still, the most common complaint levelled against mikveh by those who've tried it is the authoritarian personality of the woman in charge, the Shomeret. Mikveh ladies can forgot that they are "watchers," not watch dogs or dictators. Rachael Turkienicz, a teacher of Jewish Studies, a wife and mother of four young children, lives near the Orthodox enclave of Thornhill and goes to mikveh regularly. She avoids the Shomerets whose questions are too intrusive, whose inspection too invasive. "A lot of women I know 'mikveh hop.' I've done it myself." She also searched for a mikveh where she could have more freedom. "It's taken me a long time to find a mikveh where I'm comfortable, where, after I've immersed myself as the law would dictate, I'm left alone to have my own thoughts and to feel part of the water." She's convinced that if all women are better educated about the purposes of mikveh they can defy arbitrary Shomerets and defend the ways they use the ritual.

Fingernails, for instance, are a constant source of conflict. Because mikveh water must touch the entire body, the question arises: How long can a nail can be before it impedes contact? One Shomeret was reluctant to officiate at the mikveh of a young bride until she cut her nails. A rabbi, acceptable to both parties, was asked for a ruling. He ruled that it was more important to go to mikveh with long nails than not to go at all.

Among the variety of mikveh experiences now available in Toronto are those originating with a small group from the Middle East, Sephardic Jews, who joined the majority community from Europe, the Ashkenazi. Through family connections Rachael Turkienicz has learned to appreciate the traditions of both groups. "Among my Sephardic friends, the laws of family purity and mikveh are strongly adhered to, even among women who in other areas of their lives might be more secular." She compares their attachment to mikveh with the way non-religious Ashkenazi Jews hold on to dietary laws such as not mixing milk with meat. She imagines the Sephardic predisposition to mikveh comes from living in Muslim cultures where comparable rituals made it seem less eccentric. "When a Sephardic woman from certain communities is going to mikveh as a bride, her women friends and family embroider a gown for her that she will wear every time she goes to mikveh, each one adding something that's meaningful in their relationship. Then they go to the mikveh together."

Rachael believes that as women become more familiar with the basic rules of cleanliness and prayer, the institutional presence of the Shomeret would no longer be necessary. The role of watcher and advisor would be given to a close friend, a "mikveh sister," a practise followed in parts of Israel and, of necessity, in small Canadian towns. "I see two women who, through friendship or learning together, share a similar outlook on life and on Judaism, or at least can learn from one another." In this way, Rachael believes, "Mikveh could become a meaningful experience for all Jewish women."

Even with the choices now available to Jewish women in Toronto, it's hard to imagine mikveh again becoming central in their lives. The connection with patriarchal rules and pagan prohibitions remains overwhelmingly powerful. But for those women who wanted to go to mikveh and were excluded, opening the Thornhill Community Mikveh is a welcome gesture; for those women who could have gone but were too fearful or self-conscious, increasing the responsiveness of mikvehs is an over-due concession. These small changes demonstrate our enduring need for ritual, and the need to make old traditions fit new realities.

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1997

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