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February 13, 1987 - Image 120

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-02-13

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

The Meaning
Of The Mikvah

I looked down into the
Mikvah waters and imagined
a wide, natural lake. I felt
myself part of a community
of women.

ESTHER ALTSHUL
HELFGOTT

W

hen I was seven-
teen, my Aunt
Ruth took me to
the Mikvah. She
wanted me to see the pool
of water traditional Jewish
women stepped into each
month and to be in an en-
vironment where women
celebrated and renewed
their natural cycles. Most
of all, Aunt Ruth wanted
me to feel a sense of pride
in the tradition that, ac-
cording to Orthodox
Judaism, has kept the
Jewish people alive.
Perhaps one day, by some
remote chance, I might
want to walk down the
steps into the Mikvah, too.
My mother, Anna, a
dyed-in-the-wool-Leftist,
went also. I am not sure
why. Perhaps she was
curious about the ritual her
Orthodox mother, my
Grandma Esther, men-
tioned occasionally, or
maybe she wanted to keep
a close eye on Aunt Ruth
to be sure this religious
woman was not corrupting
her impressionable nice, or
maybe Mother was drawn
to the Mikvah for reasons
she did not know.
Anna need not have wor-
ried. I was following
dutifully in her and my
father's footsteps, thinking
myself an atheist and
spouting the jargon to
prove it. Secretly, however,
every night before going to
bed, I said a prayer just in
case.
I knew this was a special
day. For one, Aunt Ruth

picked us up in her car. It
usually sat in front of the
house waiting for Uncle
Izzy to take it shopping.
Aunt Ruth still drives that
car twice a year — once for
her annual medical exam
and once to check up on
the mashgiach at the local
butcher.
I am exaggerating. She
drives to Hadassah, ORT
and B'nai B'rith meetings.
The "girls" pick her up for
Sisterhood, and once a
month she drives around
the corner (two blocks) for
a kosher pizza. Somehow
Aunt Ruth came upon the
notion that cars need to
rest three to five times a
week, not simply on shab-
bos. But on this day,
Ruthie drove her car: tak-
ing me to the Mikvah was
a special event and a
mitzvah, we both knew, she
alone could perform.
Secondly, Aunt Ruth
spends her entire life get-
ting ready for shabbos. The
second — not the minute,
but the second — one shab-
bos ends, she starts scrap-
ing carrots for the next.
That she would take time
out from her meticulous
weekly schedule essential
for her putting her next
shabbos plan of action into
effect is amazing. At the
same time, the number of
mitzvot Aunt Ruth per-
forms in a week — tutoring
children, writing articles for
organization newsletters,
visiting the sick and giving
advice — is staggering
(especially when measured
against the number of
marathon phone calls she
makes in a day).
We drove up to an ordi-
nary red brick building on

Rogers Avenue. Though it
was set apart from the
other brick houses on the
street, the Baltimore
Mikvah's exterior showed
no signs of the secrets con-
tained inside.
The matron, or "Mikvah
lady" as she is sometimes
called, met us at the door.
There was an ethereal
quality about her, as if she
lived in another time. As
we followed her along the
hallway, Mother's serious
expression a counterpoint
to my aunt's happy-go-
lucky, all-knowing wink, I
felt pulled in two. At the
same time, I had a fore-
boding sense that what the
Mikvah lady was about to
show me was dead or in the
process of dying.
She opened the door
slowly and invited us in. I
was not unknowledgeable
on the subject of Mikvah. I
knew it was a ritual bath
used by men before Yom
Kippur. I also knew the
Mikvah was used for con-
version purposes and for
purifying dishes. Single
women went immediately
preceding marriage, and
married women immersed
once a month to cleanse
themselves spiritually seven
days after completing their
menstrual cycles.
The last I learned sitting
on the lawn with a group of
girls outside Forest Park
High during lunch recess.
Naomi was engaged. She
was reading to us from a
book on Family Purity
Laws. Gradually, our circle
widened as one girl after
another snuggled in to hear
how Naomi and her future
husband would sleep in
separate beds and how she

could not hand him the salt
and pepper shakers during
her state of Niddah
(separation).
I thought Naomi rather
brave for taking on such
responsibility and was im-
pressed with the romantic
way she talked about
religious life. Still, I was
more interested in arguing
with my Talmudical Aca-
demy boyfriend over
religion than I was in
becoming religious.
I looked down into the
Mikvah water and imag-
ined a wide, natural lake -to
which hundreds of women
came one at a time to dip,
pray and dip twice again.
With my mother, aunt and
the Mikvah lady beside, I
felt myself part of a com-
munity of women that
transcended time and
space.
But, then, the same eerie
feeling I experienced before
entering the Mikvah re-
turned. I was, at once, look-

ing down into the womb
that gave birth to all the
world and, at the same
time, witnessing the world's
demise.
Shivering, I thanked the
Mikvah lady and left. Then
I explored the rooms
women used to prepare
themselves before entering
the Mikvah. I tried to im-
agine myself bathing here,
washing my hair and cut-
ting my fingernails. I
thought of Naomi and
walked back to the car.
That was twenty-five
years ago. Since then I
have married, given birth
to and raised three chil-
dren, divorced, moved to
the Pacific Northwest and
remarried — a long, jagged
road from the Mikvah and
back.
Fifteen years ago, I was
in the forefront of the
feminist movement, demon-
strating, writing, speaking
and directing women's sym-

Continued on Page 70

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