The ritual which is central to Judaism and yet the one which is so misunderstood. This is the moment that everyone who converts awaits with equal anxiety and anticipation. It marks both the end of a journey and the completely new beginning. The new life. Literally.
Once the beit din approved my conversion, I was overjoyed. Shocked, but overjoyed. But I wasn’t truly done until I the mikvah (ritual bath) was done. As I mentioned in our last article, I booked my mikvah appointment for the first possible day – partly because I was afraid someone would realize they made a mistake or change their minds, but mostly because my nerves were stretched to the breaking point and it just. Needed. To be. Done. Fortunately for everyone involved (except for my employer who had to manage the workload without me), my mikvah was the following day.
The mikvah ritual began with Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah, where the entire Jewish nation entered into the covenant with Hashem through immersion, circumcision, and a ritual sacrifice (when there was a Temple); this practice has endured throughout the generations. Immersion in the mikvah is a ritual point marking the beginning of a new life and as such, those using the mikvah must perform a good-sized list of preparations to ensure all surfaces and folds of the body including the hair must be absolutely clean before immersion. I had read several online guides that recommended truly taking your time to soak in a bath, shave, clean your ears, etc. before even attempting to check with the ba’al or balanit (mikvah attendant) on whether preparations are sufficient. As an over-achiever, I arrived to the mikvah with two friends to support me. In addition to all the supplies I wanted to make sure my body was free from dirt, lotion residue, oils, etc. I was amused when the balanit came to check on me while I was still soaking in the bathtub to be sure I was okay. I was told to take my time, so I did.
When the time came to be checked by the balanit, she came in while I wrapped myself in a towel. I wasn’t yet done combing my hair, but she checked my nails to ensure they were clean underneath, my legs that were hair-free and gave me instructions on how to fully complete preparations before entering the adjacent room. She was waiting for me in the mikvah chamber, which resembled in indoor pool – minus the diving board (ESTHER: and a tanned life-guard! [sorry, please continue]). I removed the towel and stepped in to the water. The mikvah attendant wasn’t obvious about it, but I know she gave me another once-over to ensure I didn’t have any stray hairs or any knots in my hair before I entered. I performed the initial immersion in her presence and she called out that the immersion was kosher. You may be wondering whether it was odd standing in a pool-like area completely naked in front of a strange woman. I was surprised to find that it was normal, though this may be because I am the oldest of three sisters and being naked in front of women is not so strange for me.
Once I’d completed the initial immersion, I exited the mikvah long enough to don the long robe/dress-thing before re-entering the water. At that point, my friends were called in, as was another beit din to witness that the ritual was completed – I immersed once again, albeit in a dress. It’s important that I mention the current debate that exists about having rabbis supervise the mikvah process for converts. I’ve heard many arguments that if the balanit is knowledgeable and trustworthy enough to ensure a woman is fully prepared for her monthly visits as part of taharat mishpacha, then she alone should be sufficient to serve as witness to the immersion. I don’t disagree with this point of view, however, I was not in a place to demand that the rabbis weren’t present during my immersion. That said, it’s also important to note that the material of the robe was very similar to the fabric used to make pillow cases for the cushions in outdoor furniture. It was made to get wet and was very modest. Finally, the beit din was present, but the rabbis only entered far enough into the room to see just the top of my head while I stood in the water. To be honest, I felt they followed the law to the letter and did nothing more – I believe they relied more on their ears than eyes for this supervision process. Still, I immersed myself as expected and said the blessings. After which, the dayanim literally jumped for joy as they shouted a hearty mazal tov before leaving.
The whole process went so quickly, it felt like it was a trick that it was done. I was essentially standing alone in the mikvah waters and I was suddenly halachically Jewish. I left the mikvah chamber, changed into my clothes, blow-dried my hair, and met my friends in the waiting room. There were cookies to munch on, which served to mark my first blessing after completing my conversion, the rabbis signed some paperwork and sent me on my way.
My friends and I celebrated by going to a café in the nearby mall to have a celebratory meal. I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember checking that the café had the requisite after-Passover kosher certificate, that I was extra vocal about saying the blessings, and that we were joined by a woman in the parking lot who was seeking answers about Orthodox Jewish life. My friends and I, which included Esther, had a great time relaxing and talking about how surreal it was that I’d finished. It’s been eight months since I ‘became official’, and I’m preparing for a wedding, but it still sometimes feels like it’s all been a crazy dream.
Mikveh is one of the most sacred aspects of Judaism and also mostly misunderstood. I have seen this especially when I was studying at the yeshiva for women. We went through mishnayot dealing with the concept and both the rabbi as well as female teachers spent countless hours trying to dispel the myths that circulated around it. Some compare the mikveh with baptism. Apart from the fact that water is involved in both cases there is nothing similar between the two. The child is baptised when they are born to join the Roman Catholic Church (or when they are adults if they are affiliated with another Christian group). In Judaism t’vilah (immersion) in the mikveh is a commandment and therefore it can only be performed by halachic adults (for boys after reaching the age of bar mitzvah and for women once before they marry and then throughout the married life) and it is an ongoing activity, not once-and-for-all fix. Many also believe that the mikveh symbolises that there is something dirty about the person, which sadly comes directly from the translation of tahara and te’uma (purity and impurity), which actually has nothing to do with the state of your one’s body. Those concepts penetrate into a man’s soul and yes, for more abstract religions based only on spirituality, this may seem strange that a physical act can remove that level of ritual impurity. Ritual, because without going to the mikveh one couldn’t walk up to the Temple and a cohen couldn’t serve there either.
There are different types of t’vilah, not just for converts. T’vilah is also central to the concept of niddah (menstrual cycle of a woman), which is central to the concept of taharat mishpacha. A bride also goes to the mikveh before her wedding so that she will be permissible to her husband after they get married. Men go to the mikveh if they have bodily discharges at night. The only difference about those t’vilot is the purpose for which they are performed; but all are dealing with the concepts of tahara and te’uma.
The reason why converts need to go to the mikveh before they become and full-on Jews is not only to remove the impurity (though if they were to remain non-Jews then the concept of te’uma wouldn’t apply; it only applies only to Jews), but also through that physical act, chassidut teaches, another level of soul is added so that a convert is no longer just a convert, he or she is a Jew and the same covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people applies to him or her as much as it applies to someone who was born Jewish.
My mikveh was in Tel Aviv even though I live in Jerusalem. Friends drove all the way from Beersheva to be there with me. I realised how important it was for me when I actually saw them coming in. It was really special. In contrary to Elisheva’s experience, we were very much rushed in because there was a long queue of people waiting. I was lucky to have volunteered at one of the mikveot in Bait v’Gan so I had an idea as to was required of me, but the reality is that once you actually have to do it – you forget everything. I forgot about the nail polish, an ankle band and contact lenses; the latter actually forcing me to do the mikveh again once I was already out of the building. It was very uncomfortable for me to be naked in the presence of someone else. Over the years I had to go through a transition of hiding away from people (in Poland I never saw people undressing and changing their clothes in the open – everyone always rushed to the cubicles), understanding that not everyone has a problem with undressing in front of others (in England I was surprised to see dozens of cubicles in the changing rooms that no one used) and being too busy to even think about it and just turning away from people (that’s obviously in Israel).
Therefore, having to exit the bathroom and walk into the mikveh naked was an unusual experience. The balanit told me to leave the towel behind and continue without it. I did it, but I couldn’t help myself when my hands involuntarily rushed to cover my body under the balanit’s scrutinising look, who in reality was just checking if by any chance I had any body-piercing. I descended into the water and immersed myself. I was surprised to hear the balanit say that I needed to do it again, because my hair floated. Now, it’s really nothing to panic about. It may happen especially if you have long or curly hair. Mine is longish and curly. Mystery solved. But after months of being unsure about whether this process was ever going to end I panicked. What if my hair won’t sink? In that split second I also remembered the novel I read about cursed women. Their sign was that their hair never immersed with the rest of their bodies and their lives were terrible, they died prematurely, had miscarriages, starved, their teeth fell out and they experienced all possible calamities. I know it’s insane, but the image stood there in front of my eyes and the idea of being toothless wasn’t desirable. I immersed myself again literally dropping to almost foetal position praying that the hair sinks in with me. It did, uff.
I was then given the robe to cover myself and the three rabbis came in, one of whom I actually knew because he also supervised Elisheva’s mikveh and he was from Beersheva, and I immersed again after repeating essentially the same thing that I said at the beit din – that I will keep the mitzvoth to the letter. I then quickly changed back into my clothes, put the make-up on and left to say the bracha (blessing) in front of the rabbis at the exit. At that moment the balanit looked into my eyes and asked if by any chance I was wearing contact lenses. Before I answered I knew that I screwed up forgetting about the contacts. I was rushed back in, took off the make-up, took off the contact lenses and dipped again twice: once naked and once wearing the robe with the rabbis standing over my head. The second time I also remembered about the hair so I went straight into the foetal position. We then went to have lunch, taking a Venezuelan girl with us who was also at the mikveh, but had no-one to celebrate with. The same day she actually had another beit din in Bnei Brak and later on a mikveh, another one, just in case. “Just in case” is the dominant theme here.
We are just about to celebrate yet another mikveh, Elisheva’s, next week and actually, despite all the stress, going to the mikveh is one of the most fulfilling mitzvoth that I as a woman could perform. It is the most intimate place where I’m completely naked, physically, spiritually and emotionally. With no additions, not make-up, no contact lenses (I really can’t see much without them), without all the things that I add on daily basis to function in this world. It’s this moment of complete trust, in that foetal position, where I realise that all I have is my body and even that I didn’t purchase so I do not own it. It’s that moment that I really believe that both Hashem and I are finally on the same page. He sees me as I am, through the bullshit and through the masks that I have to put on, and I know that this is the real me. It was the only moment that I was truly myself and, like a baby, I trusted Hashem completely.