US immersed in mikveh revolution

By Elicia Brown New York, November 19, 2009
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American women are increasingly using mikvehs like Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim to mark life milestones

American women are increasingly using mikvehs like Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim to mark life milestones

It has been a difficult year for Beth Steiner, coping with the emotional rollercoaster of infertility treatments while many of her friends announce their pregnancies. But last month, Ms Steiner, 30, found a calm haven at an unexpected place: the mikveh.

“It was like I had been holding my breath for so long. I was just able to relax,” says Ms Steiner.

Before immersing, she recited a meditation on infertility. Afterwards, she sipped herbal tea on the couch in the waiting room, and “felt so peaceful, so hopeful”.

Ms Steiner is one of a small but growing number of American women engaged in an alternative use of the Jewish ritual bath. They plunge into the mikveh as an act of healing and hope, rather than for traditional purposes such as conversion or to mark the end of niddah, the two-week stretch when religiously observant Jews avoid sexual intimacy.

In the last five years, innovative mikveh ceremonies have become more common across the US, with women (and a few men) commemorating everything from milestone birthdays to divorce settlements with a splash.

“Mikveh is the new, exciting spiritual kid on the block,” says Vanessa Ochs, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virgina and the author of Inventing Jewish Ritual.

Much of the interest in these innovative rituals has sprung from the mikveh used by Ms Steiner, Mayyim Hayyim, a spa-like community facility on the outskirts of Boston. It opened five years ago, and has been working to educate others about its philosophy and practice.

Now, at least a dozen facilities across the country welcome alternative immersions, and five “open-minded” mivkehs are being designed. At least another 10 communities are taking the initial steps to open a mikveh of this kind.

Many women who plunge into the waters of Mayyim Hayyim do not observe the laws of family purity, which involve monthly immersions. They might have been raised with little awareness of the ritual bath, or connect it with vaguely negative associations.

In the past, the practice of immersion “didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to us,” says Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent and a founder of Mayyim Hayyim. Ms Diamant says she now immerses herself prior to the High Holy Days.

“The experience is as close to meditation as I get.”

Some compare the mikveh to a womb, its waters enveloping the occupant in safe, wet comfort.

“There was an intimacy with the water,” recalls Suzanne Hanser, who created a mikveh ceremony after her last child left home for college. “I couldn’t breathe but it felt like no other physical embrace.”

Lisa Braun-Glazer, who is directing an effort to build a liberal mikveh in San Diego, says that like many facilities built in recent years, the impetus behind her project is to provide a venue for non-Orthodox conversion ceremonies. Many Orthodox mikvehs do not welcome non-Orthodox conversions.

At the moment, when someone wants to convert to Judaism in a non-Orthodox ceremony, “they either have to go to the Pacific ocean, which is cool and not very private or do the two-and-a-half hour schlep” to the nearest liberal mikveh.

But, says Ms Braun-Glazer, many people are yet to realise that the mikveh can enrich their lives by marking passages, “particularly in these times when there’s a lot of depressing news”.

Ms Braun-Glazer immersed herself in a mikveh when she turned 57, the age when her mother died. The experience, she says, “marked the beginning of the rest of my life”.

    Last updated: 11:36am, November 19 2009