Oriental despots boasted of their harems, an d the Roman Empire of their bathhouses — the Jews got by with the modest mikveh. Initially a purifying bath used to prepare men and women for Temple ritual, it is used now to prepare women for sexual encounters with their husbands after two weeks of abstinence caused by their monthly period.
“The fact that this ritual has lasted so long,” declares photographer and artist Varda Polak-Sahm, “means that it satisfies a deep human need. Moreover, even if the script was written by religious men, ultimately the mikveh fulfils a feminine need.”
It was to explore the meaning of the mikveh in contemporary Jewish circles that Polak-Sahm undertook a study at the Hebrew University, which has resulted in a book and a collection of photographs which have been exhibited in Tel Aviv. “At first, I thought I would examine how the mikveh reflects the wider community in which religious women live,” she says. “But as soon as I started my research, I realised that I was witnessing a unique phenomenon, a place where women can feel comfortable just being themselves.”
This discovery surprised Polak-Sahm, who, like many secular Israelis, had a very different image of the ritual bath.
“For me it was associated with something unclean, the idea of people bathing in the same water and being examined by somebody else. The mikveh was the ultimate symbol of the religious, Charedi world.”
Ultimately it fulfils a deep feminine need
Not that the religious world was alien to her: “I was born in Sha’arei Binah — the Oriental section of Mea She’arim. Both my grandfathers were chazanim in their respective synagogues. Yet my grandfather sent my mother to Christchurch Anglican School, since it offered the best all-round education. I was thus brought up savouring Chasidic, Sephardic, Arabic and Christian traditions simultaneously. So when I approached the balayinot [mikveh attendants] I was able to talk their language.”
She was also able to discuss authoritatively the halachic sources of the mikveh in the book in some detail.
“In Israel it is obligatory for women to attend the mikveh as a condition for receiving a certificate from the rabbinate in order to marry. But by making it obligatory, the mikveh can lose its intrinsic power and charm. Yet, what I also discovered, was that, increasingly, secular Israeli women are visiting the mikveh, and not just to fulfil the marriage requirements. It makes sense from a feminist perspective. It gives women control over their bodies. As one of my teachers observed, with their God-given fecundity, and their solidarity with other women, women are able to challenge the hegemony of the men’s world on their own terms.”
The inclusion of secular women in her research helped in another very crucial way. Up to then she had spoken mainly to the bath attendants, all of them religious if not indeed Charedim. “These are conservative people, controlled by the rabbis. For them, not going to the mikveh results in premature death at the hand of heaven. Yet as I got to know these women, I witnessed how they related to all their clientele -— women with special needs, young secular women who objected to the ritual, and so on. They handled them all tactfully and without rancour.
“But the secular women gave me another, unanticipated possibility. Since I am a professional photographer, I really wanted to take photos of the mikveh. The religious women were reluctant for reasons of modesty. But the secular women welcomed the opportunity; they wanted a record for their families. So I have a unique collection of these women in and out of the mikveh.”
When Polak-Sahm came to publish her findings, first in Hebrew in 2005 and just recently in English under the title The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh, she faced other problems. “My original cover for the Hebrew version showed a young woman immersing herself under the watchful eye of a half-hidden attendant. The publisher, Modan, was uncertain about the appropriateness of such a picture. One of the art department even suggested putting the photo of a half-naked man emerging from the mikveh, thus missing the whole point of the book!”
One result of this initial reaction was that the English version was published minus photos, even on the cover (although many can be seen on Polak-Sahm’s website).
The title she gave to the Hebrew version, Beit Hastarim, also raised a few eyebrows. Used by the sages to describe the various apertures in the human body, in today’s Charedi slang the words refer to the woman’s vagina. “In one phrase I showed how the secular community doesn’t understand the Charedi world, and how the Charedi world should realise that I understood their internal language perfectly.”
The English version may have missed out on the sexual innuendo of the title but much of the original dialogues held by Polak-Sahm with the women she interviewed has been retained, including some erotic passages about what happened after their monthly visit.
Responses to the book have been as varied as the women she met. “One leading Orthodox feminist in Israel was so shocked by its ‘pornographic content’ that she couldn’t sleep after she’d read it. Contrarily, I’ve been asked to lecture for the Orthodox Zionist Rabbis of Zohar, as well as by the Israel National Council for Family Purity, the very pinnacle of Orthodoxy.”
From being ambivalent about her subject matter, Polak-Sahm came to regard the mikveh as “the Temple of the Jewish Woman”. She is extremely pleased that in both Israel and the USA new mikvot have opened that include a spa, a place for massage and meditation, and where the attendants are no longer Charedim. “The women are turning the mikveh into a way of celebrating their femininity,” she says. Inside the religious world, too, the book has found its place in many a religious institute’s library. “I was even approached by a Charedi man who told me that unlike other books he’d read by secular writers on the Charedi world, my book was totally authentic. That was such a compliment. Then I asked him if he’d discussed the book with his wife.
“‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘with us it is not normal to discuss such things. But I do know a number of yeshiva people who have the book under their pillow!’”