Total Immersion: How I Found Meaning in an Ancient Ritual

By Sara Fredman Aeder

Originally posted on The Torch Blog

Ten of us walked to the creek, each one carrying her own trepidation, confusion, and curiosity. We represented different approaches to religion, a range of ethnicities, sexual orientations, and stages in our life journeys. Some of us had tears in our eyes, some sang slowly and softly. But we walked together as one, on our way to experience ritual immersion in a way I had never before encountered.

When my friend Dasi Fruchter offered a “Total Immersion Mikveh Lab” at the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Summer Institute, I was intrigued. Dasi works at ImmerseNYC, an organization  which provides a ritual mikveh experience for those who wish to mark celebrations, life transitions, healing, and more. I had never heard of “alternative immersion,” or immersing in a mikveh for reasons other than family purity, conversion, and preparation before Yom Kippur.  

As we sat on wide stones by the water’s edge, Dasi asked us all to assign an intention to each of the three individual dunks into the water which are traditional in mikveh. For the first, she asked us to think of something we were leaving behind this year. For the second, she encouraged us to think of something from the present we wanted to hold on to, and finally, for the third, she asked us to think of something we wanted to move towards in the coming year.

In our bathing suits, we stood at the edge of the water. Dasi asked each woman in turn to tell the group what she needed from them as she concentrated on her intentions and waded into the water. One woman asked us to sing slowly as she entered the creek. Another requested a fast and joyful tune. Many opted for silence, and were accompanied only by the rustling of the Vermont leaves.

As I watched each of the other women dip, my outlook shifted from an outsider’s curiosity to intense pride in this sacred space we had created. My mind began to open to the idea that Jewish women have an exquisite history with the mikveh, and that descending into water can be so much more than a necessary step before resuming marital relations. It can cradle a woman who feels that there is not enough space for her in the community. It can provide comfort to someone nearing the end of their life, and help them transition out of this world. It can join in the tears of those whose infertility makes them feel isolated. And it can whirl around a person celebrating their future and the path that brought them there.

I went last. Before I began, I turned to the group and noted that this past year has been one of pain and distrust in the experience and tradition of immersion. I asked them to cheer for me as I went in. I wanted them to join me in celebrating this group of women and the experience we had created together, which echoed millennia of women connecting with God and spirituality through water.

I slowly descended to the sound of clapping and hollers. I held my breath and submerged my head into the clear creek. In the silence which pressed in to me, I thought about what I was leaving behind — my ignorance of the mikveh as a place of healing, reflection, and celebration for people throughout their lives. I stood up, and the roar of my friends rushed back. I ducked back in, and held on to my second intention. I wanted to take with me from this moment the feeling of oneness with this group of diverse women. Once more into the warm air, and down one last time. In my last moments underwater, I promised myself that I would move forward with a mind open to the meaning that Jewish practice can have to each individual, and a heart open to the hidden lives of those around me.

Breaking through the water at last, I was joined by the others who had been waiting by the side of the water. We held hands, a group of Jewish women who had experienced something new and profound together, thanks to the leadership and sensitivity of Dasi, as well as each person’s commitment to support and listening. Together, we dunked under the water as one, a circle of women not preoccupied with the approval of others, including the curious cyclists passing us on the bridge nearby. As we came up for air, we began singing and dancing, the water and our joy both making us buoyant, with a little help, I like to think, from God.

The Fern in the Forest

By Elie Lichtschein

"GIYAAAHHKKKKK!"

The shriek broke through the stilled quiet. I nearly had a heart attack. I snapped open my eyes and was shocked to see Avrumi emerge from between two trees, his beard and face sparkling with moisture. A towel was draped around his shoulders and his clothes looked damp, like he had just put them on after having gone for a long swim.   

"Hey, Babel!" he shouted when he spotted me, and ran over, pulling me around and around in an impromptu dance. Other than the scragglers, I had probably spoken to this guy least of everyone else in the yeshiva and was shocked to the soles of my feet. Which was probably why I let him swing me around in that dance for longer than I was comfortable with. As we spun, my mind whirled with questions. Why were his clothing wet? Why was he singing? Where was he coming from? Why the heck were we dancing together like this?

"Ya nay nay nay nay nay nay," he sang as he twirled us, and in spite of myself, I had a flashback to the oneg and again noticed his voice. His strong voice, the voice of a leader. "There's a great mikvah over there," he said, bringing the dance to a close and jerking his head in the direction of the two trees from which he had emerged. "Check it out." He turned and walked back toward the path to the yeshiva. And then he was gone, and with him the shattered peace of the woodland.

What. Just. Happened.

I rubbed my forehead and closed my eyes. So it had been Avrumi. He was the screamer. I could have guessed.

Overwhelmed by a surge of curiosity, I walked between the two trees, in the direction he had pointed. A rough path led down to what looked like a little brook. There were still markings of wet soil around it from when Avrumi had gotten out of the makeshift bath. A mikvah, he had called it. The baths of gathered rainwater used for purification.

I stopped against a tree to rest for a moment. I stood there, holding onto a rigid tree branch, for a few minutes, looking at the not-particularly-inviting pool beneath me and thinking thoughts of holy men in holy forests.

Elie Lichtschein is a New York-based writer and musician. He recently completed an MFA in creative writing for children, and is working on his debut novel, a mysti-fantasy  adventure story about mystical birds, glowing green beards, and worlds within books. This blog post is an excerpt from his young adult novel, The Fern in the Forest. 

 

A Meditation on Pregnancy Loss

[Originally posted on March 2, 2015]

SOOTHING WATERS: A RESPONSE TO THE MARCH 2015 FERTILITY SALON.

by Mika Ahuvia

The experience of pregnancy loss is one all women experience, whether they know it or not. So many painful experiences are recorded in the texts of our traditions, but the voices of our mothers bewailing their lost sparks can be heard only just beyond the margins of our texts, as in "a cry heard in Ramah--weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are no more."

Our texts may not preserve the voices of our foremothers, but we can still invite their guidance in these difficult times. their wisdom is in our bones, deep within our wombs, only waiting for us to give them our attention...

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Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin — On Spiritual Technologies

[Originally posted on February 2, 2015]

Krista Tippett's On Being features Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin. On the show, Palmer  describes the  "spiritual technology" of a well facilitated group: Give the episode of On Being with Krista Tippett he spoke on a full listen for a treat. http://bit.ly/1yFh41D

“One of the things this society is most deficient in is safe spaces for truth-telling about the condition of our souls...there is a technology of creating safe space....but this journey is not about techniques. I think it's about existential immersion.”

In the mikveh, all of me is pure

[Originally posted on October 29, 2014 by Leah Spigelman]

By Anonymous

“In the mikveh, all of me is pure, acceptable, even perfect,” she said, clasping a plush white towel around her chest, drenched and smiling, having immersed just moments before.

As her guide, I nod, feeling the powerful sense of camaraderie that comes from shared experience. I know what she means. I’ve been there.

Every month for the past year and a half, I’ve gone to the mikveh as a part of my personal niddah practice. I’d undressed, washed and scrubbed, and immersed, welcoming the sense that the waters of the mikveh confirm the truth of my wholeness and beauty before God...

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Mikveh in the News

[Originally posted on October 20, 2014 by Sara Luria]

Last Monday, ImmerseNYC was profiled in The Jewish Week.
On Tuesday, mikveh was back in the news – but for all the wrong reasons.

Over the past week, as we have watched the story of the horrible violation of trust by a male rabbi at a mikveh in the DC area unfold, the modern mikveh movement and its allies have engaged powerfully in a conversation about the implications of this scandal...

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Finding a Welcoming Mikveh Experience (A Mikveh Guide’s Perspective)

[Originally posted on July 9, 2014 by Leah Spigelman

By Julie Sissman

10 years ago, I was about to get married in Florida, and I wanted to go to the mikveh. While I’d never been before and had no plans to go ever again, I wanted to mark this important milestone in my life in a Jewishly spiritual way. I thought that using the mikveh as a “breath” in the midst of wedding craziness – a moment to reflect on marriage as a transition and transformation—was a really important experience I did not want to miss...

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Just Me (a student’s perspective)

[Originally posted on June 25, 2014 by Sara Luria

by Melissa Berkowitz

“Where did you rush off to this morning?”
“Stuff with my Rabbi…”

This response to my roommate was one of many ambiguous explanations I had given her in the weeks leading up to my mikveh visit.  Having lived with me for our entire four years at NYU, my roommate knew everything I did; we had become a married couple.  Keeping this secret from her was rare but, in my mind, necessary...

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When the Mundane Becomes Sacred (A Rabbi’s Perspective)

[Originally posted on June 25, 2014 by Sara Luria

by Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi

We were sitting in the “hair-drying room” at the mikveh—a room with individual vanity stations, complete with mirrors and combs and wig-stands. It wasn’t glamorous, or particularly beautiful, or really very spiritual.

And it wasn’t what I had planned, but there was a beit din (rabbinical court) in the lobby with a conversion candidate, and so for privacy we were quietly (and kindly) ushered into the hair-drying room. We sat across from one another in ordinary chairs as my student explored her reactions to the immersion ritual I had just witnessed, and which I had created with the help of ImmerseNYC...

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Mikveh at 56

[Originally posted on June 16, 2014 by Sara Luria

By Barbara

At age 56, I experienced mikvah for the first time.

It was a rare, perfect day. As I started my drive into the city, a bright bolt of lightning streaked across the sky directly in front of me. Then, as I drove up the New Jersey Turnpike, a rainbow filled the sky; its arch swept from high to low, its width expressed the full spectrum of color against a backdrop of light blue sky and shades of grey-filled clouds. It stayed with me until I could no longer see it at my approach to the Holland Tunnel.

My traffic-filled drive up the West Side Highway was spent reviewing my prayers. Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu bi-t’vilah, b’mayyim hayyim.Hineni. And the Shehekeyanu. And my personal prayers to mark this transition...

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