I should warn you that this article contains full frontal male nudity. But please, control yourself; there will be no soft-lit oohs and aahs, no writhing in ecstasy—just a man stripped down, and alone, at his most naked before God and his living waters. I'm going to take the plunge into the mikvah.
Wearing a kippah for two weeks, I felt like a complete impostor. I was still the same rascal who, as a teenager, had laughed at the ultra-Orthodox in their heavy wool coats during the heat of summer. I needed a real, deep, cleansing change, something to mark the spiritual divide between irreverent punk and father-to-be. I hoped the plunge would be like a nullifying act of a New Year's resolution, wiping the slate clean and allowing me to start over fresh.
I am extremely chauvinistic about my Jewishness; no one has the right to decide whether I am, or am not, a good Jew. I write fiction about Israel and the Jewish experience where I delve into spiritual and political issues. But when it comes to ritual, I refuse to follow by rote. Am I ignoring the ancient rules of Judaism because I'm too busy watching American Idol? Have I honestly looked at the wisdom of my fathers and found it unworthy?
I knew religious Jewish women go to the mikvah, or ritual bath, to cleanse themselves after their periods (or for childbirth, conversion, or other major life changes). But I was only vaguely aware that the bath could purify men, too.
The tradition of ritual cleansing goes back thousands of years to its roots at the River Jordan. Historically speaking, mikvah was the most important cornerstone of any Jewish community, more important even than a synagogue, since according to some Jewish customs, men are expected to visit the mikvah every day. Others call for men to immerse themselves weekly, before the Sabbath. A bridegroom visits the mikvah the day of his wedding, and in some communities men must immerse themselves the evening after a nocturnal emission.
But the ritual of mikvah is also a symbol of personal transformation. And that’s what I wanted: a physical exercise that would bypass my judgmental brain and enter directly into my soul.
I imagined the experience to be a sort of shadowy hazing ritual with bearded rabbis chanting incantations as I sank into a murky pool. But all I wanted was a spiritual dip into a clean pool, where I could offer myself honestly to the water, my body in vulnerable repose, prepared for the metamorphosis into a more perfect Jew. In the end, I tried both approaches, murky and clean.
Beth Pinchas. in Brookline, MA, is the only exclusively male mikvah in the Boston area. Seat of the renowned Hasidic Bostoner Rebbe, Beth Pinchas is part of the New England Chassidic Center and caters to the pious adherents of all 613 of God's commandments. Following the biblical injunction for men to ritually immerse before the Sabbath, I visited early one Friday.
I felt like I had stepped into another century as I trudged, towel and soap in tow, through the mutterings of morning prayers. In my sweatpants and T-shirt, I couldn't have stood out more from the men praying in their black suits and hats, but they looked right through me as if the material world I represented was nothing more than a gust of wind.
Tucked away in the basement, the mikvah room was damp and dingy, equipped with two dripping, moldy shower stalls and a small greenish pool beneath jaundiced fluorescent lights. A sign announced that for the sake of good health, no asbestos was being used on the premises. The room was heavy with the stink of chlorine, so I dunked quickly, mumbled an approximation of a prayer and got the hell out of there. I felt neither spiritually nor physically clean after my perfunctory dunking, and I rushed home to take a hot, soapy shower, wondering why anybody would ever want to submit to such a ritual.
On the opposite end of the mikvah spectrum is the Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters) mikvah. Founded by Anita Diamant, best-selling author of The Red Tent and The Last Days of Dogtown, the mikvah is a renovated Victorian home full of sunlight and tranquil earth tones, more a day spa than a bathhouse. Mayyim Hayyim is sort of a new age-y counterbalance to rigid Jewish orthodoxy; it’s not directly affiliated with any synagogue or particular movement within Judaism, and it caters to a diverse clientele.
Aliza Kline, Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim, met me in the bright reception area before a wide-screen high-definition television murmuring with the meditative rolling of the sea. "Mikvah has been shrouded in mystery for centuries," she began. "Our goal is to open up the ritual and make it less exclusive."
Mikvah immersion is presently going through a revival among non-Orthodox Jews. "A lot of people want to acknowledge change with Jewish ritual,” Kline explained. “For people who have not found fulfillment in studying Torah but are hungry for something meaningful and powerful and rich, this can really meet a need. And you don't have to speak a lick of Hebrew, or know the weekly Torah portion; you don't have to wear a kippah."
Perfect, I thought. Sign me up.
I arrived early the day of my immersion to shower, clean my nails and my ears, brush and floss my teeth, blow my nose, empty my bladder, and remove my wedding ring and glasses. I was to be as naked as the day I was born, without anything on my body marking rank or status.
But I also needed to prepare my spirit. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote, "If a man immerses himself, but without special intention, it is as though he had not immersed himself at all." As I stood naked before the mirror in the preparation room, my penis bearing silent witness like a bearded sage, I thought about the transition that immersion in the mikvah would help me mark that day: the shift from incorrigible slacker to (hopefully) responsible father.
With its soft ambient lighting, heated tile floors, and shimmering waters, the bath could have been a hot tub at a luxury hotel; in such a setting one would not have been surprised to see a bottle of Cristal lounging expectedly in a bucket of ice, Al Green's "Lets Stay Together," playing softly in the background.
I unwrapped myself from a pure white sheet and descended the seven steps into the pool. The water was warm, almost viscous. I was reminded of Kline's words equating the mikvah with the womb, how for a brief moment in a floating state, not interacting with life, not breathing, you are surrounded by God. I dunked under the water and pulled my knees to my chest, trying not to touch the walls or floor while keeping my head submerged.
As required, I recited the short blessing for immersing provided beside the pool. I sank down again, felt the waters soft against my body, and thought of my son in utero. At that moment, I was experiencing some facsimile of everything he knew of this world. I bobbed to the surface again, and recited another prayer, this time the shehechiyanu.
Dunking a third time, I recalled a midrash about how unborn babies hold the answers to every mystery in the universe, and I wanted to stay there just a little longer to learn some secret that was just beyond my grasp, a secret my unborn son now knew and would soon forget forever. Then I remembered Kline's caveat that the mikvah is also "like a little taste of death—and then rebirth." And I released my breath and popped to the surface for the last time and recited the prayer again, wondering whether I had left a shell of the old me sinking slowly to the bottom of the pool.
Driving home, warm in the afterglow, I knew that something had shifted in me —not a sea change tsunami of the soul, but something more subtle, like a minute hand moving one click closer to the hour. I hadn’t changed one bit at Beth Pinchas; I was too distracted by the chlorine, the mold, and my lurid surroundings. In the bath at Mayyim Hayyim, though, the silence had allowed my subconcious to crack open, just a little. I relate best to the world through my fiction, so maybe it was no surprise that what crept though was the idea for my next short story.