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My First Bikini, My First Mikvah

See that picture attached to this post? Those are the bottoms from the first bikini I ever purchased four years ago after I started to veer from my strictly frum (Orthodox) upbringing. The top is now gone. This is the story of what G-d supposedly don’t alloweth, (S)he taketh away.

I arrived at Camp Kinder Ring early Friday afternoon for the Shabbat preceding the Hazon New York Environmental Ride. (Hazon is the largest Jewish environmental nonprofit in the U.S. and does a significant portion of it’s fundraising through long, tortuous, multiday bike rides).  After a lunch of organic, locally grown vegetables and other wholesome fare, my friend suggested a dip in the lake. When we arrived to the lakefront in skimpy bikinis, we discovered that the women’s mikvah was about to begin. This friend, a recent convert who had just dunked, was excited to do it again. I had been present at her conversion and submersion but had never taken the plunge myself. I was born Jewish (thus no need to convert) and am not yet married, which were the two reasons I was taught in my all-girls’ high school that a woman should immerse herself in the ritual bath.  As seniors we even had a class called "Family Living," which went over the laws of niddah (ritual impurity) since we were expected to be married soon after graduation. As it was the first class of the day on Friday mornings, I usually skipped it to get breakfast at the kosher Dunkin’ Donuts on Avenue M where I instead immersed myself in a steaming cup of French Vanilla coffee. I also skipped the field trip to the local mikvah. My religious trajectory should not have been a surprise to anyone.

But nearly nine years after high school, I was persuaded to join. On the shore I stood in a circle with about seven other women as a Hazon volunteer named Rena* explained the process and then the floor, well, the sand, was open to comments. One older woman discussed the women’s group at her local synagogue. There, she said, women immersed themselves for crossing all kinds of thresholds- marriage, a new job or even a divorce. I couldn’t pinpoint my own reasons for participating in the mikvah so I stayed uncharacteristically silent. Perhaps it was as Rena said- it was Elul, a month of introspection and purification, and the mikvah dovetailed nicely with these themes.

With the men barred from the water, we swam to the deep end of the lake, disrobed and handed our suits to Rena, who would be supervising our efforts to become pure in the murky waters. She put our water clothing on the feather and pigeon shit-covered metal dock. For a few moments we treaded around each other, completely starkers. It felt like the most natural thing in the world, to be in a lake with other similarly unclad and likeminded women, ranging in age from teen to middle-aged. I’m not the kind of person who usually enjoys public nudity. I typically cower in the corner of Loehmann’s communal dressing room.

We simultaneously dunked and upon rising, we chanted the Hebrew blessing in unison. I treaded the water and looked up at the clear blue sky and felt a rush of positivity, which was unusual for this New Yorker whose soul is as black as her clothing and dominatrix inspired footwear.

We each submerged two more times (three for me since one of my attempts was deemed unkosher because my head bobbed up too soon) and swam over to the dock to slip back into our swim gear. I found my bottoms with ease, and with a little less ease managed to slip them back one while I treaded in ten feet of water. But my top was missing. I cupped my hands self-consciously over my breasts. The nakedness, which had felt completely natural just a few minutes earlier now felt embarrassing. Unfortunately, I had to relinquish my grip on my breasts because without my arms to tread, I began to sink like my bikini top.

One of the women ran to get a shirt for me. My friend, clad and on the dock, offered repeated reassurances that my top would be found. Rena borrowed a pair of goggles from an older woman who was swimming nearby and began diving to the bottom. She kept coming up empty handed because, as you can see from the photo, my bikini perfectly matched the lake water’s greenish hue. I explained to Rena that this was the first bikini I ever bought, and it was more than averagely important that we recover it. I thought of the first time I tried it on. I had just moved to Los Angeles after college. I had no idea how a bikini was supposed to look on my body and had to ask the salesgirl at Pacific Coast Sunwear for help with the fit. A few months later, I actually wore it out of doors to the beach. At first, I wore a tank top on my upper body but after much needling from a friend, I finally removed the shirt. "Oh, you’ve got a navel ring." I told him I had it pierced when I was eighteen, back when I was frum, when I thought that only my husband would have the privilege of admiring it. "Well I gotta tell you, it’s sexy." This man never became my husband. We never even dated. I gave away the piercing goods for free.

It was the bikini’s history, its significance in my religious unraveling that made me even more frantic to retrieve it. (Also, it looked really good on me.) I asked for the goggles and began diving dangerously close to the dock where the top was assumed to have drowned, and the third time I came up for air, I banged my nose into the dock. It started to bleed. I began to cry, not due to the pain (I used to do gymnastics. This little knock hardly compared to falling headfirst into the balance beam). I cried out of mortification. I had been swimming around the lake half naked for at least ten minutes topless while the other women shooed the men away from the scene. The mikvah experience, which should have felt spiritual and uplifting, had become thoroughly humiliating.  

A shirt was brought and I returned to the bunk with a towel on my nose. The medic was called to look at my cut. To add even further embarrassment to humiliation, I knew him. He is married to a college friend. He said I didn’t need any stitches but we weren’t talking about sewing up the tatters of my dignity, so what did he know? I requested cartoon band-aids to wear across the bridge of my nose and under my sunglasses for the bike ride on Sunday, but he said he had none. Things just kept getting worse.

After an hour or so spent icing and doing Stuart Smalley-like affirmations in the bathroom mirror, I dressed for services. I had my choice of three different kinds- Orthodox, egalitarian and Jewish Renewal. None interested me. I had no desire to pray to a G-d who would steal my top and bludgeon me while I tried to perform a ritual. But the schedule listed a fourth option- cocktails. Like Goldilocks stumbling onto the perfect bowl of porridge, this one felt just right. After my failed mikvah, I needed spirits, not spirituality.

*Name has been changed to protect the slippery-fingered.

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