Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Survivors at the Mikvah

Going to the mikvah, the ritual bath, is anything but simple when you're a survivor of child sexual abuse in the frum (religious) community.

 Mikvah is actually a beautiful, and often misunderstood mitzvah.

Both men and women go to the mikvah, although at different times.  For a woman, immersion in the mikvah happens as regularly as her monthly cycle.  During a woman's period and the week following, we refrain from any physical intimacy with our husbands.  The end of this physical separation is marked by visiting the mikvah.

 Mikvah has nothing to do with a woman being "dirty" or "unclean" because of menstruation.   This misunderstanding comes from a commonly mistranslated word in the Torah, "Tameh."   The condition of being Tameh, or ritually impureis related to a loss of potential for life.
 It applies to both men and women at different times.
 It applied to the high priest during the Yom Kippur service in the holy temple, the Bet Hamikdash.

 Water represents life, and immersing our bodies in the mikvah after menstruation is in a sense, a rebirth after the loss of a potential pregnancy; the potential for new life.   Many women look forward to visiting the mikvah, which is often beautiful and spa-like, before resuming intimacy with their husbands.

Ironically, I didn't connect spiritually to the mikvah experience until I read a book on Feng Shui.  Feng Shui is a Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing the human existence with the surrounding environment, and is all about energy.  
Feng Shui explained how water changes energy in a positive, life giving, way.  The mikvah, and ritual hand washing, made more sense to me when I thought about how water changes us energetically.

 Before my wedding, my rabbi's wife taught me the detailed laws of mikvah, and taharat hamishpacha. (ritual family purity)   I learned that a rabbi is often asked very personal questions, and sometimes looks at biological stains on a woman's undergarment, to assess whether she can go to the mikvah on time or not.

 (Today, In Israel, we are blessed with a mikvah hotline, which is staffed by women who are trained to answer the same questions.)

 When I heard about the rabbi's involvement in this very personal ritual, I was horrified.
I put my head down on the table and sobbed.
The rabbi's wife tried to soothe me.  She said, "Think of it as going to the gynecologist.  They are especially trained.  They just want to help you get together with your husband as soon as you can.  There are plenty of rabbis out there who are not perpetrators."

At that point in my life, I had met very few rabbis, who weren't perpetrators or weren't enabling other perpetrators.
 Because of my background, I knew I would never go to a male gynecologist, anyway.

I felt trapped and humiliated by the fact that men, especially rabbis, were involved in such an intimate and personal process.
My father, my grandfather, (a rabbi) and other religious men who had sexually abused me as a child, all seemed involved in this conspiracy somehow.
Would I ever get away from these men?
Would their hands forever be on my body, controlling what I did with it, long distance, if not in person?

 I had promised my husband that I would follow the laws of taharat mishpacha.   My father and grandfather had succeeded in robbing me of a potentially beautiful experience.
I felt spiritually abused.
Anger and resentment at the injustice burned inside me.
Why were men, and strange men at that, in charge of my body and what I did with it?
 Why not me??

 If I didn't follow the rabbi's interpretation of the mikvah rules, I was a spiritual failure, because I was not following halachah. (Jewish law.)
I hated men.
 I hated rabbis.
 I hated going to the mikvah.
Even after many years of marriage, I often came back from the Mikvah filled with a deep sense of sadness  and loss.  A feeling of having given in and allowing myself to be victimized.
And that was after a relatively good experience.

  The bad experiences made it that much harder to go.

 Before we made Aliyah, we were in New York for a Shabbos, and I had to go to the mikvah on a Friday night.  Where I came from, (out of town) you made an appointment, and used the mikvah when no one else was there. I had privacy at the mikvah. I never sat in the waiting room with anyone else.

 The waiting room in Boro Park that Friday night was full of women and babies. 
Women praying, and babies crying.  
In the center of the building were ten or so mikvaos. Women entered and exited the doors to the thirty plus preparation rooms surrounding the mikvaos.  My head spun trying to follow what was going on.  There was barely a break in the action.

  I had the strange feeling that I was in a human dunking factory.

 I watched women heading into preparation rooms. 
 I heard them exiting to the mikvah.
I heard them reciting the blessing, 
 I heard the splashes as they dunked three, or seven times, depending on their custom.
Then the mivkah lady's loud announcement:  "Kosher!"
 Then more splashes as they exited the mikvah and headed quickly back to the preparation room,
 and then hurried out the door.


When the mikvah lady came to get me from the preparation room her manner was impatient.  She said, “Come with me, I'll toivel you now.”

I felt like an object.  A new dish. (We dunk new dishes too.)
 Let's get you toveled fast, so I can go home to my Shabbos dinner.
There was no eye contact.
I need eye contact at the mikvah.  As a survivor, I need to know that I am being seen as a person and not just a body.  As a child, I experienced complete loss of control over my body while I was being abused.  I needed to feel a sense of control over my body, in order to feel safe, and not re-traumatized  by the mikvah experience.  I needed to not only deal with the anxiety, and vulnerability of the immersion itself, I also wanted to feel relaxed, and grounded enough to go home and be with my husband, which presented its own unique challenges. (see my previous post on healing sexual intimacy.)

 In order for the mikvah immersion to be kosher, I knew my body had to be completely free of any object that might prevent the mikvah water from touching me.  In my anxiety, I forgot to take off my wedding ring.  Now I was not only a new dish, but worse, a new dish with a sticker! 
I had to take the ring off, and go back in and dunk again.

I numbed part of my mind to get through the experience.

Once, while in Israel, I needed to go to the mikvah and I happened to get into a cab with a female driver.  She wore a low cut, sleeveless tank top, long, bright red nails, and three inch heels.
Clearly chiloni, (not religious) or so I thought.
 I asked her if she would be available that night as I was looking for a female driver.  She said,
"Sure. What time? where do you need to go?"
"Eight a clock.  I need to go to the mikvah."
Without missing a beat she said,
"I need to go too.  Let's go together."

I told my female, mikvah going, taxi driver that I had heard of a new mikvah that was supposed to be very beautiful.  The floors were heated, wedding music played, and there was a floor to ceiling aquarium of tropical fish to relax with, while you waited for your turn.  I wanted to try it out, hoping  for a  positive experience. 

She agreed to try it out with me.

It was indeed a beautiful mikvah, clean and sparkling.  Each room had heated floors, a closet with a snow white bath robe, a new toothbrush, and disposable slippers. The tropical aquarium was a work of live art.  The wedding music was lovely. I felt like I was at the spa.

That is, until the mikvah lady arrived.

 The mikvah lady entered my preparation room carrying a tray of sterile equipment.  Scissors, nail files, tweezers, alcohol, etc.  She proceeded to sit down on a chair and arrange her equipment on a towel, explaining that she would  be checking my body for any barriers, loose skin, loose hairs, etc.  I politely declined telling her I had already checked, and offered to let her see my hands and feet.  She got upset.  This was unacceptable. Her rabbi instructed her to do it her way.  And who was she, or I, for that matter, to question her rabbi?  She threatened not to let me immerse in the mikvah, if I didn't follow her rabbi's customs.
Feeling too vulnerable to create a scene, I let her begin her invasive check.
She snipped off a hair on my head saying, 
"I'm not sure if this hair is attached so I'm cutting it."
 That was the limit for me.  I held up my hand and said, "That's enough!  I'm ready to go in now."

She walked me into the mikvah room and yelled to another mikvah lady, "I can't let her in.  She won't let me check her!"
I was standing there, only wrapped in a towel, feeling vulnerable, humiliated, and exposed.
 I was very close to leaving without using the mikvah at all.

 Luckily, the second mikvah lady rescued me.  She said, "Don't listen to her.  I'll take you in.  You can follow your own rabbi's customs."
When I got home, I cried.  
I was too anxious to let my husband anywhere near me.

 I still go to the mikvah, and mostly it's been OK, if not inspiring.
I never went back to that beautiful mikvah again.
Some time later, I happened to meet my female taxi driver again, and she told me that she never went back there either.


  1. Water is actually a very commonly used technique in literature and films to symbolize change. http://symbolism.wikia.com/wiki/Water

    Very often in movies there will be some form of water (be it a shower, rain, ocean, river etc.) during a key turning point in a main characters development or when the story is taking a turn. Look for it and you'll see it.

  2. Why were you only wrapped in a towel if there was a snow white bath robe in the closet?

    1. Good point from a literary perspective. In order to shorten the piece I combined two bad mikvah experiences. In most mikvaot I go to here in Israel, there is an extra charge to use a robe. If I didn't have the extra cash, I didn't use one.

  3. Your Rabbinically approved guide to Mikvah observance Receive email and SMS reminders Ashkenazic, Chabad, and Sephardic Customs

  4. Do u want this to be publicized or not?