Sometimes it feels like there are many negative distractions to the experience of mikvah that cloud my ability as I try to appreciate its beauty, maintain a tradition and fulfill a responsibility. For something so intimate, I often struggle with feelings of distrust, powerlessness, inauthenticity – my own and others. I feel like I lack control of a mitzvah so personal.
Someone else decides the opening and closing hours of the space, because of practical considerations which are not always practical for me and because of halachic constraints which I may not feel constrained by. Somebody else decides what does or does not constitute a barrier to immersion, and even if they are not deciding, I worry that they are judging. And someone else decides whether or not my effort to immerse has been successful or I must try again, and I recoil at being told what to do when I feel so vulnerable. On a certain level, one that makes me feel badly about myself (because I know how much communal time and money is being channeled into this), I even resent the women and rabbis who are trying to help me achieve this purity, for working together to perpetuate these systems.
There are times that I am able to push aside the background noise which keeps me feeling frustrated instead of fulfilled, and they always seem to happen when I have tapped into my closest girlfriends. When I do, I feel like I’m in charge of the tempo, of the timing, of the space, even of the word “kosher.” When it’s on my terms, when I have my own group of “collaborators,” I can actually enjoy the time and even feel spiritual.
Three simple moments come to mind and in each one, I now realize I felt good because I was in it with friends – colluding against some establishment which in turn made me feel empowered. When I was living in Jerusalem, one of my closest friends asked me to take her to the mikvah before her wedding day. It’s silly but I think that gave me security, like we were two against one (even though no ONE was against us) and that allowed me to relax and see things differently. I remember walking into this old mikvah, near Machane Yehuda, which had been restored to its original beauty and wishing I needed a mikvah then, not just for her but for me. I think I loved being there, the first time I can remember such a feeling, because I felt secure.
Another time, one of my best friends needed to walk on a Friday night. In some places, I understand restrictions have been loosened and women have been permitted to go just before Shabbat to avoid mile-long walks and uncomfortable situations. I don’t want to misquote, but I believe part of the reasoning for not allowing that option where I live has to do with trust. It bothers me that women are trusted to count, keep and go to the mikvah but somehow lack credibility on Fridays. Nevertheless, my friend was going to skip because of the difficulty. And then we decided to make the night our own, take the walk together and just enjoy our time. And again, I felt like we were conquering some barrier someone had put in our way and reshaping the mitzvah to one that became an opportunity for our own friendship.
And once, I called a very trusted friend in Detroit to ask her a question about when and where I could go. Speaking with her gave me permission to believe in my own knowledge and make my own decision. And I did and I loved doing it.
So I guess what I’ve learned is, when there’s trust, there’s beauty. There are times when I let my guard down, and use those moments of security to see past my fears and anxieties and enjoy the mitzvah as a means of connecting with what really matters to me.