“Why don’t you dunk as many times as your sister”

The question seemed innocent enough. I don’t dunk in the mikveh as many times as my sister does. The question left me feeling squeamish. I don’t remember what I answered. I just remember how the comment made me feel. 

It was not the time or place but there actually is a reason. The family lore is well known: my grandmother had the custom to immerse nine times in the mikveh, just as her mother had done. Fast forward to when my mother was a new bride. My parents took a cross country trip – New York to California –  and mikveh night fell out on a night they were in a remote town where the mikveh was rarely used. It was winter time and the water was not heated. Can you imagine immersing on a cold winter night, in a cold building, in water that was not heated, as one of the first times you had to go to the mikveh? Talk about traumatic! To make matters worse – after my mother immersed – nine times –  the attendant discovered that the mikveh bor was not open. This means that immersion was ineffective and she had to immerse again in frigid water. As the story goes: she decided right then and there to change the family custom to the more common three times. 

Hence the differing customs. At some point, one of my sisters decided to adopt my grandmother’s original custom and immerse nine times in the mikveh.  I did not make that choice. 

I understand why the attendant noticed the difference in custom. As a long time mikveh attendant, I have observed that  immersing nine times is not a common custom. Most women immerse themselves three or four times. Often, I am asked to count for the women who lose track of the 7 times that they immerse into the water. Occasionally, I have seen women dunk 9, 10, even 18 times. Of course, the halacha only mandates that women immerse once. So, I understand why the attendant noticed the different practice between me and my sister.  

How uncomfortable she made me feel! At the time, I could not tell you why. Not long after this experience, I became a mikveh attendant myself. When I was trained as a balanit one of the first things my mentor said was: There are two things a woman never wants to feel when they are at the mikveh – watched and judged. Bingo! I had a flashback to the visit to the mikveh in that city, and understood that is exactly what I felt! The senior balanit continued: the job of the balanit was to create an experience that would empower a woman to come back the next time she needed to use the mikveh.

It is both my experience as a woman and my training as a balanit, from both Robin Niman zt”l and the Eden Center that inform how I act when I am at work. No mitzvah might make a person feel as vulnerable as the mitzvah of Mikveh. It is crucial that those of us who have the honor of serving our communities understand that even an innocent question can make someone feel uncomfortable.

If I ever encounter a question like that again, this is what I would answer: “It is such an interesting story. I will tell you another time.”