When a woman comes to the mikveh, her mind may very well be elsewhere: on the intimacy to come, the baby she wants, the fertility treatment she’s had, or the baby she’s lost. Over the past few weeks, the Eden Center’s Balaniot Class has worked to teach mikveh attendants how to speak to women sensitively about issues of sex and infertility. Through the course, Eden hopes to teach balaniot how to better understand where the range of women they encounter at the mikveh are coming from.
A central theme of the classes on sexuality and infertility was what constitutes appropriate questions. As Eden’s director Naomi Marmon Grumet described in her recent post (https://theedencenter.com/blog/139-can-legislation-stop-mikveh-attendants-from-asking-questions), women are sometimes asked personal questions about their bodies, their birth control, or the stringency of their checks for bleeding. Such degrading questions can make mikveh an uncomfortable experience for women. In some cases, questions that balaniot ask can be scaring. Pregnancy loss, post-partum depression, unconsummated marriages, or fertility challenges are only a few reasons that well-intentioned questions or comments can cause women to re-live grief or pain in their lives. For some, even coming to the mikveh can be a reminder of these traumatic experiences, re-opening the wounds of loss or lack of fulfillment.
In an ideal world, mikveh would be a place of hope and renewal for every woman each month. Eden’s mission is to help make mikveh into a space that can comfort and accept women for whom that is not true. Part of the path to making mikveh into a nurturing space is by letting women know that the balaniot can be safe people to speak to. As family therapist Lizzie Rubin, who taught a class on sexuality, explained, an important element of intimacy is “being there for the other person and making sure it’s okay.” This is why she started her class by asking the attending balaniotfor permission to talk about sexuality: with a topic that is not always talked about, it was important to make sure everyone was okay engaging in the conversation. Likewise, she envisions the mikveh as a safe space where young kallot can find a safe person to speak to about private issues. Beyond being an attentive listener, Lizzie explained, “we want [balaniot] to be referral systems” who can direct women to resources for further help.
Rachi Hain, the director of Mercaz Panim (https://merkazpanim-fertility.org.il/), a counseling center for women facing fertility challenges, echoed this sentiment. The balaniot, Hain described, are often “emotional first aid” who need to know how to refer women who are facing challenges to people who are trained to help. The balaniot themselves, Hain explained, are performing an incredibly difficult community role: faced with raw emotions from vulnerable, near-strangers, there seldom are “the right words.” “No one will say what you want them to say,” Hain went on, “and if you do, it’s by mistake.” Even more, many balaniot themselves have faced their own fertility challenges and losses. This message is not one we think of often enough: in the mikveh, there are two women immersed in complicated life stories. Recognizing what women—both the balanit and the one who comes to tovel—bring to the mikveh is an important step toward making mikveh into a supportive, community space.