Naturally, getting married is a stressful time for everyone. In addition to preparing to enter a new chapter of life, the Jewish bride has the additional pressure of somehow learning the seemingly complex laws regarding niddah. It’s not uncommon to hear a kallah say how overwhelmed she feels by attempting to master the practical application of Jewish law while planning a wedding, entertaining friends, and somehow setting up a new home that she and her husband will soon share.
If one isn’t in a seminary or currently learning in a religious institution, it can be challenging to locate a kallah teacher who is available, relatable, and in line with one’s personal Jewish philosophy. As a black Jewish woman, my quest for a kallah teacher was a bit more complex than I had imagined. Certainly, I had collected a list of names of suitable teachers from various friends and contacts, who were ready and willing to teach me. There was just one thing, none of the women looked like me. This wasn’t a prerequisite or even something I thought was essential prior to marriage. Still, as my wedding day neared, I realized there were certain areas of life and practical challenges that I faced as a black woman that my white presenting Jewish kallah teacher couldn’t understand or prepare me for.
I will always stand out as a black woman in the Jewish community, and I am okay with that. I am proud of my African-American heritage and also of the choice I made to be part of the Jewish people. But in the area of mikveh there have been challenges that I’d like to share, so that others can be sensitive to the concerns black Jewish women (JOCs or Ethiopians) may have, that are not a concern for other women. These are issues particularly revolving around the nature of black women’s hair, though not confined to that alone, as you will see.
Some of those areas were:
- Locating a “Jew of Color friendly mikveh.” This may seem odd to non-JOCs, but finding a mikveh which other Jewish women of color have attended and are used to being seen really helps lower the anxiety around going to the mikveh. Going to the mikveh can be extremely time-consuming; it’s important for all women’s experiences to be positive. I find that, as JOCs, we are often confronted with microaggressions or feel as if we’re being rejected by the larger white-presenting Jewish community. Going to the mikveh is a very private and intimate experience, and it’s important for the interactions with people working at the mikveh to be positive, especially at the beginning of our marital journeys when the laws of niddah are new and often overwhelming.
- Advocating for my right as a kallah to go to the mikveh during the day. According to the laws of niddah, a kallah can go to the mikveh during the day; however, sometimes, mikveh attendants and officials can be reluctant to allow this to occur for various reasons. It might not seem like a big deal, but as a black Jewish woman whose hair can take hours to wash, detangle and style on a regular basis, timing is critical. If a kallah wants to show off her natural hair as she walks down to the chuppah, the earlier she can go to the mikveh and start the prep, detangling and then styling process, the better.
- Understanding that my mikveh prep may need to begin DAYS before I arrive at the mikveh building. Because African American hair can be a bit challenging to detangle, sometimes black women need to begin detangling their hair the night before to reduce mikveh preparation time and increase the likelihood of having fewer chatzitzot (interpolations). It’s helpful for the kallah teacher to relate to that when teaching about this topic.
- I don’t have to cut all my hair off! When I began going to the mikveh on a regular basis, I became overwhelmed and thought the only solution was to cut all my hair off. This is the approach often recommended to many Black Jewish women to reduce the risk of chatzitzot. However, I learned that with the proper preparation and a well-developed detangling regimen, cutting my hair was not necessary.
- Just thinking that you might have to go to the mikveh on a Friday night is dreadful! Whenever I speak with other JOC women (many of whom identify as Black or African-American) about their major concerns when it comes to the mikveh, many dread the possibility of being required to go on a Friday night. Sure no one wants to have to go to the mikveh on a Friday night, the busiest night of the week. A Black-Jewish woman is concerned about effectively detangling her hair and trying to put herself back together on a Friday night without touching her hair and squeezing out the excess water it has likely absorbed.
- You know your hair & your body: Depending on where one goes to mikveh, they may suggest or feel the need to double-check how detangled one’s hair is. Due to the fact that there aren’t currently many attendants who are familiar with the texture of African American hair, Black-Jewish women are often told their hair isn’t detangled enough…or in the worst case scenario, the attendant might even try to “assist” with detangling one’s hair, which is often awkward and uncomfortable given the nature of the mikveh preparation process. To add to this discomfort, if the attendant is unfamiliar with African hair patterns and textures, this can result in an extremely painful and hair-damaging predicament.
All of the points listed above are simply things that non-JOC/Black-Jewish women often don’t have to consider when attending mikveh, but are often at the forefront of the minds of Black-Jewish women. Personally, the most important aspect and benefit to having a kallah teacher that identifies as both Black and Jewish is the fact that she can relate to the challenges and experiences one is likely to face as a Black Jewish wife trying to build a Jewish home in a community that doesn’t always see my whole Jewish self. Often kallah teachers reach out to their kallot after their weddings to see how things are coming along. If things aren’t going so great or the couple seems to be having some newlywed challenges, she might connect them to stable therapeutic or medical resources. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, race plays an important role in how individuals are seen and guided through the therapeutic and medical process, if needed. Of course, the kallah teacher isn’t meant to serve as her students’ therapist; however, she does play a large role in whether students feel safe and comfortable speaking about challenges that may arise in their relationships.
This article inspires me with the sensitive way the author shares the issues facing JWOC while navigating the practical details of the mitzvah of Mikvah. Her interest in sharing this perspective reminds me, in the most gentle way, that unconscious bias informs so much of what makes up the fabric of our lives and the framework of our thoughts and considerations. For example, I like many Jewish women, have bemoaned the fact that my very curly hair needs time and product to not become a bird’s nest after mikvah immersion. What a chutzpah for me to say such a thing in light of the realities the author has shown me but a glimpse of. Aside from the practical details of coiffeur, the issue of sensitivity to the consequences of how we speak about mikvah preparation must be rethought in order to make JWOC of color comfortable using the mikvah. What a tragedy it would be for any woman to give up on the spiritual growth opportunity mikvah provides simply because a well intentioned mikvah lady was trying to “help”. I do not know the best way to do this, but I can say that it is easy for young women to opt-out of mikvah use for reasons of discomfort, and deserves attention. I have been a Kallah teacher for many years, and a significant portion of BT kallahs are terrified of being turned away from the mikvah for having a tattoo. In fact I always find some way of bringing this issue up at the very first meeting I have with any kallah. Not only can I see relief when a kallah with ink realizes that her tattoo is not a mikvah deal-breaker. Moreover, it always leads to a discussion of how important it is to go to a trusted source for halachic information, an not count on things overheard or shared among well-meaning friends. Such a kallah knows that even if the mikvah attendant is surprised by her particular artwork, she will not comment, and it is simply an opportunity to embrace her own spiritual growth. I acknowledge that the issues JWOC are faced with are different because they are intrinsic elements and not extrinsic results of choosing to get a tattoo, but I do believe that just as mikvah attendants around the world have become comfortable with all sorts of body art, they can become knowledgable and sensitive to issues JWOC face while preparing for the mikvah.
Rbz Rachel Bookstein
This article is extremely accurate and can be utilized as a learning resource for people that need a better understanding of Jews of color and their mikvah experiences and needed solutions.