“You don’t think people have tattoos in Orthodox Judaism?’ my Rebbetzin asked me accusingly. That was her response when I asked her how I would handle my tattoos at the mikveh. There were many books open in front of us, our sessions together reviewed the halachic details of the holidays, keeping kosher and everything in between. These weekly sessions would soon end, as my conversion was only weeks away. “There are many tattooed people who find their way to Judaism, whether coming back or converting.” she said as she found our chapter and pulled out the bookmark. “The Balaniot have seen it all”. And I believed her. It still felt true when, after many hours of halachic questions and discussions, I passed my interview with my converting Rabbinical Court, and I nervously prepared for the mikveh dip that would make me Jewish. When I arrived at the unmarked door a week later, a small older woman in a tightly wrapped mitpachat led me to a bathroom and showed me the list that I should follow when preparing myself. She held up my hands and showed me how to clean my nails; to remove excess hair. She gave me privacy when I bathed. And she must have seen everything, as my Rebbetzin had told me. When she gave me a final inspection, and I stood there, wrapped in a pink towel, she did not flinch as she ran her eyes over the many hours of art on my shoulders, my back, my calves.
The following year, when I got married, I had an even more positive experience when I arrived at a stunningly renovated mikveh; especially catering to brides, with green plants hanging from the ceiling and a pool larger than usual. The balanit was graceful and polite and I found it relaxing and spiritual; it was so comfortable. I wanted to find an excuse to hang out longer, but I didn’t want to keep my mother and future sister-in-law waiting too long.
I had strongly believed the mikveh was a way to connect to my body and my cycle and I envisioned having a positive experience each time I went. But when I started going near my home, it became clear to me that the tattoos I had chosen to give me strength and meaning during certain periods in my life, would be the very symbols that would make me even more vulnerable than my own nakedness, in front of a woman I had never met. Each month, as my tevillah night would approach, so would the growing anxiety in the pit of my stomach; and I found myself wanting to avoid the awkwardness of being inspected by a stranger who was too close to my body. I wanted to avoid the experience of having to prove repeatedly that I had no makeup on. I didn’t have the strength for the presumptuous action of offering me religious texts when I wanted to quietly leave. I found it hurtful that some balainot had offered me contacts to get my tattoos removed, making the wrongful assumption that I regretted the art that I had chosen for my body, before I was Jewish. And when I spoke to my peers, my experiences seemed to happen more frequently. I could only assume the obvious; that my tattoos made me a magnet for the subconscious bias of the balanit.
Going to the mikveh became a source of frustration for me, yet something I tolerated because I didn’t know how to make it better. I would dream about a private mikveh, or even making the time to escape with girlfriends to the beach. After years of going to the mikveh, I finally asked a balanit to let me dip alone, which, to my chagrin, was immediately refused. In response to my request, she told me with a smile that my dip wasn’t kosher, and to do it again. And while I did it for her, I became deflated. I had fantasies of this very personal ritual and how it would enrich my connection to my Judaism. What I was continuously experiencing was not the kind of relationship I wanted to have with the mikveh each month. I felt stuck.
What I didn’t know, was that what I wanted in my mikveh experience was already protected by law, but that the change within the mikveh culture would come slowly. This is what I understand from my discussions with the Eden Center. And while I learned there are many ways to become active and support this change, I also found more suitable ways to rekindle my personal relationship with the mikveh; I found Eden Center trained balaniot who feel the same way I do about the intimacy of the mikveh experience, and locations where the chances of a more private dip exist. And I found that the reality of my mikveh experience could be close to the fantasies I have.
*Photo by Annie Spratt, Unsplash