As I run out of work, I feel the raindrops fall with full force on my head. Without a second thought, I quickly pull my hood over my head to protect my ears, my most prized possessions. It’s December and winter is just starting, and with it comes water – a whole lot of it, if we’re “lucky.” Furthermore, it’s mikveh night.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with water. It’s the force that has created the “me versus them.” For my entire life, water has been the entity that made me stand solo, acting as a casual observer, forcing myself to be ever so cognizant of my insecurities, differences, and limitations. My disability.
I have been blessed to have progressive hearing loss. At five years old, I was diagnosed with mild sensorineural loss. “Don’t worry; your hearing loss shouldn’t deteriorate drastically over the years. If it does, you’ll be well into your older years,” which calmed all of my nerves hearing this from a respected medical professional. It sure did not feel like a mild loss seeing that hearing aids are not waterproof and I was growing up in Florida, where water camps and beach bumming were part of one’s extracurricular agenda. And it sure did not remain a mild loss. I realized as an adult that having progressive hearing loss made me a candidate and blessed recipient of a cochlear implant in one ear – something I always thought was reserved for the “deaf.” I guess I’m one of those now.
The moment right before you enter the water, where you remove everything from your ears, and… silence. If sound had a color, it would be black.
“Is anyone talking to me? Is anyone behind me? I need to make sure not to be alone in case I miss something. My senses are heightened. My vision is fierce and my blood pressure is raised. I’m running on extreme alertness as if I’m hunting in the wilderness.
I go in the room to undress and remove all my chatzitzot, one by one. The last pieces to go are the hardest ones – my implant and my hearing aid. Without water, we can’t live. Without them, I can’t live either. It becomes silent. Black. I leave them on the counter. “I hope nobody throws them away,” I think to myself. I ring the bell to call the mikveh attendant. In my towel alone, I wait half inside and half outside, making sure I don’t miss anyone coming to get me as I won’t hear the knock. I hope nobody sees me waiting in the meantime. The walk to the mikveh feels so much longer than 30 seconds. Every second I think to myself, “I hope she doesn’t ask me anything.” I want her to check my back for those last pieces of hair that I surely missed. I tell her I have a hearing impairment, her smile softens with understanding. She’s on my side, this I know. Everyone is fighting to have their independence from the balanit. I don’t want her to leave my side. The power of the mikveh lady. A very special friend told me they hold a special holiness and that you should ask for their Hebrew name so as to bless them as you immerse. What a humbling and beautiful experience, but I was never brave enough to do this, because I’m afraid I won’t catch the entire name.
I walk down the steps into the holy waters, and as I descend, I feel more removed and farther away. Each time I immerse, my head shoots up to see if she declares it “kasher.” Unlike others whom I imagine hear what she says, I need to catch sight of her the second it happens to catch the movement on her lips. I take a few minutes for myself. In my water. I sit in silence inside the water. My holy silence. I hope the prayer is on the wall, I don’t know it by heart and I won’t catch the entire blessing from her mouth to mine.
As I walk back to my room, I slowly make the transition back out of my silence. For just a bit more, it’s just me, and my elevated sense of spirituality. And then, almost as if nothing had transpired, I return to the world of hearing, the world of color, and the world of belonging – of “me and them.”
It took me many years to welcome this blessing in my life – over two decades. It’s a paradox filled with color and lack thereof, with beauty and despair, “me versus them.” Having them off requires extra thought and yields much emotion. Water still gives me a heightened sense of anxiety and the mikvah is still a place where my thoughts run wild. It might be an unsettling mikvah experience, but it’s my mikvah experience. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll even have the courage to ask the balanit for her Hebrew name next time.
Practical take-aways for mikveh attendants:
1-There’s a lot of anxiety for a woman who can’t hear all the things that happen around her. Make sure she knows that you’re there with her and you’ll be patient.
2- Make a thumbs up to let her know her immersion was complete. Or wait to say “kosher” until she’s completely out of the water and has turned around to face you to see your lips and hands. Perhaps hold up a sign that says kasher. Best if this worked out before she removes her hearing aides.
3- Have the bracha and the יהי רצון on the wall or printed on a laminated paper. Having to repeat after the balanit is difficult and disempowering.
4- When designing a mikveh, see if it’s practical to put in a call button with a light so that the deaf person can know when she’s being called to come out.
5- The deaf tovelet is/may be depending on you for the cues of how to proceed. Make sure you’re clear and direct her not only with words but also with signs/motioning/body language. If you are speaking to her make sure she can see your lips. Especially because she is usually equipped with hearing devices, she is not a pro at reading other cues so help her as best as you can.
Erika Mandel visited Israel in 2011 (and never left) after receiving her masters in social work from Columbia University. She’s currently living the dream in Jerusalem with her husband and toddling sabra baby and works in hotel hospitality.