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The quality of all-or-nothing commitment required by the mikveh [ritual pool] makes it both a potent symbol for the new convert and a bellwether of varying attitudes of American Jews toward ritual. The mystery that surrounds it, even for traditional women who regularly use it, makes it a tangible marker of the tension between old and new.
Tomorrow morning is the day of my conversion, a day I have flippantly dubbed the "Big Dunk." It occurs to me this morning that it is distinctly possible that my use of that phrase over the last year may not be entirely coincidental. Refusing to add to the weightiness of the occasion by giving it my deference has been, in part, my way of delaying consideration of the full impact of my decision to convert. But now the Big Dunk is just a day away, and verbal gymnastics are no longer sufficient to dampen my awareness of the theological and historical implications of the mikveh.
The mikveh is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. When I first learned about the mikveh several years ago, I recall asking Jewish friends about it and each of them rather adamantly saying, no, they had never been to one, in a tone that made it seem like a point of honor…sort of the same way I’d expect them to say, "Oh no, I’ve never spent the night in jail." The location of our local mikveh isn’t exactly a secret, but on having it pointed out the first time, one does get the sense of having been made privy to certain "inside information." And every time I pass it, I think that I might be wrong and that the mikveh might not really be in that unassuming little house on a quiet little street after all.
Even proudly observant Jews seem to become shy and reticent when the subject of the mikveh comes up. And why not? In addition to being mysterious, the mikveh is not without controversy. Its connection to menstrual taboos and the sometimes misogynist explanations put forth in support of its use make the mikveh an uncomfortable topic for discussion. And in any case, its connection to human sexual relations and seemingly to a woman’s personal hygiene imbues it with an undeniably intimate quality that can still make us squirm even in these "post-MTV" days.
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