Author Archives: Terry Himes

About Terry Himes

Terry Himes lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she practices law and resides with the youngest of her three children.

Going to the Mikveh: The Day After

Recalling yesterday, I remember a fleeting moment in which I’m emerging naked and dripping wet, but in the next moment all I’m aware of is the warmth of Mrs. Markovitz’s embrace as she wraps me in a towel and plants an affectionate kiss on my cheek. In retrospect I recognize that I might have used these exact words to imagine birth from the point of view of a newborn.

But in fact, I’ve just exited the mikveh [ritual pool] and, after another kiss and hug from my friend and Jewish mentor, Sue, I’m alone with my reflection in the dressing-room mirror, seeing myself as a Jew for the first time. Knowing that it’s silly even as I do it, I can’t help but look to see if my physical appearance was changed by such a profoundly spiritual experience. 

As I dried myself off and dressed, the intensely surreal quality of the previous moments began to recede and I was glad I had taken Rabbi Greenspoon’s advice to schedule my beit din [a three-person rabbinical court that rules on conversion] and mikveh for a Friday morning. I had taken the rest of the day off and ahead of me stretched a long afternoon that would glide gently into Shabbat.

I confess to a few butterflies in my stomach earlier that morning and a whole flock of them in the moments before I entered the mikveh.  I wasn’t worried about what I knew or didn’t know, I wasn’t afraid of the mikveh, and I certainly didn’t have any doubts about my decision. Furthermore, I knew that my conversion to Judaism would not really take place that morning but had taken place in my heart gradually during the preceding months as I internalized Jewish values, beliefs, and customs. Nevertheless, the beit din and the mikveh were unquestionably significant events that had to occur in order for Judaism to recognize me,and November 8 would forever mark that moment in my personal story.

Even a day later, I’m unable to say what it was precisely that made me nervous as I got myself ready and traveled to the mikveh that morning, but whatever it was, I forgot about it as I sat and talked to the three rabbis who comprised my beit din. I had met each of them previously when they taught their respective portions of the conversion classes offered jointly by the local Conservative synagogues. A few months earlier, the idea of sitting and talking to one rabbi would have intimidated me, but after spending more than a year meeting with various rabbis and studying with Rabbi Greenspoon, I found our meeting that morning quite comfortable.

Going to the Mikveh: The Day Before

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.