There’s nothing like old friends. They connect us with our past, remind us of the continuity of our life, embrace us in our totality, offer reassurance that what we have within us is enough to manage the future.
In my new novel The Mapmaker’s Daughter, the mikveh is that kind of friend. The protagonist, Amalia, stands guard as a young girl while her mother immerses in a spring near their home in Sevilla. It’s a dangerous act of “Judaizing,” as the secret continuation of Jewish practices by forcibly converted Spanish Jews was known.
Later, when she is grown, Amalia’s friend leads her on a rainy evening to a courtyard fountain, where they immerse in broken moonlight to commemorate the beginning of a seismic shift in Amalia’s thinking about the role of Jewishness in her life.
Amalia eventually passes on to her daughter the use of the mikveh not just as a means of monthly ritual purification, but as the symbol of the ongoing potential for fresh starts. The book ends with yet another mikveh of another generation of her family’s women.
I suppose I have put a rosy glow on what for many women must have been yet another burden—finding the time to purify themselves ritually to resume sexual relations with their husbands. Still I hope that among the millions of women who have followed this tradition over the centuries, there are some who saw the mikveh as I have presented it.
Maybe I see the mikveh the way I do because I was never burdened with it as an obligation. As a Jew by choice, I spent decades of my life unaware it existed, and even if I had grown up Jewish it is unlikely my family would have been that traditional. Perhaps that is the appeal of the mikveh today: not as an obligation but as a means to link an ancient tradition to a modern culture, one which provides more opportunity, time, and encouragement to reflect on and personalize our experiences.
As part of my conversion, I drove to Los Angeles to what is now called the American Jewish University. The preparation area was the equal of the nicest spa I have been in, and the pool was beautiful. A cloth partition separated the male rabbis standing on the other side, so they could hear but not see. I must admit I found the experience disconcerting and alien, as I struggled to get my whole body to submerge at once. The female monitor chirped pleasantly, “It’s kosher” each time I succeeded—another distraction, since the first thing I think of when I hear that word is food. It seemed like something I could check off a “to do” list rather than a meaningful experience, but I saw the potential and stored that thought away.
My most memorable experience with a mikveh happened in 2012, a few months after my husband’s death from prostate cancer. We had been together for eight years, and got married only seven weeks before he died. I was still grieving, but understood somewhere deep inside myself that I needed to move on before I settled into anything less than the full life I wanted. I invited a group of women (including two rabbi friends) to join me at La Jolla Cove early one morning, where we all rededicated ourselves to the lives we want to keep appreciating and the futures we are building. That was the concept of the mikveh I wanted to convey in The Mapmaker’s Daughter, although next time I will try not to include the incoming scuba diver who came up rather abruptly after catching sight of my back side without a bathing suit.
The Mapmaker’s Daughter is dedicated “in honor of the mikveh and the countless Jewish women who have restored their strength and optimism in its waters.” May it always be so.
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Earlier this week, Stefanie Pervos Bregman, the editor of Living Jewishly, wrote about engaging 20- and 30- somethings in the Jewish world, Rabbi Jason Miller wrote about exploring commonalities between religions and Rivka Nehorai shared the truth about motherhood. Today we hear from Living Jewishly contributor Rachel Wright.
As a Jewish lay leader who works in corporate America, my identity often shifts between my work world and the time I dedicate as a volunteer within the Jewish community. If you follow me on Twitter or are a friend of mine on Facebook, it truly looks like I only have one dimension.
My favorite remark I get is when acquaintances who may know me well enough to be friends on Facebook but not well enough to know what I do for a living, simply assume and certify as they ask: “You work for Federation, right?” Gathering this assumption—because I simply must—with each event and conference I promote and Jewish holiday I’ll be well-wishing to my network.
What a compliment, I always think. That just means to me that I am doing a good job in my role as a volunteer determined to get as much outreach and engagement as possible.
Truth is, my professional job which allows me to be so involved with community has little to do with my strong Jewish identity at all. Which means my work network couldn’t be any less affiliated.
My Jewish friends across the globe who pride themselves on involvement may relate. How many times have you had to explain that our “missions” to Israel, Ethiopia, Russia, Cuba, Greece or Poland, for example, are not the “missionary” experience our non-Jewish associates want to understand?
Recently, I was in Indianapolis at a national conference for the insurance industry, the field I work in. As much as I give to the Jewish world, I also give to the company allowing me the ability to do so. Driven to grow professionally, I work with people from all walks of life. While entertaining at this conference, a question at dinner literally threw me aback.
As the check was delivered– and after a few glasses of wine– one of the members of my dinner party asked a closing question: “Not to be offensive, as I am sure this doesn’t apply, but does a Jew own your company?”
I sat a little unsettled. In my professional life, I don’t often discuss religion as it’s simply not appropriate. And, as a Detroit-based company, we are fairly diverse with people of many religious backgrounds working together in harmony. But, this question demanded a response.
As a professional in the corporate world who also happens to be Jewish, I knew the only thing I could do worse than be complacent was to laugh or agree with any remark that would potentially follow. This would be even worse than the most ignorant of comments. But, not wanting to be overly strong too early, I softly asked why.
“Because of the name of your company – EHIM. I was recently in Israel with my church, and learned of the Hebrew word Elohim. Is this a root from the origins of your company?”
I breathed easy. His only mistake was approach in the ask. If anything, I felt embarrassed I wasn’t ready to be proud to say not only do I work for a Jewish woman but I also am part of this people.
He simply needed an answer that would also teach him it wasn’t offensive to ask someone if they were of Jewish descent if asked in the appropriate way.
In Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, I was proud to have one of the blogs I wrote for Jewish Federations of North America Young Leadership Cabinet be included. This blog described the journey I went on with an ex-boyfriend, exploring his conversion to Judaism from a very Christian upbringing. Back then, I sat on the sidelines, taking the stance that conversion was to be his private journey as I didn’t want to define his sense and understanding of our very deep tradition and beliefs.
Nearly three years later and on the other side, I see things a bit differently. As someone who aspires to grow into the very important role as a Jewish leader, one of the lessons I must learn is that we are not simply leading the Jewish people to follow or help guide them to find their way. We are leading a worldwide community that may not share our religion or tradition – but can follow through understanding and a mutual respect we have for each other.
We don’t need to preach to those who don’t ask. But we need to always be true to who we are. That is the way we lead by example and the way we continue to evolve change throughout the world.
“Jew town,” Mom directed the autorickshaw driver.
“Where in Jew town?” he asked in Malayalam.
My mother and I had made a special trip to Cochin to see the synagogue. Mom was excited because she had last been in a synagogue forty years earlier, when she lived in Berkeley with her parents. After she married my father and moved to India, she discovered that our small town had churches, mosques, a Buddhist stupa, but no synagogue. I had read about synagogues, had seen pictures, but I had never been inside one, so I, too, was very excited.
I knew about the Cochin Jews, knew, too, that there weren’t enough for a minyan, because most had immigrated to Israel. Still, it was a tremendous disappointment when we arrived at the synagogue and discovered the doors were firmly shut.
“It has been empty for a long time,” the driver informed us. “I thought you simply wanted to see the clock tower,” he pointed to the sky.
We looked up at the bell and clock tower, which, Mom explained, approximated a dome.
“Back to the train station now?” the driver asked.
“No,” Mom responded. “We are going inside.”
“Not possible,” the driver insisted.
“There has to be someone who can open it for us,” Mom said, and turning around, walked into the shop that was across the road.
“Do you know the man who has the keys to the big church?” she asked the shopkeeper.
The shop keeper took in my mother’s 5’10″ frame, the blue eyes, the white skin, and asked, “You are Jewish?”
“Yes,” Mom said, “my daughter and I are both Jewish. We want to pray in our church.”
The man glanced at the brown skin I inherited from my Indian father and shrugged. He wasn’t going to question kinship. “I will call the man,” he said, and half an hour later, the doors swung open.
We were the only two in the synagogue, and yet we whispered. We marveled at the blue tiles from China, the Belgian chandelier, the brass that glinted.
“Just imagine,” Mom said, “It used to be filled with people.”
I thought about the generations who had worshipped here, the men who had built the synagogue, all the way back to the ones who had arrived in Cochin on a ship centuries earlier.
I recalled that very moment when I was writing The Invitation. My character Lali is a female version of my father: Jacobite Syrian Christian, comes to America for graduate school, marries a Jew. What if, I wondered, Lali’s ancestors had once worshipped in the synagogue? Locals must have converted to Judaism, for how else had that first ship load married, kept their faith? It was entirely plausible, then, for a Jewish family to decide to become Christians at some point, and so I wrote it into my story.
This was the part of the novel that worried me the most when Mom read an advanced copy.
“I love it,” Mom’s words were sure, her accent still American. “What I like best is Lali’s Jewish ancestor, which means she is Jewish. I’ve never read that in any novels, but it makes perfect sense.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. I had Mom’s approval. And for me, that mattered the most.
I spent several years traveling the world, trying on different faiths, seeing which one fits. At the end of my journey, I found myself in Tzfat, in northern Israel, diving headfirst into my own faith. The ground I walked in Tzfat felt familiar and foreign at the same time.
One evening, I was invited by a family of Orthodox Jews for a Sabbath at their home. One of them, an impish young man named Asaf, listened intently to my tales of whirling with the dervishes, meditating with the Tibetans. Then he told me a story.
There was this Jew, Asaf said. We’ll call him Moshe. Moshe decided one day he wanted to become Catholic, so he walks to the local church and says, “Father, I’d like to be Catholic.”
“No problem,” says the priest. He sprinkles water over Moshe and says, three times, “You’re not Jewish, you’re Catholic.” He then sends Moshe on his way but with a warning. “We Catholics only eat fish on Fridays. Okay?”
Moshe assures him that is no problem. Except a few days later, on a Wednesday evening, Moshe develops a huge craving for fish. He can’t resist so he slips off to a local restaurant. There, the priest happens to see him tucking into a huge fillet of halibut.
“Moshe! What are you doing? I told you to only eat fish on Friday.”
Moshe, without missing a beat, says, “This isn’t a fish. It’s a carrot.”
“What are you talking about, Moshe? I can plainly see it’s a fish.”
“No, it isn’t. I sprinkled water on it and said, ‘You’re not a fish, you’re carrot, you’re not a fish you’re a carrot…’”
Everyone at the table smiles. Except me. What am I to make of the joke? Am I a fish and always will be? Or am I a carrot with fish tendencies? Or some sort of carrot-fish hybrid? The obvious moral of the story: Go forth and meditate with the Buddhists, do yoga with the Hindus, pray with the Muslims, but you’ll be back. You have a nefesh, a Jewish soul, and nothing you do will ever change that.
At first, I bristled at that notion. We are free—freer than ever before—to choose our own spiritual path, and many people (Jews and non-Jews alike) are doing just that. One out of three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime. We are, increasingly, a nation of God hoppers.
Or are we? Do we ever fully change?
I don’t think so. We imbibe of the world’s wisdom traditions, from Buddhism to Shamanism, and benefit from them, but the “conversion” is never complete. We always retain, at the very least, our cultural identity—our fishiness—and that is okay. That is good. We need solid footing, or as Archimedes said many centuries ago: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.”