Going to the Mikveh: The Day Before

With the ritual bath's echoes of sexuality and its demand for self-abnegation, the prospect of immersion can create some trepidation for the prospective convert.

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.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising to find that we are probably less comfortable with the intimate functions of our own bodies than were our ancient ancestors as they made their way to the mikveh. The more we are bombarded and desensitized by ever increasingly overt sexual materials, the more elusive intimacy seems to become. That inverse relationship may be the basis for my mother’s advice to me on sexuality, to "leave something to the imagination."

When nothing is left to the imagination, the result is not more intimacy in our lives and relationships but less. And because intimacy often makes us feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, we do not miss it at first. But intimate moments are the richest and most memorable moments of our lives. Few of us forget the feel of a first kiss or the way it felt the first time our new baby grasped one of our fingers in its impossibly tiny grip. Intimacy makes us uncomfortable precisely because it makes us acutely aware of our fragile connection to others, but it bears the promise of gentle gifts for the heart and soul.

The mikveh is nothing if not intimate.

Then there is the unmistakable symbolic significance of self-abnegation and obedience inherent in the act of immersion, a significance that does not rest easily with contemporary notions of freedom and self-sufficiency. And for converts, the mikveh may suffer additionally from its uncomfortable similarity to the Christian ritual of baptism, a sacrament most likely chosen for us by our parents as part of a religion that we are now rejecting in favor of another spiritual path.

The mikveh sits there at the end of the conversion process like a very large, politically incorrect and immovable object. I find myself thinking a lot about the spiritual fortitude of the first Israelites who followed Abraham on an unknown path by entering into the covenant, a contemplation which frankly helps me keep my own trip to the mikveh in perspective. While it’s true that immersion carries the obvious connotation of losing one’s individuality by uniting with a larger community, it also embodies a joyous expression of a new beginning. After all, one emerges not as a different person but as the same unique individual in a newly minted relationship with God and humanity.

For me, the mikveh is now plainly visible on the event horizon, refusing to be ignored. But now that I’ve drawn closer, the mikveh is smaller and more approachable than it first seemed. And it turns out that finding the mikveh rather than entering it may have been the real test after all.

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