Me and The Mikvah

by Debbi K. Levy

 

Rabbi Stern had a lot of questions for Barry and me. Some, we knew the answers immediately. Others, we had to ponder until our next session. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or even how much wisdom you have acquired, if you want Rabbi Stern to marry you, he requires three sessions to get to know you. And you get to know more about each other (and yourselves) in this sacred process. Ours looked something like this:

Would you like to participate in the Havdalah service before the wedding? We weren’t certain. Rabbi Stern guided us here. It could be the most impactful part of our ceremony, we learned. We would be acknowledging the departure of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week, and the beginning of our marriage, as well. Yes to the Havdalah ceremony.

How about the circles a bride walks around their bridegroom, or in the reform tradition, the bridegroom walks around the bride?  Yes, to the circles. I couldn’t wait for that ritual. Just me walking them, though. I had a deep desire to embrace this ritual the “old school” way.

How about the chuppah? Will it be waiting in the room adorned with flowers? Our sons each walked down the aisle carrying in a connected pole, and placed it in the holder. Deep breath. This was nothing less than physically and emotionally supporting the union of families becoming woven together. Bliss.

Rabbi Stern drew a diagram for us in the first meeting. It contained two circles overlapping each other a bit, and he explained how that middle part is the part where Barry and I will live. Our own chuppah, our own spiritual home. In the center of that circle, there is a boundary, and the two of us have to continually work diligently and mindfully to maintain it. Careers will try to make their way into that sacred space, family, and friends will move inwards into that smaller circle causing us to find firmness in our boundaries of being a strong couple, and sometimes we, too, may begin to drift out of that circle towards other ideas or causes. Each infraction will cause us to reaffirm our commitment and prioritize with one another. The wedding bands we will be receiving, too, will be circles to remind us.

Anything else? Would I like to go to the mikvah prior to our wedding? Yes. This is the part where Rabbi Stern hands off the ritual of the bride going to the waters for purification, to Rabbi Robbins. All I had to do now was wait for her call.

Readers, do you get manicures or pedicures? Have pierced ears with earrings? Wear a good coat or two of mascara on a daily basis? How about hair gel? One thing you have to know about taking a trip to the mikvah is that most of us will need to spend some time in preparation. It’s a mindful practice, isn’t it? Trimming down the nails, scrubbing residues off the body and face gently, removing jewelry that feels like it is permanently affixed? You are really involved with all your senses in preparation to enter these sacred waters unencumbered by anything except you and your essence.

I was getting married on Saturday night, and Thursday was my mikvah time slot. I pulled my car into the Tiferet Israel parking lot, because that is the congregation where our community mikvah is located. I must confess, I didn’t get out of the car without a long pause. I stopped to take in how fresh and beautiful I felt. I won’t play coy or even shy here. Freshly showered and free of anything I wasn’t born with, it was just shiny me. I felt like I was glowing and my love for Barry was exploding from my heart. I took a selfie and sent it to him. I was about to enter these ritual waters and say the prayers that would enable me to emerge, ready to add him to my life as my beloved husband. I hoped he would find the photograph beautiful, too, for this was my most authentic self. If you feel you have done the work of mental and emotional preparation prior to your wedding, know that going to the mikvah brings even more depth to that preparation.

I walked into Tiferet, and Rabbi Robbins greeted me with a big smile and her welcoming energy. She brought with her a young woman who wishes to become a rabbi, and the young woman is shadowing Rabbi Robbins to cement her career choice. Not every reform Jewish woman chooses to go to the mikvah, so this would be a good opportunity for the young rabbinical candidate to witness an immersion. I received this page of explanation and blessings from Rabbi Robbins:

For a Bride Going to the Mikvah

For centuries, the Jewish bride has immersed herself in the mikvah in anticipation of her wedding. The mikvah has become a private place for Jewish women to encounter the power of holiness as they immerse in mayim hayim, living waters. The mikvah has become a place for Jewish women to celebrate the passage from being unmarried to being married, to contemplate the sacred embrace of a loving relationship.

You will immerse in the mikvah three times.

The first immersion, without a blessing to accompany it, symbolizes a washing away of previous intimate relationships; it will free you of any past obligations.

The second immersion, accompanied by the traditional mikvah blessing, symbolizes your connection to other Jewish women. The second immersion binds you to Eve, who bathed in the rivers of the Garden of Eden, emerging pure and open to the potentials of the world.

The third immersion, accompanied by the shehecheyanu, our traditional prayer for moments of thanksgiving, symbolizes the joy and gratefulness you feel on this day. These ancient words give voice to modern emotions of gratitude to G-d.

Presentation of the Mikvah Towel

When you emerge from these waters of life you will use this new, clean, white towel. As you dry your skin, warm your body and wrap yourself in this towel, so too may G-d embrace and protect you as you enter into the covenant of marriage. “G-d will cover you with divine pinions, you will find refuge under holy wings, G-d’s fidelity is an encircling shield. “(Psalms 91:4)

I knew I was getting married. Kind of like when you are pregnant, you know you are having a baby, but then when you’re on the way to the hospital and actually deliver the baby, it’s a huge shock. The process of walking into the room where the mikvah is located is one of those moments also. The water had been heated. The air was damp. I could breathe a little easier. My shoulders fell away from my ears. I followed instructions to undress and prepared myself for immersion. I live in locker rooms being a yoga instructor, but this moment of undress felt so different. More like a long-awaited coming home than anything else.

You aren’t supposed to touch anything when you dunk, not the walls or the floor of the mikvah. Just you in the water as it is surrounding every follicle, every speck of your divine being. When prompted to immerse, I lifted my toes and feet and bent my knees and let the ritual waters envelop me completely. I got even better at it the third time, and was as vulnerable and open to receiving as I had ever been in my life. Note, I’m not a great receiver. I tend to hide some behind caring for others. Surprise, surprise, those of you in the helping fields with me will feign shock, but there it is. There is no where to go in immersion besides the role of receiver. The warm waters held me, as my two witnesses held a spiritual space for me in this moment as well. After the last prayer was recited after the third and last dunk, there were more smiles, and an energetically warmer room than it had been earlier, led by my rabbi. I cannot put in words. If you could have seen my face, it would have been the best way to convey such feelings. Rabbi Robbins and our young intern left the area, and told me not to rush, giving me a moment or two to linger in the mikvah before getting dressed. So, I did a couple back somersaults in the mikvah just like when I was a little girl in the giant pool at the JCC. No good explanations here, either, just joy and wonder at the experience I was having.

Rabbi Robbins gave me a fluffy white towel. Talk about feeling like a new bride.

A small committee of women was created recently, to focus on our community mikvah and take into consideration who could possibly use it, and how we could beautify the space for life’s meaningful moments and transitions. All Jewish people, not just women, can enjoy the sacred waters for immersion and spiritual purification. I feel lucky to serve on this committee, and as part of the process, I got to take a field trip to Tiferet once more under the leadership of Rabbi Shira Wallach and with my friend Yaffa Podbilewicz-Schuller.

Last August, I had a not-planned-way-in-advance-female-surgery which really took me off my center. Not just in a physical sense. I am a strong, striving woman, and I am very diligent about my fitness and my health. I think I could have rebounded from just that physical part more easily. I actually felt like less of that beautiful woman inside and out, who I told you about before my pre-wedding mikvah encounter. I trudged on and waited, but I didn’t feel quite whole. I grieved quietly, and mostly privately.

I asked Rabbi Wallach if I could immerse in the mikvah as part of our assessment process of our community mikvah space. I told her of my thought, that I might dunk to express my gratitude for coming out of surgery and being blessed with the return to my good health. Rabbi Wallach answered enthusiastically and with all the nurturing energy I could hope for.

Three dunks. The first prayer was my own: Thank you, G-d, for returning me to good health. Then the second, and then the third immersion, and prayers were said. I could progressively feel a surrender of anger, disappointment, and a standard of me and my own body that I had somehow adhered to finally falling away. A story I had convinced myself could be lived. Rabbi Wallach and Yaffa offered me some time alone in the mikvah waters and were careful not to hurry me. What was I feeling as a tear or two couldn’t be contained? Something I hadn’t felt since my surgery. I felt whole. I felt beautiful. I honored my precious spark of the divine that God placed in each one of us as I did my back somersaults in the healing waters, a little older, a little wiser, but still the same Debbi Levy.

I’m actually not terrific with vulnerability. They say you are, who you are, both on, and off, your yoga mat. It has taken me a long time to open my chest, in poses and relationships, even with G-d, to share my heart. This day, I do it so that you will embrace and use our community mikvah when your baby starts kindergarten, or after your last chemo, or when you shed something in your life whose time has come, or you insert your own significant life transitional moments here. I recognize that some of us may not share the perspective of the mikvah ritual for these spiritually cleansing moments.  But imagine holding divine space for each other as Rabbi Robbins and Rabbi Wallach, our Temple intern, and Yaffa, have done for me. Let us support each other out loud and with purpose, as we seek together, sacred moments handed down to us through L’Dor Va Dor, to feel embraced by our centuries old ritual waters, our mikvah.

You can find Debbi K. Levy at the J, Temple Emanu-El, and Congregation Beth Torah teaching Yoga Through A Jewish Lens. She welcomes your emails at Debbiklevy@gmail.com

Editor’s Note:  Please feel free to call any of these five North Texas mikvaot for more information or to schedule an appointment.

Congregation Tiferet Israel Mikvah

10909 Hillcrest Road

Dallas TX 75230

(214) 691-3611

 

Mikvah Israel

5640 McShann Road

Dallas, TX 75230

(972) 776-0037

cswinston@hotmail.com

 

Mikvah Mei Menachem

6710 Levelland Road

Dallas, TX  75252

(972) 248-0427

 

The Plano Mikvah

3904 West Park Blvd.

Plano, TX  75075

(972) 769-2202

mikvah@chabadplano.org

 

Mikvah Divrei Yoel

5659 Woodway Drive

Fort Worth, TX 76133

(817) 253-2804

ctmandel@gmail.com