JWN workshops at Limmud 2001: 1

The Mikveh Monologues

There was a sense of excitement at this women-only workshop, and most - though not all - had something to say. We all felt ourselves to be closely involved, very much part of the event. The presenters began with some readings on the history of mikveh, and on personal experiences, including a wry piece from Sally Berkovic's book UNDER MY HAT.

One woman gave an account of her own recent and unexpected first experience of mikveh following a major life-changing operation, and of the almost mystical synchronicity of events which brought it about. This had led her to consider the new wider usage of mikveh as a powerful and positive experience on an individual level, beyond fertility and reproduction into all kinds of life-cycle events, with its associated concept of rebirth and renewal through water.

The discussion and debate included contributions from women from a variety of backgrounds, among them a mother who said "Attending mikveh when my daughter was getting married recently was very moving for me". Another said "I have used the mikveh since I got married because I feel I must, but I don't enjoy it". A third woman described it as "a very important spiritual time - a special time for me, each month". Someone said, "Tradition tells us that you can start going to mikveh at any point in your life as a married woman - it acts retrospectively".

A woman who lives a long way from London and goes to a very run-down and neglected mikveh in her community where the water is sometimes dirty, told us that although she will continue to attend regularly she can very well appreciate why other women might be put off even though they may wish to attend.

We were told the Orthodox view (at least as conveyed by a 'Mikveh Lady' attendant) is that if you have never previously attended the mikveh, after the menopause you may go once - but then should not go again. [If anyone knows of an authoritative ruling on this, please let us know] To a question on menopausal women on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) who continue to have monthly bleeds, the answer seems to be that they should continue to attend the mikveh.

Several women expressed a desire to see a new mikveh ritual instituted for other key events in their lives. One said "I have a vision of a cross-communal mikveh", and another told us of women's centres in Israel where a particular point is made of asking the mikveh attendants to look out for signs of domestic violence injuries on women who use the mikveh. Another suggestion was that since mikveh is getting very positive responses from feminists who were once very critical about the practice, it would be an appropriate area for JWN to take a lead. One woman said "I am excited by the implications of the workshop, as I am interested in seeing if there is enough enthusiasm within my community to try to get a long-closed mikveh reopened"

It was a very inspiring event, concluding with two women from different backgrounds expressing an interest in working with JWN to develop these discussions, perhaps towards producing a booklet for women across the spectrum in the future. Taking the same approach as our JWN Bereavement Booklet it would include the voices of women: those who have valued mikveh in their life, those who have found it a difficult practice to maintain, and those who already have created, or would like to create, ritual around a range of issues related to women's lives. These might be important rites of passage such as bat mitzvah or completion of a project or study. Other women-centred events could include (as already takes place in some communities in the USA & Canada) mikveh as part of the healing process after illness, domestic violence or rape.

JWN hopes very much to be able to take a lead in extending the use of mikveh for women across the community, at the same time as maintaining respect for all its ancient traditions.

One participant commented "I have attended other mikveh workshops in the past, but they were always led by women for whom mikveh is a way of life. This was different, and somehow easier for many of us to relate to. Some of us probably will go one day, and some of us may change our minds for one reason or another - but no-one could have left this workshop unmoved or uninspired."

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