Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ritual bath makes comeback

For many Jewish women, keeping mikvah -- immersing themselves in natural, flowing water -- is a private matter. Their husbands probably know when they leave home to visit a mikvah. Attendants may know if a woman immersed herself so completely that not a strand of her hair floated to the surface. But only God knows, quite literally, the sincerity of a woman's prayer.

Water flows through many religions in rituals that symbolize transformation, from death to life, rebirth and renewal. The mikvah is an ancient Jewish tradition still practiced in the modern world both because it is required by Jewish law and for a handful of other more contemporary reasons.

The word mikvah is Hebrew for a "gathering" of mayim chayim, or "living water." Centuries ago, in accordance with Jewish law, women immersed themselves before their weddings and monthly thereafter, seven days after their menstrual periods ended. Only then did they resume physical contact with their husbands. Jewish men immersed themselves, sometimes as part of their daily spiritual practice and, in other cases, before Jewish holy days.

Today, many Jewish men and women never set foot in a mikvah, but the practice is preserved for those who find it meaningful and for those whose conversions to Judaism demand a ritual immersion. It is probably most important to Orthodox Jews, but some others use it for nontraditional reasons, immersing themselves before or after surgery or after a divorce.

Portland has two mikvot (the plural of mikvah), one that dates from 1958 and another that, after five years of fine-tuning, will be dedicated this spring. The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland has undertaken a fund-raising effort on behalf of the older community mikvah, which is administered by the Oregon Board of Rabbis. The newer facility, Mikvah Shoshana, was built by Chabad of Oregon, and at their invitation an expert on the mikvah is visiting Portland on Thursday for a lecture.

Sara Karmely of New York City is a traveling authority on keeping mikvah and the ancient tradition's power to revitalize modern marriages. Married for 40 years herself, she is past menopause and misses her monthly visits to the mikvah. In a telephone interview, she is almost wistful as she recalls her monthly preparation.

"It meant that that morning, I would wake up with a sense of anticipation," she says. She would soak in a bath for half an hour, scrub herself from head to foot and shower to remove any foreign particles from her body. A woman may not wear nail polish or even contact lenses when she steps into the mikvah.

"Each month you come out of the mikvah and see your face glowing," she says. "It is a rebirth. As soon as I came home from the mikvah, I became a new bride and my husband was a new bridegroom for me."

Avoiding physical contact during a woman's period and for seven days afterward encourages a couple to work on communication and respect for each other's sexuality, she says.

For Sima "Simi" Mishulovin of Portland, a member of Chabad-Lubavitch of Oregon, a Hasidic group that encourages Jews to practice mitzvahs or "commandments," sees the mikvah as a link to the Jewish women who preceded and will come after her.

She remembers her first visit to the mikvah, before her wedding almost two years ago.

"I felt a strong connection to the women of the past and, being the first grandchild (in her family) to be married, I felt like the beginning link of this mitzvah for the family."

Karmely and representatives of other community mikvot see a resurgence in the spiritual practice, but because visits to a mikvah are so private, it is difficult to tell whether the number of women using them is on the rise, and still more difficult to describe their reasons for doing so.

But Rabbi Joseph Wolf of Havurah Shalom, a Reconstructionist community that meets in Northwest Portland, understands the wariness that many Jews feel about the mikvah. It originated in a time, they say, when women were judged to be inferior to men and in need of purification after their periods.

"Spiritual practice is everything," Wolf says. "If women are finding this empowering to their own mind, far be it from me to want to undermine their practice."


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