LESLIE RENKEN/Journal Star

A visit to the Mikvah is a very important but very private monthly occurrence in a Jewish woman's life.


 

 

Water's pure touch
Observant Jewish women turn to Lubavitch Chabad of Peoria's mikvah for fulfillment

Saturday, January 28, 2006
By SARAH OKESON
of the Journal Star

"One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her."
2 Samuel 11:2-3a

A North Peoria condo that once belonged to the mother of a prominent Peoria pediatrician looks no different than its neighbors except for a mezuzah, a small case with a parchment scroll, that is nailed to the door post in keeping with Jewish law.

There's nothing to indicate that within the modest, two-bedroom condo is the key to sexual fulfillment for observant Jewish couples, drawing women from as far away as Champaign and Springfield.

It's not a Hasidic version of Big Al's or a passion party for suburban moms with sex toys. One of the bedrooms has been converted into a tiled bath called a mikvah that observant Jewish women in their childbearing years must dunk themselves in each month before they can have sex with their husbands.

"It's a commandment in the Torah," said Rabbi Eli Langsam, whose wife, Sarah, oversees the mikvah.

The mikvah is considered the most important building in a Jewish community, even more important than the synagogue. A congregation can mortgage its synagogue or even sell off its Torah scrolls to raise money for a mikvah.

Mikvot - the plural of the Hebrew word - have been around for thousands of years, since well before King David saw Bathsheba emerging from a bath that may have been a mikvah, got her pregnant, sent her husband off to be killed in battle, and then married her, incurring God's punishment in the process.

In Jewish tradition, a husband and wife aren't supposed to have sex during the wife's menstrual period or for seven days after it ends. During that time, couples are prohibited from sleeping in the same bed, kissing or even passing food to each other.

"On one level, it's a connection to God," said Rivkah Slonim of Binghamton, N.Y., the editor of a book about mikvot. "It's one more way of bringing God into your life. It adds something special to a couple's intimate life. It's a difficult commandment to keep. It requires a lot of self-control. I'm quite convinced it's not something the human mind would have gravitated to on its own. It's not, 'I have a headache' or 'He has no time' but a cycle based on God's word."

Once the time of niddah, or separation, ends, a couple can resume their sexual relationship. But first, Jewish law requires a woman to immerse herself in "mayim hayyim," or living waters, to ritually purify herself. Rainwater and most lakes or rivers qualify.

The rationale for all this is the Jewish belief that a person becomes tumah, or spiritually impure, after contact with death. During menstruation the unfertilized egg is shed, which is the loss of a potential life, and Jewish women have to immerse themselves in a mikvah to purify themselves.

Without a mikvah - or a trip to a nearby river or lake - observant Jews can't have sex. Because of this prohibition, Jewish women have been known to break the ice on lakes in the winter or fly hundreds of miles once a month to the nearest mikvah. When Peoria was without a mikvah in the mid-1990s, some local women used a lake in Dunlap.

Women traditionally go to a mikvah for the first time before they get married, and the wedding ceremony is scheduled around the bride's menstrual cycle so the couple can make love on their wedding night. A mikvah is also used when a person converts to Judaism.

Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman of the Union for Reform Judaism went to a mikvah before she was married.

"I was totally shocked by it," Wasserman said. "I had gone to mikvah I don't know how many times with adults converting, but I had never gone in myself. It was very profound. I came out crying. To enter the water totally naked with no pretense in a sacred setting, it's you at your most basic and your most vulnerable. I don't know if there's much else in our lives that does that."

A woman's time in a mikvah is also said to be when she can make special requests of God.

"For a woman, it's the highest spiritual time with God," said one of the handful of Peoria women who use a mikvah regularly. "You're supposed to be able to ask for special things - like a happy marriage or for your children or to get pregnant."

A mikvah, which is usually heated, contains about 200 gallons of rainwater or melted snow or ice with an adjoining pool that is filled with tap water, constructed so that the two types of water touch. The water is usually chest high with stairs leading into the pool.

Before entering a mikvah, a woman must be completely clean. She bathes, combs her wet hair, flosses her teeth and examines herself internally to make sure no blood from her period remains. Nothing must come between her body and the water, so women remove their makeup and nail polish and take out their contact lenses.

The woman immerses herself completely underwater three times and says a blessing in Hebrew: "Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, vetzivanu al ha-tevilah" ("Blessed are you, Lord, king of the universe, who has made us holy with his commandments and commanded us concerning immersion"). The watching attendant pronounces whether each dip is done properly.

Slonim said the experience is different for each woman.

"I don't want to overromanticize it and wax poetic," Slonim said. "I think a lot of times people are looking for spiritual experiences. It's important not to fall into the trap of equating what a person feels and the value of that. For some people it's going to be extremely moving, and for some people it's going to be blase."

Mikvot were once found near almost every Orthodox synagogue, but the practice declined as immigrant Jews became more assimilated. There were also concerns about cleanliness. Shortly before World War I, officials in New York estimated that an average of 300 people used a mikvah before the water was changed. The city's board of health said the city's mikvot were health hazards.

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has helped bring mikvot back - at least partially to ensure that Chabad couples who are sent all over the world to encourage stricter Jewish observance will have a mikvah to go to. Chabad of Peoria spent more than $100,000 to build the mikvah here with help from a $25,000 contribution from a New York family that funds mikvah construction.

"It has a very regal look," said Sarah Langsam. "It is beautiful to everybody's eyes."

Mikvot have also become more popular in Reform Jewish congregations even though Reform women usually don't regularly use a mikvah.

"Going to the mikvah around the menstrual cycle would not have meaning for me," Wasserman said. "To me it doesn't have significance. It doesn't speak to me spiritually or out of a feminist perspective."

Wasserman said Reform congregations have used mikvot for transitions such as going through a divorce. She also used a mikvah for a friend who had been raped.

"The power of the water surrounding you with mythical connection to Eden and this not-so-mythical connection to life force, it's just very powerful," Wasserman said.

Sarah Okeson can be reached at 686-3251 or sokeson@pjstar.com.