My mom, my sister and I wandered in concentric circles, lost and anxious that we would be late for my appointment to become ready to be a bride. In the mid- July heat of the San Fernando Valley, at the University of Judaism, where students had vacated for the summer, I was melting into the pavement, into a pool of nervousness, and fear. I was chewing on my nails, which was ok since my pre-wedding manicure was on the list for the next day.
We stumbled into a long, covered walkway. It was dark and cool, soothing to my frayed nerves. I rested my hand on the wall for stability; it was like a cave, a clay roof over my head. The cadence of my Bat Mitzvah torah portion rose and fell in my head, reverberating in this cavern, and I took pause and incorporated it into the rhythm of my gait.
My years of goofing off at Sunday School came back to haunt me. I knew nothing. I was spiritually bankrupt. I was a modest Jewish fraud, not suitable for a Jewish wedding and its requirements. At least, I was glad that at the end the day, I could cross something off my bridal to do list.
I knew nothing further than the description in “The Everything Book about Jewish Weddings.”
The mikveh is a ceremonial bath which women immerse when undergoing a change in status – whether that be becoming a married woman, becoming a mother, and for Orthodox women, for cleansing after a menstrual period. Because I was being wed by a relatively Conservative rabbi, she suggested that I move through this cleansing ritual, three days before the big day.
I did know that I would be naked. Once I worked with an Orthodox woman who did this ritual every month after her period and bragged about it. I thought she must get very dirty during the intervening weeks.
As advised in the pre-mikveh literature, I removed my red nail polish, but I did not know about the imperative mikveh shower with special Kosher cleansing shampoo and conditioner. Every fiber must touch the water. The combs were in blue sanitizing liquid like at my manicurists. No jewelry (including engagement ring – I hadn’t taken it off since the proposal), no deodorant, no hair rubber band. I was drowning in memories of swimming lessons as a child. I would scream, “Don’t dunk me under!!!
Because my Bat Mitzvah followed the holiday of Simcha Torah when torah portions begin again, my section was Genesis 1:1 – Creation. I had always felt singled out by God to get to read the opening lines of the Torah, the beginning of life as we knew it, as I took on the mantle of a Jewish bride. I reached for the shower glass door to steady myself, now my heartbeat joined in the rhythm too.
At the end of the tunnel, there was an office lit by rays from heaven through the door ajar. I rapped lightly at the door. The rabbinic intern greeted me and welcomed me inside to her study.
There were two desks piled high with loose papers and there were rabbinical texts lining a short, stocky bookshelf. Some texts looked modern while others seemed archaic – they most likely were. The rabbinical student in charge of the mikveh was petite, like some of those old texts could crush her.
“Welcome” she whispered in my ear, just for me as the office gave way to another door, opening out to dark-tiled room. It looked like my parents’ black bottom swimming pool. It didn’t look any different than a lovely serene jacuzzi. But I felt that this was special, like was a secret sacred place indeed. Suddenly I was gasping, drowning, in my mind. At the same time, my body was relaxing into the pool.
There were two small bodies of water kept apart by a rubber stopper. The rabbinic intern indicated that the pool on the left was filled with “living water” from a river or stream, or practically, collected rainwater. The right pool was pure, but not directly from nature.
When the rabbi indicated, I was to pull the plug and allow the water flowing naturally to enter the pool beside it, and then I would immerse all the way in like a baby floating in amniotic fluid and then emerge forth. This would happen three times, followed by a triumphant recitation of the S’hma proclaiming God is One.
The room was tiled in an ocean blue and lit only by candles all around the bath. Before I stepped in, I imagined the mikveh water to be warm and inviting, heated from the inside out.
The sparkle of the water led my mind to the intricate beaded bodice of my wedding gown, past the final fitting but still anxiety provoking about those two pounds that would make all the difference in my walk down the aisle to meet my future husband. The rose scent from the candles masked any sense of other. The tub was for me alone, signaling my change in status to a married woman. There were small gurgling bubbles. I saw no filter. This was an eternity pool, breathing in sync with my rhythm and the rhythm of Nature. I tasted living water.
Rabbi R. came in like a sharp breeze, possibly a hurricane. She was an aerobics instructor turned Rabbi, one of the first women ordained in the conservative tradition. She commuted to New York and back to LA once a week for her training. My mom brought me to R’s aerobics class when I was a kid. I remember her impossibly long acrylic nails and coordinating leotards and leg warmers. Years later, she officiated at my grandmother’s funeral and she helped us say goodbye to our dog, Maggie. In 3 days, she would be the one to marry us! I felt a pang of discomfort standing naked before her with my curvaceous hips and fleshy arms.
My mom and sister were with me in the room with the double pools. My mother-in-law to be and my grandmother-in-law to be were in the adjacent room behind the curtain, for privacy. We were three generations of Jewish women representing countless generations of Jewish women.
But I was profoundly alone, terrified and about to merge with Josh while maintaining my status as a Jewish woman like the Eve in my torah portion. I was joining another family and yet I was not letting go of my own. Two families coming together, separated by a thin curtain, which would be connective at times, and stretched thin at others.
Rabbi R. read from a traditional service. Some prayers I recognized from Hebrew school. Though I always messed around (paper airplanes, folded up notes) with my best friend during years and years of Hebrew school, I had somehow absorbed the teachings and now I considered the experience of the High Holidays services as a married woman. I would be required to pin a lace kippah to my head to indicate my status. Many of Rabbi R.’s prayer offerings pertained to marriage and commitment and the future.
I pulled the plug which was wedged in very tight – I had to push off my legs like a frog to get the release, and then the rush. Rabbi R. triumphantly read the S’hema. I immersed three times, every strand of hair, every fiber of my belly, every millimeter of my body in the water. I held my breath underwater and came up gasping and everyone yelled “KOSHER KOSHER KOSHER”! meaning that my immersions were up to snuff, worthy of God’s gift of love.
I sang the S’hema aloud with the rabbi and with every fiber of my being. I was crying, hiccupping and blowing snot from my nose. In that serene and quiet, sacred room, we were loud and boisterous, and I felt in the water, my new relationship with God.
The immersion ceremony was complete, and the rabbinic student presented me with as a certificate that said I was officially cleansed and ready to become a kallah, bride. This was the last check on the to-do list, but spiritually the most important. I had been cleared by God to wed to my love, Joshua. I did not shower, rather let the mikveh water be forever absorbed into my skin.
The next day was the French manicure, the hair extensions, the chignon, all of which gave me spiritual pause as I was still immersed in the mikveh water.
Robyn has written for several publications, including a piece performed by Jewish Women’s Theater. Robyn has her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, their daughter, and beagle-mix, Calloway.