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The Visit

Rub a dub dub, three Jewish women in a tub.

It is an Orthodox tub but we are not Orthodox. We are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Orthodox.

We are trying to be sheep in sheep's clothing, naked Jewish sheep in no clothing.

We wonder if we are not fooling anyone, if we stand guilty, like Adam and Eve, God's loud voice offstage, demanding Adam and Eve to admit what He already knows they did.

Each of us is as naked as the day she was born, at least, just about.

The three women are Sonia, Peggy, and me. The tub is not really a tub; it is a small indoor pool. In accordance with religious law, it contains a certain amount of water from a natural source. The pool is a mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, mostly frequented by Orthodox Jewish women. We are Jewish and women but not Orthodox. There are mikvahs all over the world—Bangkok, Anchorage, Bogotá. This mikvah is on Touhy Avenue on the north side of Chicago. Peggy and I are accompanying Sonia. She is getting married soon, and before the wedding she wants to go through the bride's traditional purification rite. At a friend's house she asked if anyone wanted to come with her. Peggy and I offered, imagining ourselves as handmaidens to the bride, though later Sonia will remember that she invited us reluctantly. That is part of the reason I'm calling her Sonia here, which is not her real name. [End Page 69]

Human Understanding

A Jewish woman's three duties: light the candles on the Sabbath, observe the laws of ritual purity, and when baking challah, egg bread, pinch off a piece of dough and throw it into the fire to echo the sacrifices burned at the ancient Temple. (It goes without saying that she must make challah every Friday.) The laws of the mikvah are in the category of chukkin—those laws that defy human understanding, and must be followed on faith. Other examples are keeping kosher and refraining from mixing linen and wool.

I grew up doing the first, I've made challah once or twice, have never gone to the mikvah. Before this night.

According to the Jewish laws of family purity, a woman is unclean during her period and for some time after, and then she goes to the mikvah. While you are unclean you may not touch a man. Or a man may not touch you, there is a slight difference. Having sex when you are ritually impure, according to the Mishnah, the rabbis' commentary, can lead to giving birth to devilish children. Or death in childbirth. The first time she is supposed to immerse herself is before the wedding. Orthodox women say that the abstinence adds excitement to a marriage, so that the first night back with their husbands is like a honeymoon.

Muslims also observe what's known as "menstrual control," which means they have laws having to do with what a woman is allowed and not allowed to do during her period. Christians do not. Therefore, the menstrual laws were followed by Jews more strictly in Christian countries, to counter assimilation.

The traditional mikvah is nondescript, silent, does not announce itself. No neon lights or blinking arrows. Jewish women duck into them inconspicuously, emerging with wet hair and an appointment in the marital bed. Typically women usually go to the mikvah at night—under cover of darkness, and also because Jewish days begin and end at sunset. They slip back into their homes, not meeting their children's eyes.

You step down into the pool—toes, pelvis, torso. Dip past the crown of your head. Pull down the floating tips of your hair. Rise up three times, say the prayer each time. It is written on the wall of the pool.

No priest or rabbi is there to sanction, to bless. It is do-it-yourself, after you've passed the gatekeeper—in the person of the "mikvah lady," who acts as inspector, attendant, and, in some cases, confessor...


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