My First Mikveh by Elizabeth L. Silver
Eight months into my first pregnancy, I visited a mikveh for the first time. In Hebrew, the word "mikveh" literally means a "collection" – or more specifically, a collection of water. What happens is simple. You cleanse your body of all impurities, and following a specific ritual, walk into a pool of water (much like in a spa), and say three prayers while submerging into the water three times. Many look at it as a rebirth, a transformation, a healing. For example, the final component of conversion to Judaism is the submergence in the waters of the mikveh. Each month, religious women dip as a form of cleansing. Some use it to combat fertility, while others dip in the waters of the mikveh prior to their weddings, yet others prior to becoming parents. Rabbis suggest that if a pregnant woman wants to visit a mikveh, she does so in her eighth month.
My sister-in-law, innately spiritual and pathologically generous, came with me as I stripped naked, empty of clothing, jewelry, makeup, contact lenses, nail polish, and stray hairs, and dipped three times in the holy water, awaiting my rebirth. I had never visited a mikveh, but I longed to go this time. After all, having a child is the ultimate change in life, and I wanted to connect with something that I’d been missing for years. I had struggled with this pregnancy, finding myself sad for no apparent reason, the hormones raging inside of me without a home. Pregnancy was like a beautiful quilt that I’d one day give to my child. Each patch was supposed to contribute an element of color or texture, but the more and more complex the quilt became, the less unified it felt. As my body grew, the lining of the quilt stretched and pulled until it broke apart into dozens of small sections. This disconnect is what had brought me to the mikveh in my eighth month, hoping to be put back together, to make myself whole.
As I entered the mikveh, the area surrounding the tub was foggy and blurred. Dozens of candles lit my pathway into the blue pool and the seven steps down into its waters. I could barely see above the line of water when not submerged. But down I went into the warm fluid, thick as amnios, three times, a prayer spoken between each. The faces around me watched in joy, though I couldn’t see their expressions. My eyesight had worsened so much over the past years, that these figures were faceless bodies protecting me in this holy moment of birth. Without eye contact, spiritual immersion is far more feasible. There were no people with whom to visually connect, over whom to feel self- conscious, over whose opinions and judgments I could question based on facial expression alone. So I could simply float.
Once the three prayers were complete, the three faceless bodies left me alone in the water. Darkness surrounded the mikveh like pillars of active smoke, while the candles lifted me up. I stood there mumbling to myself. What I said, I can’t even remember, but it was one of the few times in my life I felt a spiritual connection to something else. When finished, I walked out, step by step seven times, until I left the mikveh room. In that time, somehow, the patchwork that had been twisted and torn and shed into dozens of miniature fears started sewing itself back together into a new pastiche.For one week, I felt the holy water glazing over my elasticized skin, the sadness drying off of me along with it. Whether it’s natural emotions or physical discomfort, what anyone is “supposed” to feel at a time of birth is simply not uniform, regardless of the customs, cultures, backgrounds, or personalities.
Over a year later, I went back to the mikveh for the second time in my life, this time with my daughter. We visited the mikveh alone. We showered together. We prepared together. Again, I removed my nail polish, contact lenses, dirt from both of our bodies, but this time also removed her diaper and barrettes, and we walked slowly into the warm body of water. She didn’t cry when her toes dipped, she didn’t recoil. In my arms, she descended into the pool, and I held both of our naked bodies in the water. I dipped her and placed her head on my shoulder upon completion. We swayed in the warm water. We held each other. When we came out, did anything of substance change? No. But it was an isolated moment that will be another peg in our lives together, one that she will likely not remember. But perhaps, in an alternate world, the emotional muscle memory of that moment will return one day if she chooses to visit a mikveh in the future. And perhaps, in that alternate world, she will remember.