A Modern Mikvah

A little over a year ago, a few friends and I hosted a women’s circle to celebrate our bride-to-be friend Carrie. I never blogged about it although I got permission, because I don’t feel like I can capture its meaning and beauty in words. But, I’ll share our introductory words and the format in case it inspires, excites, or otherwise moves you to revisit and update your own rituals to bring more meaning to special times.

In the Jewish tradition, a mikvah is any body of mayim hayim, which literally means “living water,” or running water as opposed to stagnant water. Water like the beautiful ocean behind us in an example of an outdoor mikvah. A mikvah is often visited by Jews as a part of rituals as an act of purification. Brides have historically gone before their wedding day, often with her girlfriends by her side.
The word mikvah literally means a collection. Usually, it refers to the collection of water, but we can also think of this women’s gathering today as a mikvah, a collection of women. Our community is formed by women who have traveled from different places to sit in their circle, literally and metaphorically. Each of us has our own story, but it is Carrie’s role in each of our stories that created this particular collection of women. Together, in our closing mikvah ceremony, Carrie, we all are witnesses and supporters of your new partnership as well as your ever­evolving independence and kinship.

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We had several of the women in the circle from different parts of Carrie’s life – family, crafting circle, lifetime friends – offer different blessings (seven total) and pour a small bit of ocean water over Carrie’s hands. We talked about it’s power to cleanse and refresh, and to ready her with a fresh slate to build a life together with her (wonderful) husband. Most importantly, we were able to draw from tradition and community to create a meaningful, structured gathering that marked a significant milestone with resonance to our friend and her mikvah.

In general, I think rituals – religious or otherwise – exist to create known structures to recognize the significance of a moment or place in time. From a courtroom rising when a judge walks in, to political appointees getting sworn in using a bible, to the recitation of the pledge of allegiance in elementary schools in the morning, to singing take me out to the ball game in the 7th inning stretch, to saying grace before a meal, to putting on your right shoe first, rituals aren’t always right or wrong, meaningful or not; they just are. They can help disparate people form connection or also distance, and inform process for those who like knowing how things will happen.

For me, I don’t like blindly doing things just because it’s how they’ve always been done. Carrie, my friend who is now a year happily married and growing her mikvah every day, is the same; bringing meaning to what we do and how and why we do it – the process – is more important than the end itself.

What’s one ritual that you want to rethink, revise, and rebirth?

The Jew, the Jew, and the Gentile

My friend Valerie and I were biking back to Clinton Hill from Williamsburg. It was evening; she wanted to take the Wythe route through the Jewish part of the neighborhood, as it was better lit and less hilly. I noticed a woman in a traditional white long sleeve blouse, long black skirt, and tights signaling quietly but clearly to me with her finger as if to ask a question. Valerie hadn’t seen and kept biking, but I slowed to a stop.
“Excuse me, do you have a moment?” she asked.
We’re trained to run the other direction in those situations (thanks, Greenpeace), but I saw no clipboard in sight. It was also a very quiet street; I wondered how long she had been standing there. I said sure.
“Could you possibly turn off our air conditioner; it’s getting colder than we expected but can’t do it ourselves.”
It wasn’t Shabbat, but I realized that similar Jewish law regarding “work” (like turning a switch on or off) might apply on holidays, so I asked if it was because of Sukkot, to which she said yes.
“Ok, let me make sure my friend will watch my bike.”I thought for a second and then realized what I needed to disclose: “I should tell you that I’m also Jewish but do not follow the same observance custom; does that matter.”
“Oh, yes, it does matter; it won’t work. Is your friend Jewish?”
“No,” I replied, a bit stunned that I couldn’t perform this mitzvah myself. I also felt apologetic. “I hope it’s not offensive that I don’t observe this custom.”
She warmly thanked me for letting her know, and Valerie agreed without missing a beat to go in and turn the switch off. I stayed with bikes and she went in.
When Valerie emerged 5 minutes later, the woman sent her out with cups of water and gave a friendly wave and thanked us again, and we hopped back on our bikes and rode away.
Everything about this little interaction was exciting to both of us. Like anyone would be, we were curious; who in New York doesn’t like seeing any and every apartment possible and how people live? I was also so thrilled that Valerie could – and proud that she willingly did – perform this mitzvah for a family enjoying dinner during the holiday. I was also a bit jealous and uncomfortable that I couldn’t perform the task myself – I had no moral issue with it – but at the same time, I felt a sense of community with a person whose reality seemed so different from my own, because despite my style of dress and relative ambivalence towards the holiday, I was still a Jew in her eyes. I loved too that traditional observance truly mattered so much to this woman, despite how odd it seems in today’s times. 
One more Brooklyn story…

The more we love someone, the more that is on the line if that relationship were to fail. The more we let someone in to who we really are, the more fodder they have access to if they were to try to hurt us. The more a parent loves a child, the harder it will be when that child seeks independence. If an addict gives up his drug habit, it means he will be healthier and happier but it also means he may have to face the inner demons he was hiding by using.

Rabbi Marc Katz, in his Kol Nidre sermon about vulnerability. I thought the sermon was really fantastic and well-delivered. In fact, I strongly encourage you (Jewish or not) to read it; it has several good teachings and questions for us all to ponder.

It’s Yom Kippur again, and I am reflecting on the last year. There’s certainly been a lot I’ve done well, a lot I haven’t, and some things I just couldn’t change. I would like to take this opportunity to ask forgiveness from those who I have wronged this year and to work on being more patient, thoughtful, and understanding next year. To my family and friends, thank you for your support this year; you’re awesome. To everyone fasting, have an easy fast. Gmar Hatima Tova. I’m feeling good about 5773.

Access ADL

The Anti-Defamation League has a new blog dedicated to providing inside access to their work and perspective on some of critical issues our country faces including extremism, anti-Semitism, and racism. Their posts are thoroughly researched and linked, and provides a helpful lens to recognize and understand the bigotry that is unfortunately still very present in America and globally. Add it to your RSS reader, folks.

If you’re not familiar with the ADL, they’ve been combating anti-Semitism, bigotry, and extremism for 99 years through extensive research, advocacy, and education. They value safety and respect, and raise their voice against those who threaten those virtues.

Access ADL

I cannot find either of these games on Boardgame Geek (my authority on board games), but I saw them today while walking through Williamsburg. There has definitely been an evolution in ‘mainstream’ boardgames (the ones we all know: Monopoly, Connect 4, Chutes and Ladders, etc.) to depict a more racially diverse crew of kids on the box. But, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a boy with payos or a girl with a burka (equally visible points of ‘diversity’) on the box. Not that there needs to be, of course, but why is that? Would only certain groups of children play board games together?

I’m also now thinking a bit about children’s play in a religion-driven context. If anyone can lend anecdotal insight or share suggested reading, that’d be great. 

And, $hpiel?!?