Deborah Bacharach is a poet and essayist. Her work has appeared in New Letters, The Antigonish Review, Cimarron Review, Bridges, Drash, and Many Mountains Moving among many journals and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She was a college writing teacher for twenty years. Now, she is a freelance writing consultant in Seattle. Find her at atcwrites.com.
The Mikvah Hike
My life partner wanted to get married, but it took me fourteen years to figure out marriage wasn’t state sponsored shackles on women. So once I decided I was ready, I was really ready. I threw myself into the planning. I wanted a traditional Jewish wedding albeit a feminist one that could handle my ignorance of and often discomfort with Jewish ritual. I never said I was easy. Luckily, my sister, Julia, had gotten married the year before. She was my role model.
As part of her pre-wedding activities, my sister got a bunch of girlfriends together, not for a bridal shower or a bachlorette party, but for a mikvah hike. This version of the traditional Jewish ritual had been floating around the Seattle community for a few years. It takes the ancient tradition of mikvah, to ritually cleanse oneself in running water, and moves it out to the woods. A celebration in the wilderness? You can’t get any better for my spirituality. I liked the idea of putting a Northwestern slant on a traditional ceremony, so even though I had barely heard of a mikvah, I printed prayers from the Internet and headed to Mount Baker.
For years I assumed I had an underdeveloped spirituality. Then I joined a synagogue and had an entrance interview with the director. I dutifully nodded my head about all the great opportunities awaiting me. The director said Seattle actually has the highest concentration of unaffiliated Jews. “Because,” he said, “of the wilderness.” Then I started nodding my head for real. “Jews in Seattle are getting their spiritual needs met through the wilderness.”
In Seattle, the wilderness is always with us. Even the huge cruise ships can’t block sun glinting off Puget Sound’s waves. It is the western red cedar, the Douglas firs, and all the other evergreens casting their shadows next to the roads. And, always the mountains. To the east the Cascades, to the west the Olympics–their blue and white peaks pierce the sky. From the freeway, I look up, and on a good day when Mt. Rainier is out, my spirit is taken out of my body. Hiking in the thin alpine air, finding hidden lakes and crashing waterfalls, I feel awe, wonder, and profound gratefulness. If that’s what we mean by spiritual, I’ve got that.
I was having similar feelings as I thought of my wedding. It made sense to bring the wedding and the wilderness together. Except, I wasn’t ready for the actual Jewish ritual of a mikvah.
My relationship to Jewish ritual is complex and evolving. It has to meet my strict and, unfortunately, opposing guidelines: it has to have stood the test of time; I have to have learned it as a child; it can’t be sexist. Hard to bring any ritual to that set of criteria.
I know, I know, tried and true traditions have to be new at some point, and as a feminist who eagerly expanded the number of cups at a Passover seder to include one dedicated to Mose’s sister, Miriam, I can hardly be one to judge. But I do. I’m suspicious of rituals that are not rooted in the tradition I grew up with. That happens to be Reform Judaism. So I am wary even of traditions that are a centuries old part of Judaism, and which long predate Reform Judaism, such as a mikvah.
I think the rituals we learn as children create a permanent space in us. I picture each ritual creating a hook like one end of a bungee cord. It wants to be taut, to hold tight, to fulfill its purpose. When I stand and let the Sh’ma pour through me, Judaism’s central prayer and its assertion of monotheism, which is the other hook attached to the one inside me, and linking me to the service and the whole history of Judaism— it feels right. The rituals I learned as a child have the strongest hooks. I know I can add new ones. I’ve done so. I never used to touch the challah as I blessed it; now, I love doing it. But it took several awkward moments and many repetitions before it felt right to me. And that one doesn’t even have any sexist baggage.
We have a serious history of sexism in our religion. The Judaism I practice has done a pretty good job of ferreting it out. I now get to thank my foremothers along with my forefathers. My prayer book talks about God the mother. I am comfortable with these new traditions because they attach to hooks that also are part of me.
I can’t remember even hearing the word “mikvah” as a child or teen. In my twenties I read a mystery novel where an orthodox woman had to go to the mikvah and ritually cleanse herself after her menstruation, to allow her husband to touch her and have sex with her.
That created my pop culture understanding of a mikvah: menstruation makes women unclean, profane, disgusting, untouchable; sex is a man’s right, initiated by a man on a woman; women must cleanse themselves so men can have access to their bodies. I’m sure there’s some feminist revisioning of this, but from where I was standing, everything about a mikvah pissed me off. A mikvah wasn’t just an unfamiliar ritual; it went against my core values. I believe menstruation is natural and good. I believe sex is natural and good. I believe women, not the blessing of a mikvah, should control who touches them and when. I feel so strongly that it would take some effort for me to understand and respect a woman who chose to follow this ritual.
And then my sister did.
My sister is not particularly more religious than I am. Julia also grew up Reform and has basically the same lax practice as I do, but being part of the Jewish community has become central to her identity. She wanted a really, really Jewish wedding (albeit a feminist one that, if it could be helped, didn’t mention God; did I say we were easy?). She wore a veil, she signed a marriage contract called a ketubah, and she gathered a group of Jewish female friends together and went on the mikvah hike. (I should also point out that her fiancé also did a mikvah hike that day with his male friends, and they told dirty jokes on the way back—their version of a bachelor party.) I wasn’t living in town when she had her hike, so I didn’t get to try it all out. But knowing someone so similar to me was doing it made it seem doable.
I also liked what Anita Diamant had to say about it in her book “The New Jewish Wedding:” “For brides and grooms mikvah is a physical enactment of the passage from being unmarried to married. Entering the chuppah is a public declaration of a change in status; entering the mikvah is a private transforming moment.” Remember, my partner and I had been together fourteen years. We knew who left the cap off the toothpaste. Because so much was going to stay the same, I needed a physical demarcation between the old and the new. I needed a threshold to cross. I loved that the wedding was a big old community hoedown with everyone wrapping us in love, but was grateful for some traditions that could be a private witness.
Even though Diamant tried very hard to make the official mikvah bath sound appealing and accessible to a non-Orthodox woman, her description of the rules and the mikvah lady creeped me out. I pictured one of those dragons guarding the bathroom doors in Italy. They take your money, they pick out your stall, they sit right there while you try to do something private and embarrassing. No way. I’d rather jump in a lake.
It was the first hike of the season, a ritual in itself. When Talapus Lake trail turned next to a waterfall, the water jammed down, loud, unabashed, its own cheering section. It pounded, a great push of energy crashing through me. When we got to the lake, it was still and completely away from car exhaust and blinking lights, completely away from the hectic last minute choices about what flowers would go in the boutonniere. The dunk itself was crazy cold. If I was looking to be jolted into a new reality, this was it.
But my sister was in a bad mood. My mom was in a good mood, but she doesn’t like ritual, and I made her read the transliterated prayers. My other two friends hiking along were neither Jewish nor ritually oriented. A big hallelujah might have helped.
I love Jewish weddings. I love how the congregation seems to hang on every word of the ceremony and chimes in with the blessings. I love the friends and parents holding up the chuppah, or wedding canopy. I love lifting the bride and groom up on chairs, the dancing, and the great joy.
But I have noticed it only works if you have a critical mass of Jews. I can think of plenty of weddings with the five Jews in the room struggling through a lackluster horah while the rest of the wedding guests sat finishing their desserts.
It doesn’t have to be this way even if there aren’t many Jews. A high school friend converted to Judaism and married an Israeli. None of her family was Jewish and his family wasn’t there. It could have been very awkward, but they hired a klezmer band that taught us all the dances. It was one of the best weddings I’ve ever been to. We may have been learning the rituals right there, but they were taught well and we joined in with an open heart.
At my mikvah we had no one to teach us the rituals, and I don’t think my friends and family came ready to be in a religious ceremony. Me either. I tried to separate my resentment of mikvah in general from the beauty and glory this ceremony might be. It didn’t work. I still walked into the woods feeling that I was betraying myself. No wonder that even after I got out of the lake and crammed my hat back on my head, and even after my teeth stopped chattering, I still felt cold.
Would I recommend a mikvah hike? Yes, but only if. Next time, I’d prep better. I’d have long conversations with myself, inviting my ten different points of view for consensus building. I’d practice by getting myself invited to someone else’s. And, I’d build a community to invite to mine.
One thing I love about being Jewish is we have so much ritual and heritage to draw on. I feel perfectly entitled to revise the rituals, see them through my own idiosyncratic lens. I can imagine a mikvah hike to celebrate my ten-year anniversary. It’s a year away. I better start prepping now.