21 March 2005 (Monday)

mikveh monologues, take two

Update (Tuesday evening March 22): Please see this addition to the footnotes.


Yesterday I went to the Mayyim Hayyim Spring Benefit, where we saw the premiere of The Mikvah Monologues. The play is a work-in-progress by Anita Diamant, similar in concept to Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues. A group of actors (in this staging, five women and two men) take turns approaching a central microphone to relate stories to the audience, with occasional help from stage mucisians or conversations with other actors.

As presented yesterday, The Mikveh Monologues focuses on the non-Orthodox perspective on the use of mikvah (my preferred spelling; I apologize for the inconsistency) and drew primarily from interviews and discussions with people who had used Mayyim Hayyim.* The play included tales of various uses of mikvah unrelated to taharat hamishpacha or conversion, which are the only times that tevila (immersion) is required according to halacha, to the best of my knowledge. The characters included: a lesbian trying to immerse before her wedding (same-sex marriages were first performed in Massachusetts on May 17, 2004); a man who regularly immerses with his son erev Shabbat; several converts (both male and female); a woman who designed a mikvah ritual to mark the end of her chemotherapy treatment after a battle with breast cancer; an intermittent observer of T"H immersing during her ninth month of pregnancy (considered a segula for an easy birth and a healthy child, as well as a fortuitous time to pray for infertile women); a retired congregational rabbi whose immersion before Rosh Hashana helped him reconnect with his spirituality; and a woman who immersed in a lake prior to her wedding surrounded by her female relatives and the members of her college Rosh Chodesh group, a total of over two dozen women.

Generally speaking, I think the existence of this play is a good thing. Obviously, I am in favor of open discussion about T"H, and I think it's important to talk about all of the related issues, including non-T"H-related contexts for mikvah use. I also recognize that the intended audience for both this play and for Mayyim Hayyim's activities in general is decidedly non-Orthodox; I saw only one other woman at the event covering her hair for the mitzvah of kisui rosh, but plenty of women there were wearing kipot. It would be unreasonable if the play did not address the unique concerns of Jews outside of Orthodoxy who are trying to own a practice that, by the nature of its observance (the requirement of a kosher mikvah), often exists squarely within the control of the (perceived) Orthodox monolith.

For all of that, though, I don't think that the play's portrayal of Orthodoxy in general, and Orthodox mikva'ot in particular, was particularly kind or even appropriate. There were numerous references to unsatisfying experiences at "the local Othodox mikvah" (including an out-and-out refusal by an attendant at this mikvah to schedule an appointment for the aforementioned lesbian) that were then contrasted with spiritually satisfying immersions at Mayyim Hayyim. I know some of the attendants at this local mikvah**, and I have been there numerous times in my married life. I have spoken to several of the attendants (one at great length) about their training and interactions with users of the mikvah. As far as I can tell, it is their policy not to inquire as to a person's reasons for using the mikvah, and not to turn away anyone without very good reason. (Personally, I wouldn't turn away anyone at all, since the purpose of any given tevila has no effect on the kashrut of the mikvah itself. I don't know what reasons are considered worth turning someone away for, but I'm fairly certain there are women who use Daughters of Israel who do not keep the seven white days, or who do not do bedikot at all. I also walked in there without my wedding ring the first few times I went, and I wasn't "dressing the part" and din't know the attendant on duty, but no one ever batted an eyelash.)

So what did they say about this unnamed "Orthodox mikvah" that bothered me so much? Well, there was the woman immersing in her ninth month of pregnancy who complained that the attendant at the mikvah reminded her that her tevila was not a mitzvah, that such immersions are done in the hopes of having a healthy birth and child and for the sake of praying for others' infertility, and that she should keep on her nail polish and rings as a reminder thereof...only, in the play, the character was terribly offended and felt that the experience was spiritually cheapened. Um...because the attendant reminded you that it wasn't a mitzvah? Because she didn't want you to forget and say a bracha and take God's name in vain? That offended you?

Or there was the woman who wanted to immerse prior to her (same-sex) marriage. She called to make an appointment "for any time in the next two weeks." The actor playing the role of the attendant put on an accent somewhere between Yiddische Mame and Long Island Socialite, complete with hand-wringing and a gratuitous "oy." She chastised the caller and sought to instruct her in the proper way to go about things, and then nearly plotzed. (sorry, I had to say it) when the caller said she was a lesbian. Before telling her that her kind couldn't immerse here, of course. Like I said, I know quite a few of the attendants at Daughters of Israel, and I can't picture any of them reacting that way. Because, you know, none of them have ever met a lesbian before. And, even if the ultimate result would have been turning this woman away, I'm certain that whoever was on the phone would have been far more polite and understanding...and if she wasn't, I'd like to meet her myself and knock some sense into her. Either way, I don't appreciate Ms. Diamant painting us all with such a wide brush dipped into such dark paint.

I was disappointed at the lack of voices from the Orthodox/observant community. The closest approximation was a character who desceibed herself as observing T"H intermittently during her marriage, saying essentially: "Why not? We keep kosher and restrict our activities on Shabbat, too." The character in question described restrictions on Shabbat as a way of sanctifying time, and niddah restrictions as a way of sanctifying sex. So far, so good. I'm starting to like this character.>*** So we have a woman who could probably be described as shomeret mitzvot, great. She chooses to go to Mayyim Hayyim when she is ready to immerse for the first time after the birth of her daughter. Eight months after the birth of her daughter. Look, lady, if you still can't get a hefsek eight months after childbirth, you should be talking to a gyncologist, because you have some serious bleeding problems. Eight weeks, more likely. Eight months is fairly accurate timing for your second immersion after childbirth, if you are no longer "nursing clean," and that is probably what was meant here. I'm fairly confident (though obviously not sure) that this was not a misreading by the actor. Instead, it was probably an oversight on the part of Ms. Diamant, which was not caught by anyone else who read the play before production. The one conceivably Orthodox character, and they make a mistake like this? Sloppy. Not conducive to cross-denominational support.

So what? Maybe they don't want my support. Well, too bad...they're going to get it anyway. I will not bear witness to the division of the Jewish community at large, not without putting up a good fight. I believe that The Mikveh Monologues, when completed, could be something truly wonderful and powerful. I believe that Mayyim Hayyim can be a true community resource, a strong focal point for the entire Jewish community. We're not going to get there by hating on each other, though; we're not going to build it only through forces of reaction. I want to reach out to you...I want to be a part of your world and invite you to be a part of mine. We have so much common ground. Please, let's explore together.


* Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh is a new, non-denominational mikvah in Newton, MA. It opened approximately ten months ago (after years of planning) and is the brainchild of Anita Diamant, Rabbi Barbara Penzner, Dr. Paula Brody, Judy Greene, and Roz Garber. As far as I know at this time, there is no reason to think that the mikvah is not fit for use, but no Orthodox rabbi has publically endorsed it. There are serious political implications for whoever first steps forward from the Orthodox community to declare that Mayyim Hayyim is kosher, so I understand the trepidations. However, there is also much to be gained making such an endorsement, in both the immediate future and in the long term. If you are in a position to help bridge the divide between the Boston-are Orthodox community and the Jewish community at large, or if you have the ear of someone who is in such a position, I strongly encourage you to do whatever you can to: (1) ascertain the kashrut of the mikvah; (2) share your findings openly; and (3) reach out to the community on both sides to promote a sense of understanding and acceptance.

Update (March 22): Upon further research, I have elected not to begin using Mayyim Hayyim for myself. I am happy to discuss my reasons for this privately via email or phone. If I learn anything new that makes me change my mind (either to begin using it or to share my reasoning publicly), I will post further updates. In the meantime, I still strongly encourage all members of the community (from all denominations) to contact their community leaders and the board of Mayyim Hayyim to request that this mikvah be operated under parallel hashgacha (religious supervision) and made to be kosher for use by all members of the community.

** There are only three so-called "Orthodox" mikva'ot in the Greater Boston area: Daughers of Israel in Brighton; Western Well in Natick; and a Lubavitch mikvah somewhere nearby that I've heard about but for which I was unable to scare up details. Western Well opened only fairly recently (less than two years ago) and is not the most centrally located, so I think it is unlikely that this is the "Orthodox" mikvah to which most characters were referring. If I had trouble getting information on a local Lubavitch mikvah, it probably wasn't the first place called by any other random person, either. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that the "Othodox mikvah" referenced repeatedly in The Mikveh Monologues is, iin fact, Daughters of Israel.

*** My memory is fuzzy, but this may have been the same character as the one who talked about immersing in her ninth month. Actually, upon further reflection, I'm pretty sure it was.

# posted by shanna at 4:17 PM
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It's on Chestnut Hill Ave, near South St. (Where Chestnut Hill makes its first crazy turn coming from Comm Ave towards Brighton Center.) It's in Rabbi Krinsky's Chabad House/shul, Mrs. Krinsky runs it, by appointment only, prep area is more or less part of the mikvah room, and (with apologies) the Lubavitch women I know use D of I instead. Gets a lot of use by men, though. Actually, there's another one, too: the Bostoner Shul has a men only mikvah, in case you ever wondered why D of I is only open to men on Erev Yom Kippur, and not erev Shabbos as well. (To the best of my knowledge.)

That said, I am having trouble not finding the above described play to be in bad taste, but I agree, the parts that bother me the most are the same ones that bother you. If said lesbian had not mentioned that fact, and called to make an appointment for a specific day, instead of leaving it open, then no one would have said a word. She could have even claimed Kallah treatment, as long as she didn't mention the female spouse part. But to blatantly throw it in the attendant's face like that, what did she expect? I mean, please, my first response would also have been to tell her no!

Not having thought about it extensively, I'm not sure if I could let her in, as an attendant, (which I'm not) knowing all the details... but then again, is it really my (or any other shomeret's) business to play doorkeeper? She'll just find another mikvah, (Mayim Chayim, for example) and you have a good point... it doesn't invalidate the mikvah itself in any way.

I hope you have sent your comments to Ms. Diamant, or drawn her attention to them in some way... I'd like to see the play improved, and truly show the Orthodox perspective as well, if only to not continue spreading negative stereotypes!

Posted by: Miriam at 8:22 PM on 21 March 2005

I should add, I haven't seen it... I'm going solely based on your description.

Posted by: Miriam at 8:23 PM on 21 March 2005

I comment as it comes to me.Therefore you get it as I release it,where you and your posts are up to is really of no relevance to me and mine.Thank you.

[I left this up because it amuses me. For now. - s]

Posted by: AMSHINOVER at 12:32 PM on 22 March 2005

I will comment on

Either way, I don't appreciate Ms. Diamant painting us all with such a wide brush dipped into such dark paint.

This brings to mind a very recent editorial by Wendy Shalit, in the NY Times Essay: The Observant Reader (in the book review section). Now, I haven't read her full essay, I just read most of the aftermath in the Jewish Press.

Ok, I'll leave it at that for now and do my homework on what she wrote and what was said after and how that compares to this.

(I have read 2 of AD's books (we won't talk much about that now), and have been trying to finish WS's for over 3 years)

Posted by: peninah at 4:42 PM on 22 March 2005

Really cool post today. Thank you. Do you ever read http://www.mayimrabim.com?

[Remainder of comment removed; not relevant to this post. - s]

Posted by: Jen at 8:12 PM on 22 March 2005

Jen - I *own* Mayim Rabim!

Posted by: shanna at 9:45 PM on 22 March 2005

I haven't seen the play, either (as you know), but on the basis of your description, I'd bet it would have ticked me off, too. *Sigh.* So typical.

Posted by: Ruchama at 1:42 AM on 28 March 2005

I'd like to second the suggestion that you write to Anita Diamant. I think it's important that she hears views like this (and that she corrects the glaring error of the woman going to the mikvah for the first time 8 months after giving birth - I caught that one too).

I wasn't as upset after that show as you were. I thought overall that the stories were extremely touching and that it's a really great thing to make a show like this. But I did feel at the end that they spent too much time actively promoting Mayyim Hayyim. It started feeling more like an advertisement. and even worse, she was certainly promoting Mayyim Hayyim by putting down Orthodox mikvahs (and yes, one in particular), which is quite innapropriate and unecessary. She could easily have let the characters testimonies about their experiences at Mayyim Hayyim speak for themselves.

As far as the lesbian goes, I wasn't too upset by that. Yes you're right that no mikvah attendant would really talk like that. but do you know anyone who talks like ANY of the characters in this play, in such an over-dramatized extremely excited way?
Of course, part of me not caring about this portrayal is that I know that this incident was being overdramatized. but given that a lot of the audience probably wouldn't know that an Orthodox mikvah lady is unlikely to truly behave like this, maybe you're right to be upset.

To address Miriam's comment, the lesbian was not at all portrayed as 'throwing it in the attendant's face'. Presumably she didn't know that it was abnormal to ask for an appointment 'anytime in the next 2 weeks', and the fact that she was a lesbian was reluctantly drawn out of her in the ensuing discussion.

I'd hate for anyone to get the impression that this was a terrible play, because for the most part it was very inspirational and fills a serious educational need in the greater Jewish community. but yes, there were serious issues with it, and I think it would be very worthwhile to point these out to Ms Diamant.

Posted by: Felicia at 10:58 AM on 30 March 2005

OK, I think I'm actually serious about getting in touch with Ms. Diamant about this. It would probably be best if I could have an actual conversation with her (phone or in person) rather than putting it all out in a letter/email. Does anyone know a good "in" for that? I may have to resort to sending a fuzzy email telling her generally what I think and requesting to discuss it futher.

Posted by: shanna at 12:19 PM on 1 April 2005

Shalom. I have just learned about your site and am excited to see the dialogue about Niddah. I would be very happy to invite you to tour Mayyim Hayyim and engage in a dialogue about how we can better serve you and the women in your online community. Please feel free to reach me at 617-244-1836 ext 210.


Aliza Kline
Mayyim Hayyim Executive Director

Posted by: Aliza Kline at 10:14 AM on 6 April 2005
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