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.