“As soon as my husband sees this brooch on me, he knows not to touch.” She smiles at us, adjusting her short brown wig and straightening her suit, having just shared an intimate secret with a group of fifty teenage girls. I did not relate to this woman. I didn’t relate to how old she was. I didn’t relate to how formal she seemed. She would never understand me and I would never understand her. She was trying. She really was. A rite of passage, my high school class had the opportunity to hear a crash course on Jewish intimacy. Our prim and proper educator began the lesson declaring that “orthodox Jewish women are not frigid. On the contrary…”
While this was one class I actually found interesting, there was definitely a disconnect for me. Looking back, I realize now that a school administrator must have decided that if our class never heard another word of Jewish education again, at least we would know the bare-bones-basics of Jewish family purity.
Very quickly, in case you’re unfamiliar, Jewish tradition teaches that a husband and wife should abstain from intimate physical touch for about two weeks out of a month. There are many reasons for this, and one important aspect is keeping the romantic excitement fresh for both partners.
“We have a honeymoon every month”, she smiled again. Oh no. This was too good. I couldn’t bear it; how awkward this monologue was to hear and yet I was fascinated. A car wreck. I couldn’t turn away. It got worse as a nervy girl raised her hand and asked questions that she hoped would scare our teacher away. As much as I’d love to share her questions here, I just can’t bring myself to do it. (I didn’t know I could still blush!) To our lecturer’s credit, she plowed through every question with as much grace as she could muster.
As an adult, I applaud this woman who bravely presented us with information that surely would make most uncomfortable given the forum. But, to be honest, I don’t think the goals of inspiring and educating us on the laws of family purity were accomplished.
I have found myself interacting with a variety of women in frank conversation about these laws and the monthly visit to a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath). Recently, a friend of mine decided to dip in the mikvah for the first time in years as she prays for fertility. This special ritual has the power to unleash miraculous blessings and her effort to transcend her normal modus operandi seems equally supernatural.
One topic I hear a lot about these days is the importance of self-care. Ladies! Don’t neglect yourselves! So many preach and quite rightfully so. We (females) work from early morning until late at night. We do for others because we are hard-wired to serve as amateur psychologists, coaches, nurses, teachers, philanthropists, healers, you name it. You don’t need to be a mother to nurture the world.
I’m one of those women that would benefit from more self-care. Let’s get real, flopping on the sofa from exhaustion does NOT qualify.
My mikvah day is the one day a month that’s about me. While the children are taken care of by my husband (standard procedure), I slowly and deliberately groom myself from head to toe. I cleanse my skin, take a long shower and bath, file my nails, and enjoy some quiet. What a treat. The term “detox” comes to mind. I would never in a million years allow myself this luxury if it weren’t a Torah commandment.
After I spend over an hour giving myself a spa-like experience, I emerge from my bathroom a queen. I say goodbye to my family and whisk off to the mikvah, a spiritual spa and physical oasis. Dipping three times, I immerse fully in the water focusing my mind and heart on Godliness.
I share these waters with all women who came before me and all who come after me. In this way, I am connected to the well-intentioned teacher who was hoping I would buy in to her joy. Ultimately I did.
I haven’t even discussed the details or benefits of the two weeks of togetherness or two weeks of abstinence. We haven’t gotten to the part where the ebb and flow of a marriage’s physical cadence gets to match its emotional rhythm. I’m speaking only about the mikvah day because there is so much depth and spirituality in that day alone.
For many, the mikvah ritual is highly foreign and fraught with anxiety and misconceptions. I can understand the resistance to something so different. At the same time, as a “regular” mikvah dipper, I can easily see its rewards and am eager to share that joy with others (hopefully in a way that feels relevant and approachable unlike my teenage perception of the educator).
To think that the vast majority of Jewish women don’t opt in to this day is a loss- pure and simple. It’s our personal day for transformation and spirituality. Women are entitled to this day. It is our birthright. It is a gift.