Thursday, December 26, 2002

The Great Mikve Revolt

On Saturday night, I got a chance to peer into that inner sanctum of religious Jewish womanhood: the mikve. No, I wasn’t playing Peeping Tom. I went to the movies.

Filmmaker Anat Zuria recently completed a fascinating, informative but decidedly downbeat documentary on mikve in Israel called “Tahora” (“Purity” in English). Funded in part by the New Foundation for Cinema and TV and originally shown three months ago on Israel’s Channel 8, “Tahora” had its theatrical premiere several weeks ago at the Jerusalem Cinemateque. A subsequent article about it in the Jerusalem Post led to a flurry of defensive pro-mikve letters to the editor.

This past Motzei Shabbat, the film was shown again at the Kehillat Moreshet Avraham synagogue in East Talpiot to a packed and curious house of mostly English speakers.

A quick backgrounder for the uninitiated. Traditional Jewish couples do not touch at all when the woman is menstruating. At the end of the woman’s period, an additional seven days is tacked on. This 12-14 day period is known as nidda. It culminates with a trip to the mikve, a small indoor pool where the woman dunks three times and is pronounced “kosher,” ready to return to her husband.

“Tahora” focuses on three women (four actually, if you include the ever-present voice of the director) who each have their own intimate struggles concerning their relationships to the mikve.

Natalie is going through a process of questioning much of her traditional upbringing following a painful divorce. For her, mikve has become a symbol of unbending Rabbinical authority over her personal and private status.

Shira is engaged to be married and receives her first lessons in “Taharat Mishpacha” (Family Purity) from her overly enthusiastic mother; Shira’s reactions range from detached bemusement to outright disgust.

Katie, the only “Anglo” interviewed, has no problem with the mikve per se, but her menstrual cycle, along with intermittent"spotting," is such that her strict adherence to the laws of Taharat Mishpacha leave her with virtually no days to be with her husband physically. In one scene with her doctor, she even considers taking the radical step of a hysterectomy to get around the problem. In another, she visits Shani, a sensitive Jewish Law consultant who calmly advises her to wear colored underwear as a possible solution.

“Tahora” explores these issues and others thoroughly, with both discretion and candor. However, there is clearly an agenda. The director herself said as much when the film premiered. “I did not believe that I was unclean during my period and did not believe that I was pure when I left the heavily chlorinated mikve.”

After the movie, Jody and I reviewed our own 14 years of mikve observance which, in contrast to what we have just watched on screen, has been almost entirely positive.

Maybe it’s the immigrant experience again.

Jody’s first mikve, and our first six years of regular monthly visitations (minus pregnancy and nursing), was in a small redwood house, really more of a cabin, set in a secluded grove of trees in Berkeley. There was a tastefully appointed waiting room, decorative tiles throughout, and plenty of privacy. This I know because Berkeley, being a small Jewish community, it was also the mikve for dunking dishes and men.

The mikve shown in the film, on the other hand, is our local Baka watering hole. Old and colorless, with exposed pipes, peeling paint and a cold concrete waiting room, Jody went there only once before deciding it was far too dreary. Now she uses the mikve in nearby Katamon, which is more reminiscent of our Berkeley days, albeit in a functional sort of way.

In Berkeley, too, Jody was called upon to serve as a mikve attendant, the woman who checks the other women and makes sure their nails are clean, their backs are free from stray hairs, and there’s not a spec of make-up remaining.

Jody always loved these responsibilities. She created a sense of camaraderie between the women who ran into each other in the waiting room. Done with care, under the tutelage of the right attendant, mikve can be like a secret club where the members all have very special and pleasurable roles to fulfill once they leave.

In the movie, by contrast, the mikve attendant is coarse and perfunctory, and the woman being checked stands naked before the attendant, scowling throughout the process. Indeed, no one smiles throughout “Tahora.” A trip to the Berkeley hills would definitely be in order.

There is more to mikve than just the physical facilities, of course, and the plight of Katie is particularly poignant as she has been trapped by a Rabbinically-added “fence around the Torah” – the seven day waiting period – which was not part of the original laws from the book of Leviticus itself. And, as Katie comments in the film, “Seven days is no small number.”

The Rabbis defined numerous other laws pertaining to mikve and Taharat Mishpacha, many on the draconian side, so much so that the Rabbanut requires brides-to-be to attend a course in the ins and outs of, well, not going in and out.

When I was first studying all of this 17 years ago, the prohibition that always stood out for me was that somewhere it says that a man and woman in nidda cannot even pass a baby between them, lest a stray touch lead to untoward behavior. To this day, I have yet to fathom how such a couple gets a crying child from one parent to the other. Do they place the infant on the cold floor first?

Other laws that the film presented as particularly restrictive include the fact that a couple may not touch from the moment the woman goes into labor until many weeks later, when the bleeding has stopped.

Perhaps it was these rulings that led to the great mikve revolt in Egypt, which was put down by none other than the Rambam, Maimonedes, himself, who ruled that a rebellious woman who refuses sexual relations with her husband loses her financial rights and can be divorced, a ruling that stands to this day. While the revolt is well documented, the reasons the women rebelled are not. Could it be that the theory and beauty of mikve has gotten out of sync with its practice?

I don’t know what we would do if we were in Katie’s position. Our circumstances are not as dire and we find the monthly separation and then coming back together invigorating. Still, “Tahora” raises important points and I am delighted to see that it has spurred discussion. This is the only way things can start to change.

There is one convention I’d change on the double, though. Mikve should be free. Right now, it costs 20 shekels for a shower, 25 for a bath (that’s around $5 a dunk).

You’ve got to hand to us: only the Jews would institute a sex tax, where you can’t be together unless you pay a clerk. But on the other hand, we used to pay $25 back in Berkeley.

Now there’s a reason to make aliyah: it’s cheaper to make love in Israel…

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