Spiritual Renewal Meets Bodily Renewal in Mikvah

By Caroline Langston 4-24-2012
The ritual cold bath Mikvah in Speyer, Germany. Ralph Orlowski/ Getty Images.
The ritual cold bath Mikvah in Speyer, Germany. Ralph Orlowski/ Getty Images.

Not long ago, on an otherwise unremarkable winter weekday, I set off by myself on a mysterious mission.

I got the children dressed for school, lunches made, my son (the same torn jeans, stubborn cowlicks in his hair) into his carpool, and my daughter dropped off at the day care center she attends three days a week. I was wearing the same long black skirt I always seem to wear on my days home from work. I filled the car with gas; bought coffee and a bottle of water.

Then I got on the on-ramp to the highway. It was a good thing that I’d waited until after the morning rush hour traffic, because otherwise it could have taken hours: Out of Maryland, through a little sliver of Washington, D.C., across the Potomac River and then spiraling across silvery ribbon miles of interstate (the Capital Beltway, Highway 66) out into Virginia, where the housing developments and shopping centers were bigger and newer than the tight old-suburban knot of the neighborhood where I live.

I pulled into the asphalt lot of an otherwise undistinguished strip mall, slammed the door, and headed into the mirrored granite lobby of Spa World, the largest Korean “family” spa on the East Coast.

I handed over my credit card, got back the tiny key to the tiny locker where I put my shoes. I’d heard a lot about Spa World during the last couple of years: Oh, it’s great, people said. But you have to be naked. (I’d learned about it from Good Letters’ own Laura Bramon Good, in fact.)

I thought about this as I headed into the women’s locker room, found the second locker for my clothes, and proceeded to take every bit of clothing off. Then I stepped through the room in which every single other woman--save the Korean staff members in matching black bras and panties (!)--was also unclothed.

And I was amazed at how normal everything felt. How easy, if strange, it was to stroll into the “bade pool” area, and to take a shower in front of everyone, the requirement for entering the communal tubs. I stepped a tentative foot down the cement stairs into the central bath--scanning the other women’s faces out of the corner of my eye for any clues as to unwritten bits of etiquette--sat down in a bubbling alcove, and started thinking about the mikvah.

The mikvah, the Jewish ritual purification bath. The requirement to immerse in a pool combining fresh and still waters technically applies to both men and women, though most people know it chiefly from the requirement that women visit the mikvah at the conclusion of menses, to be released back into full sexual contact with their husbands.

Washington, D.C.’s National Capitol Mikvah is located, I learn from the internet, in Georgetown, doubtlessly in proximity to the Orthodox synagogue there, as Orthodox women are the primary observers of the commandment today. (Although I did once attend an ad hoc mikvah late one night on a Connecticut beach, dancing and blessing a very progressive and very pregnant bride the night before her wedding, as she shone in the moonlight.)

I’ve written before about Miriam’s Kitchen, Elizabeth Ehrlich’s memoir of her growing progression toward observant Judaism, but it is probably her chapter on visiting the mikvah that I love most. Here is a passage toward its end:

I feel my hair drift in the warm, slightly moving water. As I emerge, the attendant hands me my glasses, so I can read a prayer off a laminated card. I bless God for commanding me to immerse. I give back the glasses and dunk twice more.

Last time, the attendant pronounced me “Clean!” This time, the mikvah lady tells me, “You did great!” Then, she says, “Your glasses,” and hands them down to me. A strange thing happens, standing there. I begin to weep and I can’t stop.

How scandalous the Christian notion of one baptism must have been, in a culture built on this cycle of observance and commitment.

I, too, believe that one is baptized only once. The emotion Ehrlich describes is akin to how I feel upon making the sacrament of confession.

And yet this notion of bodily renewal as part of spiritual renewal speaks to me: I am no longer young. I am not beautiful, and I am not thin. I am not especially successful in the very city where hard work and success are esteemed more highly than in just about any other. My heels are roughened and my limbs are tired from running after the children, my brow lined from the cares of my days. Our culture teaches us to flee from these inadequacies.

At Spa World, though--as, I imagine, at the mikvah--it is these very kinds of women who predominate. We who are in the middle, in need of renewal.

Midway through the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed from the straight pathway to this tangled ground....

Now is the time for the real repentance. Now is the time to become the daughter that God would have me be--though I may be unrecognizable to myself, my skin crinkled over my bones, tendrils of gray in my hair.

I stood with my feet firm on the cement bottom of the pool, the water flowing around me, my arms and clavicles bare above the water. I took a breath, and for a splashing second, went under.

Caroline Langston, a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, is a regular contributor to Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion's Good Letters blog and has been a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. She lives with her husband and children in Cheverly, Maryland. This post originally appeared via the journal Image.

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