On Masada we sat down inside the mikvah, which was just a short flight of stairs down and then a relatively small square space. There was no water anymore, having dried up long before we thought of visiting. Not the most impressive sight, nothing to write home about. But for whatever reason the Alexander Muss High School in Israel staff decided that Masada was the right place to try and convince a group of mixed-observance eleventh graders that niddah – the system of menstrual purity laws – was actually a really sexy system intended to keep the spark alive in Jewish marriages. So while visiting the mikvah, our teacher (male) regaled us with his description of “mikvah night” where his wife comes home after two weeks of strictly not touching and … you get the picture. It was simultaneously illuminating and scarring, highly instructive and totally inappropriate.
When I was twelve or maybe fourteen or maybe even fifteen, my shul ran a fundraising campaign for 1.5 mil to build a new mikvah. Or rather my whole community ran a campaign, because it wasn’t just my shul doing the fundraising. But we’re the largest Orthodox shul in the area, so therefore we were spearheading the campaign. We spearheaded the campaign, which was really a whole community wide-effort, and our shul joined up with all the other local shuls and maybe even Chabad to raise money to build this new mikvah. Or maybe not Chabad, who possibly have their own mikvah and don’t use ours. But we raised the whole 1.5 million – or maybe it was more, I am terrible at orders of magnitude and it could easily have been 15 mil – in order to build the new mikvah, because the old one was pretty dilapidated. Or possibly the old one wasn’t dilapidated, but it was just not really that conveniently located. The old one is out in Wynnewood, which likely means nothing to you, but which I can tell you is close enough by car and not particularly close by foot to most of the shuls and therefore not where the Orthodox Jews actually mostly live. Or possibly the old mikvah was both dilapidated and far. Reader’s choice.
So they raised all the money to build the new mikvah, which they then bought the property for and built. The property was previously a vacant lot, about a half a block around the corner from my house. About five houses down, all things told. I used to walk by that abandoned lot every day on my way to my school bus stop in the morning, with its puddles and its cracks in the pavement. I had that bus stop starting in second grade and until I graduated high school, which was after the mikvah was built.
I don’t think I knew what a mikvah was until they raised the money to build the new one. I knew about toveling – where you dip your new dishes before kashering – but not about niddah. Even if I did know about mikvahs I certainly could not have told you where ours was. I don’t remember learning about mikvahs, even though I have generally a pretty good memory for that kind of thing. It was just like – when I was young I was never aware of mikvahs, and then suddenly they became this crucial part of Judaism and also right there on my way to the bus stop.
One thing I do remember – likely inspired by my Muss teacher’s “mikvah night” lesson – is sitting down with my mother and talking to her about niddah. She wasn’t exactly forthcoming, but I remember sitting there, on our living room couch, piecing together the details of her practice of taharat hamishpachah, looking back on when I was younger and my parents bought that chair that one of them would sometimes sleep on. At the time I had understood it just to mean that they just didn’t always like to share the bed, because sometimes sharing a bed is not very comfortable. Sharing a bed is not always very comfortable, but that was beside the point.
The new mikvah is by all reports very nice, although I don’t know whose reports, because I cannot tell you if my mother has ever used this mikvah, because as previously stated I do not know either the intimate details of my mother’s practice or when this mikvah was built. But I think it’s nice with deep pools and good privacy and nice lighting or something. Very clean, nice showers. The mikvah building, I can tell you about – I still walk by it quite frequently. It is set back from the street, which is Union Ave. if you are curious, quite a quiet residential street. The parking lot is in front, with a few trees along the sidewalk, and on the whole the building is fairly inconspicuous except it has a sort of an arch with some Hebrew words on top. It could perhaps be mistaken for a very nondescript shul.
There are two doors, one to the mikvah proper and one to the keilim mikvah. I have never been to the mikvah proper, for obvious reasons, but I once accompanied my mother to the keilim mikvah. I was shocked to find it was just a really deep sink. They do have a plastic-laminated print out sheet next to the deep sink with the bracha that you’re supposed to say as you dip your dishes, like you see sometimes in downscale kosher restaurants by the sink for washing, except here it’s a different bracha. I believe that I got to do some of the dipping.
At night the mikvah has a little more intrigue. I am always self-conscious about looking in the parking lot to see how crowded it is. There are about ten parking spots in the parking lot. Sometimes I walk by at night and it is almost all parked up, and I feel on some level that it is not respectful of the privacy of the women using the mikvah to look too carefully at their cars, so I do my best to avert my eyes or focus on other things. The outside lights on the building at night are a very warm yellow – almost orange. It is incredibly inviting.
At the end of high school I had a few years packed full of Jewish Tourism. I went with school to Israel, and with my siblings to Prague and Budapest and France and Spain. In Besalu, which is a medieval town about a 40-minute bus ride outside of Girona, which had, in the 13th century, a notable Jewish presence, I took one of my siblings on a day trip to see the old mikvah. I am not saying this to brag, but at this point I have seen a lot of mikvahs — all of them without water. All of them basically just a few steps down, and then a smallish square room or pool, I guess, where you dunk. I believe the mikvah at my summer camp was a little curtained-off section of our camp lake, but I would not say that I ever saw it. Can you really say that you’ve seen something if you know the image but never recognized it for what it is?
In any case, perhaps someday I will go to a real mikvah under the cover of night and I will not drive because I am not planning on learning to drive, and so I will not worry about a nosy girl looking too hard at my car in the parking lot, and I will walk into the building with its warm inviting light and inside there will be harsher less inviting light because everyone needs to be able to see very carefully. And then I will go to the mikvah itself, which will be much larger than I expect given the ancient and medieval mikvahs I have seen, or perhaps just about the same size, actually, just like I was surprised when the keilim mikvah was just a sink. But this mikvah, so unlike the tourist sites, will have flowing water and I will walk down a step or two with my cleaned and examined toenails, and then I will dunk three times, and then I will put everything back on and go out back onto the pavement.
Back on Muss, the (all male) teachers took the boys in our grade to the Ari Mikvah on Friday night during our Shabbat in Tzfat. While they were gone, the girls in our grade discussed sexual harassment, while sitting in a circle of metal-framed chairs with purple cushions – you know the type that they only have in synagogues and mid-scale conference centers. We sat there in the largest room on the right-off-the-entryway hall of the hostel we were staying in, a room with warm yellow-orange lighting. Then the boys came back, and we all went back into the entryway hall, which had very limited seating and harsh overhead LED lighting, and the boys had decided to only respond to anything we girls said with questions, which I know is confusing, but I cannot make it make more sense for you because it did not make any more sense for me. And somehow, even in question format, these 17-year-old-boys looked at us and could not help but brag about how transformative their trip to the mikvah had been, and also how they got to see our teacher’s cute butt.