Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mikvah Madness

It was too late. I was naked when I found out the truth. I clutched the towel around me and stared at her in horror. I was trapped.

Only I could make such a stupid mistake. I missed all the clues- the sandy path that was longer than I remembered; the sign post for the Mikvah Keilim I didn't recall; the type of women inside- I should have known something was wrong when I saw the women. Nine of them, lined up in a row, one empty chair in the middle that they seemed to have saved for me, ready to interrogate me; the questions- how long I'd been married, how many times I'd been here before; the blessings that I wouldn't need to be back the next month.

"I've been married six years and this is my fifth time at the Mikvah" one woman proudly told me. I tried to do the math in my head, while the other women congratulated her.

The woman sitting behind the till wore a thick turban. She wasn't Simcha, the Mikvah attendant I'd come back here for. I'd travelled all the way, decided the long journey was worth it, because Simcha had been so understanding and easygoing the last time, my first time.

Maybe Simcha was inside, I told myself, I hoped. Or maybe this was Simcha's day off.

"Bath or Shower?" Mrs. Turban asked my neighbors, and one by one they disappeared down the corridor.

Eventually only I and Mrs. Fifth-Time were left. "Bath" she said, "I need a good long soak."

So the shower was free for me, and to it I was led.

"You can take anything you need from the shelves; a comb, a brush, anything else."
"Oh, I got ready at home." I said.

"You still need to comb your hair" she said. She sounded stern, or was I imagining it? Simcha hadn't sounded like that, Simcha had been nice.

"Ah, I forgot." I said.

Her face stayed in a frown.

"It's only my second time here" I said, "My first time since the wedding."

Her face relaxed a bit, she opened the door to the bathroom.

When I rang the buzzer, I hoped Simcha would be the one to open the door on the other side.

She wasn't. Mrs. Turban walked in, carrying what looked like a miniature tool kit, spread out on a towel.

I pulled the towel tighter around me. I felt exposed next to her thick stockings and starched clothes.

She sat down and spread the sharp and shiny tools on her lap. She told me to stand in front of her. She lifted up my hand, and picked up a nail file.

"I want to leave my nails the way they are." I told her. "My Kallah teacher told me it's Halachically fine."

"Who's your Kallah teacher?" she asked.

I named her. Mrs. Turban gave a hmpph, and started filing my nail.

"But I don't want to do that." I said. "I want to leave my cuticles the way they are."

That's when she stopped, and looked at me, in the eye, for the first time.

""Here we follow the Rabbonim." She said. "Here we file away the cuticles. That is what the Rabbonim said we should do. This is the Chareidi mikvah."

And that's when I realized what I'd done. I'd gone to the wrong Mikvah. There were two of them, one next to the other, one "standard" and one "Mehadrin". Last time I'd gone to the standard Mikvah, where Simcha worked, but somehow now I’d landed up in the Mehadrin one. I used to think my bad sense of directions was a joke, but this wasn't funny.

I wondered if it was too late to make a run for it. I pictured myself, running through the streets in my towel, with Mrs. Turban chasing after me with her nail file and scissors. I stayed.

I read too many Naomi Ragen horror stories in my teens, of prying attendants, intimate inspections and humiliations. I used to dread the day I'd need to dunk.
Then before my wedding I learned that the responsibility to be prepared for the Mikvah would be mine, and mine only. The Mikvah attendant's main task was to see that I was entirely immersed in the Mikvah's waters. She would also be there ahead to help me, to remind me of things I may have missed, to offer to look in places I couldn't see myself, such as behind my ears. She would have no further authority. The decision when and how to dunk was mine, and not hers.

I felt better.

But that's not what was happening now. "Here we follow the Rabbonim." The words echoed in my mind. There was no arguing with that, no respecting my wishes.
My hands hurt for a few days, where Mrs. Turban had picked and snipped at them. Worse than that was the feeling inside me, the feeling of humiliation, the fear that slowly ebbed away.

Because when "we follow the Rabbonim", then whatever I say won't help. It's my body, but they are in control.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sshhh, I'm back

I owe a big apology to my readers. I disappeared, and it wasn't very nice of me. All I can say is that planning a wedding sure takes a lot of time. But at least I'm back now :-) And I missed you!

One of the big differences with married life is the sudden secrecy that veils your life. There are two of you now, and the things that go on between you should remain between you, should be private, intimate, told to no one, shared with no one. That's right, that's good, that makes sense.

And it really is wonderful, being together, sharing a life and a home and a future with someone you love, who loves you. It's so good you don't know how you survived so long on your own. It's like tasting heaven. It feels like a dream you don't ever want to wake up from.

Yet still the secrecy bothers me. I wish I'd been more prepared for the halachic aspects of marriage, the physical aspects of marriage. Nobody told me, because nobody talks about it. Ten sessions with a Madrichat kallah are supposed to cover all of that. One woman, one hashkafah, one bank of knowledge; it's not enough. There's a new voice inside me, crying that it wasn't meant to be like this, feeling betrayed by the silence. Knowledge is power, that's been my motto throughout my life, and suddenly, in one of the most important aspects of human life, of Jewish life, I feel like an ignoramus.

I would have like to read about more than the sweet platitudes of married life. On the internet I only find the PR, the comparisons of Mikvahs with Spas, the marketing of Niddah laws as the secret for a perpetual honeymoon. Is it only me who finds it difficult? Do no other women ever struggle with some of the laws of Taharat Hamisphacha?

And now I want to write, want to break the silence, but keep coming up against a brick wall. The wall of privacy, of modesty, blocks me from speaking.
I don't want to stop blogging. I don't want to lose that part of me. I may not be single, not be in Shidduchim any longer, but I think my blog was and is about more than that.

And I don't want to stop being open. I don't want to start spouting out surface sweetness, all the time hiding what's really on my mind.

I guess I'll just have to find the balance. Somehow.