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.


  1. NO NO NO You absolutely could and should tell her its your mitza. Oh you poor thing. (Those things are not sterilized dear and things spread around). Never let them touch you with that.

    Well, we all do it once in our lives- now you know not to do it again :) Live and learn and have great friends--


  2. who are "the rabonnim??"

    I would have walked out.

  3. where is this side by side regular and mehadrin mikvah - I never heard of such a thing.

  4. I had this at th local mikva during the mikva fight. It was a disaster. The next month I took a cab to the other side of the city for the next few months. I did raise a stink about it- they wanted all the local mikvas to be "mehadrin". Those against the idea fought it and won.

  5. The side-by-side arrangement was a compromise to prevent Haredi rabbanim from out of town from taking over the only mikva (run by the moatza datit) in a mainly DL neighborhood...

  6. I only had a bad experience once at a mikvah. Usually, if I tell them not to touch my nails, they look disapproving, but they won't touch. That one time, the mikvah lady insisted on trimming, and I insisted they were completely fine halachically. I won...but as I was walking into the water, she was muttering some nasty things under her breath...but loud enough for me to hear. I never went back there.

  7. Where are you going to the mikveh? If you are in Jerusalem, do yourself a favor and go to the katamon mikveh, next to the shtieblach. Take a taxi if you must, though it's right off of Palmach, near plenty of bus stops. Nice normal frum women and I've never been attacked by any balanit with any kind of sharp metal instruments.

  8. Are you in RBS?? If yes, then there are numbers you can call to complain. They are absolutely NOT allowed to impose chumras on you. Chin up, girl. Think of the angels you take into the water with you.

  9. Not RBS - there's no "sandy path" into any mikvah here.

  10. Is everyone hear some kind of crazy reformists and just to self-justifying to admit it to yourselves.

    B"H she was there to help you do what's right.

  11. The Rabbanim don't have control of your body. That's a bit of an exaggeration. Yes, there are guidelines, but there isn't one single guideline that everyone must follow.

    You were right about your halacha and your halachic sources. It is your body, and instead of acting like it isn't, you need to be firm and in control of your own body. That woman didn't attack you. She was a pushy, aggressive woman, intent on doing things her way. If you didn't like it, you should have firmly said, "NO. This is the way I'm dunking, and if you don't like it, I will go back to my husband without toveling."

    That is your decision. To blame the rabbonim for everything is a mistake. It's the same issue I have when women complain about birth control. Rabbonim have no power over your birth control. You do. Women were always given power, and the wife of R' Meir (I think it was him, I always mix up the rabbis) took a sterilizing potion without asking him, and she was totally in the right.

    It's only when we give away our own rights do we feel disempowered, but sometimes it's no one else's fault but our own.

  12. my sympathies and hope you can ignore those comments which arent sympathetic.
    i wish you only positive mikva experiences in the future.

  13. Maybe one day I'll get up the guts to post one of those "tzava'ot" style posters in Charedi neighborhoods with the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 288:40 plastered on it- "A Jewess who is over twelve years old and one day must stand above her while she is immersing, **in order to ensure that no hair remains floating upon the water.** If she has nobody to stand above her, or it’s nighttime, she should wrap her hair in a loose netting, as long as they are very very loose, and immerse that way." I.e., only purpose of balanit is to do what a woman cannot accomplish on her own- make sure her hair is under!!
    I.e., that THEY are the reformers- THEY are the ones who have taken the decision making over chatzitot out of the proper hands.
    Yet I firmly believe, Ahavat Chinam Tavi Geulah!!!

  14. Assertiveness with service providers and with seeming-authority-figures is a learned skill.

  15. It's hard to be assertive when you're naked.

    Setting that aside, I've been punished by a mikva lady whom I would not allow to file my toenails to her liking; she made me dunk and dunk and dunk, month after month, claiming I'd touched the walls, closed my eyes too tightly under water, let my hair float, pinched my lips tightly together, etc. When I was newly married, and not assertive enough, during those first few months, to stop her from being overly invasive, she had no problems with my tevilot. I now travel 40 minutes each way to avoid my local mikva, and come home much happier for it.

  16. Sorry off topic but yay you're back! Love your blog...
    Back on topic. Going to mikva is uncomfortable as it is, sorry you had such a horrible experience! Guess that one won't be getting your patronage too soon...

  17. I'm sorry you feel so oppressed, and a lot of women do feel the same as you. I think the problem here is not that the "Rabbonim" have all the control, it's that you do not have a clear enough understanding of the dinim of Taharas HaMishpacha. Hashem is the one who gave us the Torah and He told us to listen to the Talmidei Chachamim. Why is it that some women 'torture' themselves to adhere to Chumros? Is it because they are self-hating? Masochistic? On the contrary. They have more Yirat Shamayim than most of us, they strive to be as close as possible to Hashem Yisbarach. What is the way Hashem gave us to be close to Him? To do His Mitzvos, and to strive to understand Him.

    I would suggest reading as many books as you can find that explain the dinim and ta'amei hamitzvot of Taharat Hamishpacha. And then see if cutting your nails shorter is that big of a deal in the end. Becoming closer to Hashem is the most important thing.
    (I really like Jewish Women Speak On Jewish Matters, Targum/Feldheim and Waters of Eden by R' Aryeh Kaplan)

  18. Rivka - I disagree. Following a different halachic opinion (on any subject) is not a higher/lower level; it's just a different psak. To take an unrelated subject, does the person who says 'v'sein tal' in Shmoneh Esrei during the summer on a higher level than one who doesn't, or are they both right in following the customs of their communities? In the area of taharas hamishpacha, are Sefardi women who remove all body hair before tevila more correct than most Ashkenazi women, who do not? To say that following the most stringent opinion is better, because it shows that one has more Yiras Hashem and wants to understand G-d better, is to misunderstand the entire system of psak halacha and to disrespect countless fellow Jews who are also sincere in their desire to be Ovdei Hashem.

  19. There is such a thing as a higher and lower standard. It's fine to follow a higher standard; it's wrong to insist that others do so when they're not ready to.

  20. In other words, there's no need to be turned off with the Rabonim who pasken strictly. They pasken for those who follow them, which is fine. Just be turned off from this individual woman and feel sorry for her that she is taking Yiddishkeit in a warped and unhealthy manner.

  21. If you are in Jerusalem, go to the mikva on Florentine, in Kiryat Yovel. The balaniot there ask you if you remembered to do everything (and start rattling off the list, to help you double-check), but the only thing she herself checks is your back (since you can't see it yourself). And besides for that, they're nice people. :)

  22. Oh, and by the way - as long as your nails are clean, you don't have to cut them (though it is preferable). And that IS what rabbanim say - that if the nails are so important to you, clean them and toivel with your nail polish/manicure/whatever.

  23. Future Husband (within a month)November 10, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    My first time actually reading the post and comments on your blog although I already follow you on twitter, very well written and almost getting me ready to be a married man that will be living with a married woman (wife of course).