It is revealing that quite regularly women tell me they prefer not to feel like a side of beef being kashered in her immersion process.
“Please don’t use a food word.” My “immersee” looks into my eyes and implores me to remember her earlier request as we step into the The ritual bath. The waters of the mikveh symbolically purify – they are seen as waters of rebirth. A convert immerses in the mikveh as part of conversion. Many Orthodox married women go to the mikveh following their period and before resuming sexual relations. Couples go to the mikveh before being married. Many, including some men, immerse before Yom Kippur; some go every Friday before Shabbat.. I reassure her that I won’t use the familiar refrain “Fit to use or consume under Jewish ritual law. "Kosher" often refers to the food which it is permissible to eat according to Jewish dietary law, but can also mean the suitableness of a Torah scross or mezuzah for proper ritual use. For more on dietary laws, see kashrut.” to affirm her dunks. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to say instead.
If you’ve never experienced the mikveh ritual, let me paint you the picture: We’re in a mosaic-tiled space, with four changing rooms. Each contains a bath with two shower heads and fantastic water pressure (a feat in and of itself in Manhattan). Often, the whir of the laundry room acts as white noise for the whole space. At the far end of the hallway is the mikveh, a small, Jacuzzi-sized pool of mayyim hayyim, “living waters,” with steps gradually leading into it. There are a few benches in the hallway where I sit with the immersee to determine how their ritual will take shape. Amongst other questions, I ask, “What is on your heart and mind today?”
For the past two years, I’ve volunteered as an ImmerseNYC mikveh guide. We serve a broad swath of the Jewish community, marking transitional moments, including healing, heartache, and every emotional state in between. I have met women in the midst of major life decisions. I serve people on their fertility journeys, marking a new start or promotion in their careers, an upcoming marriage, or a recent divorce. I have guided communities who gather at the start of the Jewish New Year, filled with intentions and attention to their spiritual selves, and women who make a monthly practice of mikveh immersion (in the tradition of a subset of Jewish women who have been doing so for countless generations). What makes ImmerseNYC unique is that, as guides, we offer to personalize the ritual to suit our immersees, and have a range of templates and resources we select from.
Many participants like to ask why I guide. Honestly, I find it invigorating to breathe new life into an ancient ritual, which is why I also teach about bringing the mikveh “out of the basement.” I appreciate the notion that we’re reclaiming a tradition that became observed in a narrow way. I also wrote my thesis on “Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Self-Esteem,” so I know how much baggage someone might carry with them into the very revealing experience of mikveh. It is revealing that quite regularly women tell me they prefer not to feel like a side of beef being kashered in her immersion process.
Still, the first time that I got the request, “please, don’t use a food word!” I wasn’t sure what the alternative word to “kosher” should be. A swirl of words twisted around in my head and I settled on shalem, complete. Since then, I’ve thought more about what a mikveh guide could say during the acknowledgment of a successful immersion. I propose kadosh or Lit. Holiness – words we use to acknowledge something or someone is holy. Marking a transitional moment, whether with a modern ritual or by using an ancient blessing, the act is, indeed, holy. When I used shalem, it felt imperfect. In modern Hebrew, it can be a transactional word (used when a purchase is complete), so its closeness to shalom, peace, feels secondary. Also, just because each immersion has been completed, depending on what brought you to the mikveh and why you’ve chosen to immerse, you may not feel entirely complete in the act of immersing, and that’s perfectly acceptable. So I return, time and again, to kadosh. Some people still prefer the term “kosher,” or a different term, and I meet those requests too.
When I guided a second time for the woman who I’d first tried shalem out on, I mentioned that I’d taken to affirming immersions with kadosh. She looked at me, a warm smile growing across her face, and said, “That’s perfect!”
If you’d like to learn more about ImmerseNYC, visit their website! Founded by Rabbi Sara Luria, it is a community mikveh project; a pluralistic, inclusive, and welcoming organization that is currently being absorbed into the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.
Sheridan Gayer is the founder of Communities of Care consulting, which works with Clergy, Human Resources, and Medical Professionals to support people with chronic pain. She is also a Storahtelling maven, and speaks on topics of Bikur Holim, Mikveh, and Crisis Management and Response.