© Copyright 2010 by Laurie Levinger
"Mikvah" is a different kind of coming-of-age story. Read on.
I’d been trying to reclaim my Jewish identity since my early forties, but even so, by the time my mid-fifties rolled around I’d still never been to a mikvah.
(Although I did take my daughter Hannah to a public bath in Budapest once--where I learned with my own eyes that women come in all shapes and sizes: small, big, bigger, biggest, making me feel positively svelt--but, still, it wasn’t a real mikvah.)
So I jumped at the opportunity when Judith, one of the women in our group, brought up the idea.
She’d been to the one in Philadelphia and loved it.
“It will be a cleansing, a spiritual experience for us to share” she offered, passing around a glossy brochure. “You know how we’ve been searching for a way to deepen our sharing?” We nodded. “This could be a way to begin.”
And so it began, our trip to the mikvah. Emails zipped back and forth as we floated possible times, until we finally chose a date that would work for everyone.
We were set. In three weeks, we’d drive together--an added bonus of two hours in the car for talking--and then we’d go to the mikvah, and have lunch afterwards. The spiritual sharing could happen at any time.
This invitation to join together in the water, murmur prayers and hope for spiritual deepening shimmered before us as we gathered for our regular monthly meeting one week before our departure.
But, as often happens, reality imposed itself. Judith explained, “There’s been a slight change. When I scheduled our visit, the mikvah administrator told me that only Jewish women are allowed into the sacred bath. Non-Jews can say the prayers, they can wait on the balcony above--they have comfortable chairs set up there--and then when we’re done, we can all get together in a meeting room right next to the bath. But they can not immerse themselves.”
“But we can still go” she added, trying not to sound apologetic.“It’s really a lovely place. You and I”--she touched my shoulder- “can bathe and then we’ll join the others. We can make it work.”
Silence. While the non-Jews: one ex-Catholic turned Congregationalist, another ex-Catholic who is a sometimes Zen meditator and gardener, one Canadian Mennonite who attends Quaker meeting, considered this.
Silence followed by murmured assent.
“Yes, I see. Jewish women need a private space.”
“Sure, I’ll go.”
“No. No, I won’t go. I won’t do it!” Who’s protesting?
“No!” Even louder this time. I barely recognized my own voice.
“Jesse. What’s this about?” one of the non-Jews asked softly. “I’m willing to go. Really. What’s up with you?”
What’s up with me? How the hell do I know? All I heard was that strained voice refusing. But she wouldn’t shut up, that protester, sputtering, struggling for words, she blurted:
“My father..” tears welling up. “My mommy”...sobbing now. “They believed...”
Who in hell is this blubbering woman? And why is she invoking her mother and father?
I grew up in Louisiana in the 1950s, in a time and place draped with Spanish moss, wet heat, and segregation.
Gloria and Joseph, just in their late 20’s, were already parents with 3 kids under 6. Now a family of five, they were barely making ends meet on Joe’s first job as a university professor. But in spite of worries about how tight money was, in spite of the heat and mosquitos, they were clear on two things: they would not pollute our minds with superstition and prejudice borne of religious training, and they would fight racism in its many forms and disguises in their adopted home.
Judaism never entered our home. Respect and equal rights for all people regardless of color or station in life...and political struggle. That was our creed. I went to my first marches protesting segregation when I was five, clutching my mommy’s hand, dwarfed in the crowd of tense adults huddled together, surrounded by screams of outrage.
“ Nigger lovers!”
“Yankee bastards. Go home!”
We were intergrationists.
We sang. Gospel. Hymns. Songs from the ‘30’s labor movement.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. ...
Oh, Freedom! over me, and before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave.
We are soldiers in the army, we have to fight,
although we have to cry,
We have to hold up the blood-stained banner, we have to hold it up until we die...
We are soldiers in the army, We’ve got our hand on the gospel plow...we’ve got to fight on anyhow....
We shall not,
We shall not be moved.
Just like a tree that’s standing by the w--a--ter
We shall not be moved.
So that’s who made her appearance. She was immovable. She would not be silenced.
Older almost than memory, deeper than my search for a Jewish life, I could not--I would not--go to a place where we could not all go. My Judaism, my desire, yearning even, for the prayers and the immersion would have to wait.
And then, all of a sudden it seemed-- though, of course it’d been years--I was almost 60.
I started practicing calling myself 60, months before the actual day. I would be going to Guatemala for 2 months, and since I’d be away for my real birthday, our group had an early celebration. We gathered around my dining room table, ate a banquet of Middle Eastern food. And we sang.
We sang deep into the night. I thought of Bobby McGee, “We sang up every song that driver knew.”
We are soldiers in the army...We’ve got our hand on the gospel plow.We shall not, we shall not be moved. Every man ‘neath his vine and fig tree (feminized to “every woman” as you can imagine)
We shall overcome, and finally, Good night, Irene.
And then it was time to go.
January 21, 2010. My real birthday. In Jocotan, Guatemala, a dry, dusty town in the eastern part of the country. The team I was traveling with had a full day ahead of them, driving miles in a pickup and then hiking into a remote mountain community.
I opted to stay behind. I could park myself in the only hotel in town, have a coke, read and wait. It would be a quiet, meditative kind of day. No fireworks, but who needs fireworks at 60?
As I was saying goodbye to my traveling companions, someone mentioned that there was a hot spring within driving distance. Maybe I would like to go?
Which seemed like a fine idea: But how would I get there? And will I be safe going alone?
Which is when Hugo, the young restaurant owner, walked in. “Senor Hugo’, I asked in my halting Spanish, “they say there’s a hot spring near here. How would I get there?”
“No problem, Senora. I will take you. Wait. Please, I will get my truck.”
And the next thing you know, I was sitting in the front of Hugo’s truck, heading down the windy road.
Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the entrance to the hot springs. I paid the 50 cents entrance fee, and Hugo drove down the long driveway to a dirt parking area. Which was entirely empty.
“I will return for you, Senora,” Hugo assured me. “How long? one hour?”
“Oh, no, Hugo,” looking around at the barren surroundings, “I will be ready in 15 minutes. No more.” I said.
He nodded, waving, “Adios”, and pulled away.
I was alone at the hot springs. Which were not beautifully landscaped like the one I’d been to in Costa Rica where tropical flowers surrounded pools that flowed from hot to tepid to cold.
No. This was a poor imitation of that touristed spot. Here there was nothing. Just hard packed dirt, and gravel and water. In seven separate pools. Without even stairs to climb down into the deepest one. So how was I supposed to pull my 60 year old body back out?
While I was engaged in this interior dialog, alternately complaining and then charmed by the plainness of the place, it came to me.
Here is my Mikvah.
Here I can immerse myself. Here I can pray and be thankful.
(But I don’t know the Hebrew words. How can I pray?)
And then, an answer: because out of the past, these old words sang out to me.
As I went down to the river to pray
studying about the good ol’ way
and who shall wear the starry crown?
good lord, show me the way. as I dipped my feet into the hot water.
And: Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, we shall not be moved.
as I immersed myself.
Hugo came an hour later. We drove back in amiable silence, then, “How did you like the hot springs, Senora?” he asked.
“It was divine,” I said. “I loved it. Thank you for taking me. What do I owe you, Hugo?”
“Ah, me? Senora,” he shrugged. “The only payment I need is a smile. Feliz cumpleano.”
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