Last Friday I was the first to arrive at the dock for the pre-Shabbat mikvah, so I chatted with Tali, who lives at Isabella Freedman and who was in charge of the mikvah that day. It turned out she'd had a cold for over a month; she'd just gotten off the phone with her mother, who had forbidden her to get into the cold lake! So she would serve as our "mikvah lady," witnessing to ensure a kosher dunk for those of us who chose to immerse. (She was also our guide, our chant leader, and our inspiration, so she was far more than just a witness, but she didn't immerse with us.)
As I talked with Tali, I admitted that my grandfather Eppie (of blessed memory) would be appalled if he knew that I was planning to dunk four times in a chilly New England lake at the end of September in order to feel luminous for Shabbat! He was a thoracic surgeon who seemed convinced that failing to protect one's chest from cold and damp was responsible for all manner of illness; I think of him every time I bundle up in a scarf. Of course, if he could see me now, he would probably be equal parts delighted and confused by a lot of things, not just my quirky mikvah practices.
The pre-Yom Kippur mikvah was much warmer, but no less sweet
than the one before Shabbat Shuvah had been. About twenty women
gathered behind the tarp screens at the hot tub on Sunday
afternoon. Reb Shefa led us in singing "Peleg elohim, malei mayim"
(a chant about divine streams flowing with water), and then one by
one we each moved into the center of the circle, said who we are,
and then immersed as many times as is our custom, while the rest of
the women sang "mayim chayyim" ("waters of life") in multi-part
harmony and raised our hands in blessing.
Afterwards, we said a fervent shehecheyanu to celebrate the fact that some of us had never experienced mikvah before; then we sang, and nattered, and sang some more as we got out, dried off, donned clothes, and headed back to our respective rooms to shower and dress for the beginning of the holiday. I came out of the waters feeling warmed not only by their heat, but also by the companionship of this community, and by my own feeling of readiness to move through the narrow straits of Yom Kippur into the new life of the new year that awaits.