As Shabbat approaches, here's one final post about the ALEPH Kallah -- a mikveh story from last Friday...
Mikveh spot, Kallah 2013. Photo by Miriam Charney.
There are few things I love more in this world than a Jewish Renewal pre-Shabbat mikveh, especially when it comes after a dense and delicious week of learning and playing and praying together.
We gather at the lake and shoo away the men and boys; this is our reserved time at this beautiful beach. There are no screens to shield us here (as there usually are at Isabella Freedman), but the beach feels secluded. Anyway, our time is short -- the men will be here in 45 minutes -- so we shrug and get moving. We strip down to wherever we are comfortable: some of us in swimsuits, some clothed, most naked. (Some enter the water clothed and then become naked.) We are old, young, tall, short, curvaceous, skinny, pale, dark. Some of us bear scars, empty spaces where one or both breasts used to be. We are here to immerse before Shabbat, and to emerge ready to welcome and honor the Sabbath Queen.
I walk into the waters, soft sand beneath my feet, until I can barely stand. We are bobbing up and down gently in the dark lake. The waters are as dark as strong tea from the tannins in the pine needles which litter the lakefloor. We sing a chant as more women join us. Our mikveh leader reminds us that when we were babies, someone looked at our thighs and said "what beautiful pulkes!" A ripple of wistful recognition runs audibly around the group. Many of us remember hearing that said to our beautiful chubby babies before they began to crawl. I remember our son's sweet baby thighs and how much I wanted to just kiss kiss kiss every inch of his beautiful skin.
And then she tells us that our thighs are still beautiful, and a rueful sigh floats over the surface of the waters. How many of us are able to truly feel that? And our bellies -- how frequently we wish them away, bemoan their size, agonize over their curves. They, too, she tells us, are beautiful. Our breasts, or the places where breasts used to be: beautiful. Every inch of every one of us is beautiful. Each one of us is a reflection of God.
I wish that it weren't profoundly countercultural to tell a group of women -- ranging in age from twenties to eighties -- that each one of us is beautiful, that we are made in the image of God, that we should cherish our bodies instead of resenting or loathing their "imperfections." But it is. And it's deeply moving to hear these things sweetly said by the rabbi who is leading our ritual. Maybe in this moment, as Shabbat approaches, we can really believe her. We can wash away the decades of learned self-deprecation and emerge from the waters knowing our own beauty.
We break into groups of two and three so that each woman can be witnessed by one or two holy spirit sisters as she dunks. We begin sharing quietly with our sisters what we wish to release on our immersions, what we want to wash away (spiritually speaking) in order to greet the Shabbat Bride with a whole and joyful heart.
And then two police cars pull up, lights flashing.