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Gathering the Waters: Touring Mayyim Hayyim


I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikvah conference at Mayyim Hayyim.

Before the conference begins, there are open tours of Mayyim Hayyim. It's housed in a refurbished house which dates back to the 1860s. Our guide takes us first through the public spaces (rooms for gathering, for education, and for celebration) and then through the private spaces. First, the public spaces, which are filled with art. The art rotates a few times a year; the center has become a kind of contemporary gallery for art which is sometimes (though not always) water-themed.

Mayyim Hayyim is both a mikvah and a community education center, so we learn about the education work they do, both with adults and with kids. Our guide talks about the people who use the mikvah: women who come monthly for "family reasons," (because they have practices around niddah, ritual immersion after the conclusion of one's menstrual cycle), people celebrating lifecycle moments (before weddings, before giving birth), those who are immersing for the purposes of conversion, and also those who come to begin or to continue healing from trauma or illness or sexual assault, among other things. Though some of the mikvah's users are Orthodox, most are not, and many have never before included mikvah as part of their spiritual practice.

The bor (well/cistern) in which natural waters collect.

Then we move into the private spaces. First we enter a central atrium lit by several skylights, and by glass light fixtures which look (to me) modeled after flowing water. Around that atrium are four different preparation rooms, each with a different theme, two of which are handicapped-accessible. That's where someone would go to prepare themselves (both physically and spiritually) for immersion: clean under their fingernails, brush their teeth, bathe or shower (and the mikvah provides all of the materials which one might need), and perhaps also do some praying or meditation or contemplation. When they're ready to move on, they call the front desk, and their mikvah attendant will meet them in the mikvah room itself.

One of the mikva'ot.

Standing in a cluster around one of the mikva'ot, we learn about the bor, the cistern outside the building which collects rainwater, and how each day water must be released from that cistern into the (heated, beautiful) pools in order for the mikvah to be kosher. The waters here are treated with chlorine and so forth to keep them hygienic, but they also need a bit of rainwater in order to qualify halakhically as living waters. The first person to immerse in each pool each day has the special task of getting to turn a red handle, while standing inside the pool, until they can feel a trickle of cool water coming in from outside. (Then they turn the handle back; it doesn't have to be a lot of water, but the waters have to "kiss" each day to keep the mikvah kosher.) The trained mikvah guide is there to pronounce the immersion kosher and to help as needed. Sometimes, our guide tells us, family and friends will gather in the central atrium; through the open window high above the door, they can hear the sound of the splash, and can break into song.

Each mikvah is a beautiful round well at the bottom of seven spiraling steps. It looks to me like stepping into this mikvah might feel like entering, with solemnity and sanctity, into a womb, into the very earth. I'm already looking forward to the first time I bring someone here for the purposes of conversion -- and I'm wondering whether I can find a way to visit for an immersion sometime in my own future, too, because this place is beautiful, and I would love to find a way to experience it in that way.

Coming up next: notes from, and reflections on, the opening session. Roughly 3000 words about why we're talking about mikvah, and why now, and what this all means, and how it fits into historical Jewish context -- awesome stuff; stay tuned!


The etrog a fascinating fruit. (Don't believe me? Try reading The Trail of the Elusive Etrog.) Nothing else smells quite like an etrog (or, to use its English name, citron); every year when mine comes in the mail and I lift it out of its packaging, I inhale and suddenly I'm hyperlinked with every Sukkot of my life. The etrog is described in Torah as pri etz hadar, the "fruit of a goodly tree." The etrog has all kinds of symbolism: it represents the heart, it represents the womb, it represents one of the letters of God's name, it represents a person who is learned and does good deeds... One way or another, it seems a shame just to throw it away when the holiday is done, and I enoy canning and preserving, so I'm always on the lookout for things I can do with my etrog after the festival ends.

In years past I've tried making all sorts of etrog jams and marmalades, all of which have been quite tasty. I always try to eat some of the previous autmn's etrog when Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, rolls around in deep midwinter. But it turns out I just don't eat that much bitter marmalade in a year, and we've still got some etrog marmalade from last year kicking around. What to do with my etrog and the other couple of etrogim I was handed at the end of the festival this year?

Make etrogcello, of course!

A jar of future etrogcello.

I'm a big limoncello fan. I first developed a taste for it while visiting Italy a couple of years ago, and in more recent years have sipped it in Buenos Aires and also here at home -- it's one of my favorite summertime aperitifs. So this year I decided to try making a limoncello variant featuring our etrogim. (Before you ask, yes, I know that etrogim are often grown with pesticides. I scrubbed them as well as I could, and I don't plan to overindulge, so hopefully I won't ingest too much that's not good for me.)

I based my recipe on several I read online, most especially this one from Patty Mitchell. Ethan and I often make flavored vodkas (easy: fill an infuser with fresh fruit, cover with vodka, let the fruit steep and then decant the liquid) and it turns out that the first step of making limoncello (or etrogcello) is exactly the same... though raspberries or strawberries only need to steep for a few days; th citron peel is supposed to stay under vodka for at least a month or two.

I sterilized a two-quart jar, carved the peel off of my etrogim and collected the golden shavings in the bottom of the jar, and then filled it most of the way with vodka. It will sit in the dark for a couple of months; I'll try to swirl it a bit every now and then to stir up the flavors. Sometime in deep midwinter I'll make a simple sugar syrup, mix it with the fruited vodka and strain off the fruit, and bottle the results for sipping. We'll see whether or not it's any good! (And I took one of the peeled fruits and studded it with cloves to serve as besamim, spices, for havdalah. Mmm, citron-and-clove.) One way or another, it feels satisfying to have taken steps to preserve my etrogim again. Sukkot is gone, but won't be forgotten...

Another mother poem, with a line borrowed from Erdrich





In the beginning we had to choose
to open my body to possibility

to move furniture, paint walls
fold implausibly small kimono shirts

try to shelve our uncertainty
and number our anticipated losses...

I can barely remember. The solid fact
of you clapping your hands

has overwritten those old files
leaving no trace of what was beneath.

This week your syllable is ma-ma-ma
the new name I inherited

when I wrestled with labor
and you, little blessing, slipped free.

This week's challenge at Big Tent Poetry invites us to borrow a line from another poet's work, and to use that line as a springboard into our own work. I knew immediately what I wanted to reread in search of a starting point: Heid E. Erdrich's The Mother's Tongue.

My friend Tisha (herself a pretty dazzling poet -- her chapbook Getting Out Alive is one of the most powerful collections I know) sent me a copy of The Mother's Tongue shortly after Drew was born. The third section of the book, titled "Milk Sour," features a set of sixteen poems about parenting a newborn. I read them with tiny Drew in my arms or on my shoulder or at the breast, gobsmacked by how deeply they spoke to my own experience. It felt as though Erdrich had slipped inside my heart and written the words I wasn't yet capable of setting down.

The first line of this poem is borrowed from one of those poems, a poem called "New Born." (That poem isn't online, though you can read some excerpts from the book here at Google Books.) Erdrich's poems were a big piece of the inspiration for my own mother poems -- of which, of course, this is one!

It is strange now to remember a time before Drew was a simple fact of our lives. Once upon a time we chose to open ourselves to change. We didn't know what it would be like, but we trusted that it was a leap worth taking. Now there's this little person in our lives, and I can't imagine my world without him. I remember life without him, and it was grand, but life without him now would have a great big Drew-shaped hole. Once he was a choice; now he's a reality, like gravity.

Here's a link to this week's "Come One, Come All" post so you can see what the other poets in this crowd did with the prompt.


It Gets Better

By now I imagine you've heard about the tragic suicide of a gay college student in New Jersey whose intimate life was broadcast on the internet by his roommate. (Private Moment Made Public, Then a Fatal Jump.) This isn't an isolated incident: in Minnesota and in Indiana, a pair of 15-year-old boys have also in recent months taken their own lives as the result of anti-gay bullying and harassment.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)'s latest National School Climate Survey, released earlier this month, reports that nearly nine out of ten LGBT students experience harassment and nearly two-thirds of them feel unsafe in school. That breaks my heart, and it makes me angry, too.

Because of the recent run of gay teen suicides, advice columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry started the It Gets Better Project. The two men made an 8-minute video aimed at queer teens. In the video, they talk about what life was like for them as teenagers, and about how much better life is for them now. Their video is here:

Dan and Terry: It Gets Better. If you can't see the embedded version, you can go directly to their video here.

Anyone who wants to join the chorus can post a video in the series. I've only watched a few, but they're pretty remarkable. (Don't miss this one, made by my dear friend Laurel: It Gets Amazing.)

I want to add my voice, too. I want to tell every queer teenager that life gets so much better. I want to say it to every geek and nerd, too -- many of my friends were bullied as adolescents, for being queer or simply for being different, and adolescence can be tough even for straight kids whose desires fit dominant cultural norms. (That said, I want to be conscious of the risk of derailing this conversation; I don't want to take focus away from the issue at hand, which is the specific and heartbreaking suffering of GLBT teens. I just wanted to note that I think "it gets better" is a powerful message to send to any teenager who's wrestling with not fitting in.)

Reaching college was a lifechanging experience for me. Suddenly I found a community of geeks, a community in which my various idiosyncracies were not only accepted but celebrated, a community in which my nascent feminism was nurtured, a community in which it was safe to explore my sexuality, a community where I fit in. I wish that every teenager who feels out-of-step, out-of-sync, unloved or unlovable might have the kind of college experience I did. But in order to have that experience of finding your people, of figuring out who you want to be and creating the life of which you dream, you have to keep living. And the rest of us owe it to you to help you do that, in every way we can.

Keshet, a group of "gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews and straight allies from all denominations and Jewish backgrounds," has started a petition on this subject which all are invited to sign: Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives. My name is there. I hope yours will be, too. But signing a petition is an empty gesture unless we also back that up with action. Make sure your community is a GLBT safe space. Do whatever you can to help the queer teens in your community -- and there are some, no matter where you live -- know that they are cherished and loved not despite who they are but because they are themselves.

Looking forward to Gathering the Waters

For years I've been meaning to visit Mayyim Hayyim, the transdenominational mikvah in Newton. I've seen pictures and heard stories; everyone tells me that it's beautiful, welcoming, and quite wonderful. Here's how they describe themselves:

Mayyim Hayyim is a 21st century creation, a mikveh rooted in ancient tradition, reinvented to serve the Jewish community of today.

Mayyim Hayyim is a resource for learning, spiritual discovery, and creativity where women and men of all ages can celebrate milestones like weddings and b'nei mitzvah; where conversion to Judaism is accorded the honor and dignity it deserves; where survivors of trauma, illness or loss find solace; and where women can explore the ritual of monthly immersion on their own terms.

(That's from their About page.) Early next week I'll get my chance: I'm going to be attending Gathering the Waters, the mikvah conference at Mayyim Hayyim. The conference will offer an "in-depth exploration of the contemporary mikveh in theory and practice," as well as a chance to "[l]earn with renowned scholars, clergy, and educators about how immersion can be a powerful tool for spiritual renewal, marking life transitions, and observing mitzvot."

The schedule looks terrific. I won't be able to attend everything, of course, in part thanks to my beautiful young man, who is ten months old. He'll spend Monday in a nearby daycare facility that's opening up just for conferencegoers' children, but I won't be attending any evening events, and on Tuesday morning I'm going to bring him with me and hope he'll permit me to pay some attention to the sessions! But even so, I think it's going to be a fascinating experience, and I'm looking forward to being there, meeting people, and having fun conversations about renewing this very old ritual.

I hope to be able to blog about some of what I learn during the conference sessions -- if not during the conference itself, then after I've returned home.

To date, all of my mikvah experience have been in Jewish Renewal contexts. My first mikvah happened before Shabbat at the end of my first week-long retreat at Elat Chayyim; since then I've come to eagerly anticipate mikva'ot with my community. (I've blogged about some of those experiences: two sweet mikva'ot back in 2006, the second section of this Moving into Shabbat post from Kallah in 2009, the "mikvah spot" story in 6 tastes of Ruach ha'Aretz in 2010.) I'm looking forward to hearing other people's mikvah stories, and to learning about how to lead the people to whom I minister into their own mikvah journeys, for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways.

If you're going to be there, let me know -- or just come over and say hi! On Monday, I'll be the woman in the rainbow kippah with the laptop; on Tuesday, I'll be the woman in the rainbow kippah with the very sociable baby in her arms.

The empty month

The moon of Tishrei is waning; we're sliding slowly toward the month of Cheshvan. Cheshvan is remarkable because it contains no Jewish holidays at all (except, of course, for Shabbat, the holiest day of all which comes every blessed week.) After Elul's four weeks of spiritual preparation, and then after Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot and Hoshanna Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the notion of a whole four weeks without holidays can sound like a reprieve (especially for congregational rabbis!)

There's a tradition of calling this month Mar-cheshvan -- the syllable mar means bitter, implying that the month is bitter because it contains no festivals, no sacred opportunities for joy. Though as this resource page on Cheshvan notes, "mar" can also mean a drop of water, so the name Mar-cheshvan might suggest the rains which often fall at this season (in the land of Israel, where they're entering in to the rainy season now, and also in other places -- my home of western Massachusetts being an excellent example!) That Ritualwell page also notes that

Cheshvan comes at the same time as the secular months of October/November. Pumpkins, squash, and gourds have arrived, reminding us of the cycle of planting and harvesting. Nature begins to hibernate, and mirroring this process, we too slow down and turn inward.

At Tel Shemesh, Rabbi Jill Hammer explores the symbolism associated with this month. During Cheshvan we observe the yarzheit (death anniversary) of the matriarch Rachel -- to whom I feel some connction, for reasons which are probably obvious -- and Reb Jill has some beautiful things to say about how Rachel's death can be read as the Shekhinah (immanent divine presence) descending into the earth. In this story, as in the Persephone story which Reb Jill evokes, the descent into the earth holds the promise of eventual return into the light... a powerful teaching at this season of shortening days.

For more earth-based Cheshvan resources, you might check out Ketzirah's Cheshvan: the lesson of Menashe, which looks at the teaching that this month is associated with the tribe of Menashe, son of Joseph, and explores some symbolism of remembering and forgetting.

For me, these last days of Tishrei are days of preparation for the season that's coming. The rugs which adorned our sukkah are draped now over the railing of the deck, slowly drying out from the torrential rains which came at the end of Sukkot; soon I'll tuck them away in the garage. We've ordered three cords of wood for the winter, which Ethan has stacked on our front steps and in the wood crib in the garage. The hills are a motley patchwork of orange and red, green and bare. And I'm looking forward to the quiet of Cheshvan: no big symbolism, no cosmic stories, just a few weeks during which to enjoy the simple joys of everyday life.

We are family

Emily Hauser's recent post The problem begins with a statement of plain fact: she has family in a West Bank settlement. And then she goes on:

Everyone on that side of the family — all modern Orthodox, all parents of many children — has never been anything but kind and welcoming to me...But the truth is that it matters not in the least that they are kind, or warm, or gentle. Because they are the problem.

They — in the broadest sense: they, and their friends, and their beautiful houses, and their armed guards, and their by-pass roads — are what stands in the way of peace and security for 7.3 million Israelis and 4 million Palestinians.

Living in Jerusalem for a summer gave me the opportunity to learn more about how settlements work and what their implications are. To be clear: I'm no expert here. But I understand enough to be a lot more distressed than I used to be. (If this issue matters to you, I recommend reading Land Expropriation and Settlements, a report published by Israeli human rights organization B'tselem. There are also several links featured at the bottom of Emily's post which offer context on the issue of settlements, among them Bradley Burston's Confessions of an Israeli anti-settler bigot, which is also well worth a read.)

In my understanding, the settlements are a large part of what's preventing the possibility of peace. But the people who share that understanding are often not very compassionate toward the settlers -- and the people who disagree with my assessment are often not very kind to those of us who share it. I disagree with the settlers in pretty much every way; I think what they're doing has disastrous repercussions not only for them but for my Israeli friends and family who are forced to protect them. But that doesn't give us on the pro-Israel pro-peace left the right to slam them as human beings. (Neither, for the record, does it give those on the "other side" the right to slam us.) Would we relate to each other differently if we had family on the other side, whatever that other side may be?

Continue reading "We are family" »