At the bend of the river
there's a pond we don't call
the womb of the world, though we could --
this patch of deep water reflecting
tall purple loosestrife.
The pond is a womb, the world
is a womb. Emerge glorious
and dripping, emerge like Chava
radiant and new. Then listen
to cricketsong's rise and fall --
the One Who speaks us into being
the One Who enwombs all creation
is murmuring blessing over
and over, telling us who we are.


Four glimpses of the pre-Kallah Shabbat


Mincha in the mountains.


Unlike at last Kallah (when we were on a lake -- an easy natural mikvah), no formal mikvah experiences are scheduled for smicha week. But on Friday afternoon of my first week here, two friends and I decide to create our own. We make our way to the campus rec center, where there is a huge pool with a beach-like slope at one end, and a large and spacious hot tub, too. We opt first for the hot tub, and -- immersed in its foaming waters up to our necks -- we talk about what we need to release from our lives in general and from the week now ending in particular. And then we immerse. It's not a kosher mikvah, of course -- it's a swimming pool, with no source of living waters; for that matter, we're wearing swimsuits -- but on a spiritual level when I emerge from the waters after my final immersion I feel lighter. More radiant. More ready to welcome Shabbat.



As I make my way back to my dorm after the festive meal that followed Kabbalat Shabbat, I am drawn to the trio of guitarists sitting on one of the semicircles of big stones on the lawn outside the building. (So are a few dozen other people.) I settle happily on one of the big rocks that serves as a bench, and as they play and sing, the assembled group sings with them. They play (and we sing) the birkat hamazon (grace after meals), prayers, folk songs, new melodies, old melodies. In between singing harmony with my friends, I have conversations with current and prospective ALEPH students, with faculty, with other musmachim (alumni / ordinands). We sing and sing and sing. And sing some more. Between the singing and the Shabbat wine, by the time I stagger up to my room (well after midnight, which means it's well after my bedtime!) I am exhausted... but grateful.



On the campus where we're staying the grounds are pretty flat. But off to one side there are mountains, and I don't want to spend two weeks at the cusp of the Rockies and never actually see the mountains themselves! So on Shabbat afternoon two friends and I head to Horsetooth Mountain Park, and we walk up into the hills. It's a hot day, and we're at altitude; I huff and puff more than I would prefer. But the hills around us are extraordinarily beautiful. My spirits are lifted by the grasses and piñon pines and wildflowers, by the clouds scudding across the blue sky, by the sound of wind in the grasses. We sing bits of the Shabbat afternoon service to the special nusach (melodic system) used only at that time on that day. "Mincha" means offering or gift. In that moment, singing bits of the ashrei on a trail in the hills in the sunshine, everything feels like a gift.



After evening davenen we make our way outside for havdalah. We form a huge circle, arms around each other. Fragrant teabags are passed out for our b'samim, the spices we will bless to prevent ourselves from fainting as the second Shabbat soul departs. Havdalah candles are lit. We sing the words I love so very dearly: hineh El yeshuati, evtach v'lo efchad... (This is the God of my redemption; I trust, I am not afraid...) We sing the blessings sanctifying the One Who makes divisions between Shabbat and the week. When the candles are extinguished a few people sing to Elijah the prophet in Ladino, and then we sing Eliahu HaNavi and Miriam HaNeviah in Hebrew, and then people start dancing as the musicians keep on playing. La-yehudim haita ora -- a prayer for light and joy and honor for us in the week now beginning. We sing, and we dance, and the week begins. 


Related: Six jewels from Clergy Camp.



On the day that would become the first night of Pesach, I went to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse. Some people immerse before Shabbat; some people immerse before Pesach. This day was pre- both of those, but those weren't the reasons I was immersing. I was immersing to mark a life transition, in hopes of emerging into the liberation of Pesach feeling spiritually cleansed and ready for a new beginning.

I've been to Mayyim Hayyim a number of times -- I wrote about touring the mikveh at the Gathering the Waters mikveh conference in 2010; several years ago I participated there in a beit din as a new Jew entered the covenant; we held a focus group there as part of the ALEPH Listening Tour last fall -- but there's a world of difference between visiting the place as a witness and visiting it as a participant.

(I had planned to come to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse before my ordination as a rabbi, in a ritual of preparing myself to receive the transmission of smicha. But I live two and a half hours away by car, and on the date of that pre-ordination mikveh appointment a winter snowstorm kept me in the Berkshires, so I found an alternate way to immerse. This time the weather posed no such difficulties.)

When we were there for the Listening Tour focus group in the fall I noticed their attention to detail. How even the bench in the garden has a water motif in its tiling, and even the door handles curve like ocean waves. How there are seven steps down into each mikveh (one for each day of the week, one for each of the seven "lower" sefirot), how each mikveh pool is round evoking the womb and its waters.

When I came this time I noticed even more loving attention to detail, and was grateful for all of it. The seven kavanot (intentions) before immersion. The supplies they thoughtfully provide, from a pumice sponge for one's feet to gentle cleansers for face and body and hands. How easy it is to turn the handle to allow living waters (rain from the cistern) to "kiss" the warm waters of the mikveh itself.

When I arrived, the mikveh guide asked whether I wanted to bring a laminated ritual sheet into the mikveh with me. I asked whether they had rituals available for divorce, and they did. (I wasn't obligated to tell her for what reason I was immersing... but I feel strongly that while there is grief in the end of any marriage, there should not be shame, so I didn't mind being open about what had brought me there.)

I chose to immerse without a witness. That was the right move, because as soon as I entered the mikveh room I began to weep. (I had the feeling that was going to happen.) I paused on each of the seven steps and cried. I stayed longest on the bottom step, the one that maps to the aspect of God known as malchut -- sovereignty, or nobility, or the immanent indwelling Presence of the Divine we call Shekhinah.

My mikveh guide had given me four laminated rituals to choose from: one for the end of a relationship, one for difficult life transitions, one for healing, and one for pre-Pesach immersion. I sat with all four of them in the dressing room. In the end, I brought three of them into the mikveh room with me, and used excerpts from each. I began with these words from the ritual following the end of a relationship:

I stand here, having completed the unbinding of a relationship.
I stand here as a Jewish woman with dignity and with strength.
I stand alone, a whole and complete person, no longer bound as a companion and partner.

The third line is the one that cracked my heart all the way open. "No longer bound as a companion and partner." No longer bound; no longer a companion or partner. Even when ending a marriage is the right thing to do -- and ending this one was my decision -- it still comes with tremendous grief. Part of my spiritual work at this season is allowing that grief to ebb and flow as it needs to do, without shutting it off or ignoring it or trying to short-circuit it.

I immersed three times, with different words of prayer and different intentions before each. I paused for a long time before the final immersion, and prayed the words I needed to pray, and quietly sang parts of the Song at the Sea, and went under. I counted the seven steps back out of the mikveh: from Shekhinah back up the Tree of Life to lovingkindness. I took my time dressing and getting ready to go.

As I was about to leave, my mikveh guide told me that everyone there appreciates my work -- which was a gift to hear. (I said I appreciate their work too, which I do! I've been a longtime fan of Mayyim Hayyim from afar, though this was my first time immersing there.) And then she added "I didn't say that until now because I wanted you to be here just as a person, not as a public figure" -- and that was a gift, too.

We wished each other a Pesach of sweetness and liberation. I walked out into the garden and sat for a while on the bench tiled with the water motif. I called a friend, and watched a big fuzzy bee dart from flower to flower. And my friend talked with me about Hallel and Shekhinah and the Song at the Sea until I felt grounded and steady enough to operate a car and to re-enter the flow of the world.

At Pesach we ask "why is this night different from all other nights?" Right now everything feels different from anything that came before. My world has shifted on its axis, and I know it will be a while before I feel steady on my feet again. I'm working on accepting that. Entering the mikveh unlocked a wellspring of tears in me. While those tears are sometimes wrenching, I believe that they bring healing, too.


Image source. 

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David on "women's mitzvot" and transcending gender binaries

Front-coverLast night I went to hear Rabbi Haviva Ner-David speak in Pittsfield at an event co-presented by Congregation Beth Israel (my shul), Knesset Israel, Hevreh, and and Rimon Center for Jewish Spirituality. Here's how we described the event on the flyers:

Rabba Haviva Ner-David is an author, pioneer in Jewish women’s post-denominational thinking, wife, and mother of seven living on Kibbutz Hanaton. She is also a dynamic speaker coming to share the experiences and thinking which led to her latest book: Chana’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening (new from Ben Yehuda Press).

All genders are invited to join us for a talk followed by light refreshments and an opportunity to chat with the author and get books autographed.

I'd actually heard Rabbi Ner-David speak a few years ago at the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh conference Gathering the Waters -- I blogged about her remarks in the post The emerging mikveh movement in Israel. I've been a fan of her work for a long time, ever since I first read Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination.

She began her remarks by explaining how the process of writing her first memoir led to the spiritual and intellectual inquiry of this second book. "Life on the Fringes was about my childhood growing up Modern Orthodox in New York," she explained, "and my struggles as a feminist with Orthodoxy and tradition, and my decision to study to become a rabbi -- but wanting to get Orthodox rabbinic ordination."

That first book is memoir mixed with halakhic interpretation (Jewish-legal analysis), and one of its main themes is is women's role in tradition. Hair covering, women studying Torah, taking on the obligations which only men are technically obligated to perform -- the "positive time-bound mitzvot." (I've written about those before: Time-bound, 2010.) It occurred to me, as I heard her speak, that the combination of memoir and halakhic interpretation makes me think of midrash aggadah and midrash halakha, the interweaving of narrative and legal interpretation which makes up so much of classical Jewish tradition.

She wrote in Life on the Fringes about tallit and tefillin -- things which (in her Modern Orthodox childhood) men did, and women didn't do. Chanah's Voice explores how she came to recognize that in focusing so strongly on claiming tallit and tefillin for herself, she had neglected the mitzvot which women are traditionally obligated to perform. "I didn't know when I started writing the book what I was going to find," she noted. "But I decided to spend that year struggling with these three mitzvot."

The three mitzvot which are traditionally considered womens' mitzvot are challah (taking challah -- when one bakes a certain amount of bread, one is supposed to take out a portion of the dough and set it aside for the priests, and since today we don't have priests, one sets it aside and burns it), niddah (after menstruation one counts a certain number of days and then immerses in a mikveh before engaging in sexual relations again) and hadlakat ha-ner (lighting shabbat candles.) Together they're known by the acronym ChaNaH, which is a nifty confluence because Chanah is the Biblical figure who is considered to have invented prayer.

"As a feminist, I had a lot of baggage around all three of these [mitzvot]," she admitted, and all the women in the room chuckled.

Continue reading "Rabbi Haviva Ner-David on "women's mitzvot" and transcending gender binaries" »

Remembering Monday morning prayer

TefillinMy Monday morning at the OHALAH conference began with the most glorious and extraordinary service led by my dear friend Rabbi Chava Bahle. Her service interwove poetry, mikvah meditation, water, song and prayer in a way which created (for me) a deep sense of joy.

We sat in a downstairs room with the curtains pulled wide open. The overhead fluorescent lights weren't on, so as the sun rose, shafts of golden light iluminated the room.

Each us of received a bowl of water, a washcloth, a handout of prayers and poems, and a penny to place in the pushke on our way out so that we might end the service with tzedakah.

We began with a song and with a breathing meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh. The first breath: remembering that I am mortal. The second breath: remembering that those around me are mortal. The third breath: recognizing that our mortality makes this moment incomparably precious.

We learned some Torah together. We engaged in a priestly handwashing meditation. We breathed together, sat in silence together, listened together to Reb Chava reading poems. (Some of the poems came from a book called Go In and In, which I have now ordered for myself, because I want to use some of those poems in my services too!)

Sometimes she asked for volunteers in the room to read quotes from the handout -- quotes from Pirkei Avot, Sfat Emet, various kabbalistic sources. When more than one person spoke up at once, she asked them to read together, in harmony, as one voice.

For me the highlight was the meditative mikveh practice in which Reb Chava led us through dipping our cloths into the water and gently washing different parts of our face and head, in silence, as she offered intentions such as:

I am cleansing my forehead, and all that it represents, so that I may be free from critical and judgemental thoughts, whether they are thoughts about myself or about others, and so that I can direct my thoughts to holiness on this day.

I am cleansing my ears so that I will be able to hear the deeper truths of all that I encounter.

I am cleansing my eyes so that I will be able to see things as they are, to develop deep compassion for life...

Bowl(That meditation is adapted from David A. Cooper's The Handbook of Jewish Meditation Practices: A Guide for Entering the Sabbath and Other Days of Your Life and from Rabbi Joseph Gelberman.)

When we reached the donning-tallit stage of the service, we read aloud a beautiful tallit meditation adapted from Yitzchak Buxbaum, which I loved and want to try to integrate into what I teach b'nei mitzvah kids. It begins:

A tallit represents the world.
Its four corners are the outer reaches of the known,
its fringes an invitation to the unknown.
Continue to tie me to the generations before me who wore tzitzit...

When we sang the shema, after a sweet timeless time of meditation and prayer, our voices rose together in multipart harmony and I felt as though we were all droplets in the same flowing stream of water, unified.

I told Reb Chava at the end of the service that if this were the only thing I experienced that day, dayyenu, it would be enough. And I meant it.

It's a sweet thing to remember today, as I lead my own (much less elaborate) meditation minyan at my small shul, grateful to be home but also looking forward to the next time I get to see my beloved Renewal community again.

A delicious mikveh before Shabbat... with a few surprises

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.

Continue reading "A delicious mikveh before Shabbat... with a few surprises" »

A quick dip before the holiday comes

The drive is glorious: up into Vermont, first on what passes around here for a major road, then onto a dirt road, then onto an even tinier dirt road. The views of furrowed mountains, green turning to red and orange and gold, are breathtaking. Last night there was a frost. The new season is coming.

We pull off the final dirt road at the only house on the road. A woman -- our hostess -- is working in her garden; she greets us merrily and points us toward their "swimming hole," which turns out to be a rushing stream pouring out of an opening in the rock face of the hill. It pools into a little pond, then races down the hill toward wherever its path goes.

We pick our way delicately along the side of the stream until we find the right place to enter. We lay down our towels, face one another, and I offer an impromptu prayer thanking God for this beautiful day, for our companionship on this path, for this amazing natural mikveh. I pray aloud that our immersion offer us the cleansing we need in order to enter this solemn day of connection with our hearts open and ready to receive.

And then we pile our clothing on the riverbank and, shivering, step into the stream. Oh, it is cold! As I move further into the stream, my feet are rapidly becoming too cold for comfort. The thought flits through my mind -- as it does every time I'm blessed to do mikveh outdoors before Yom Kippur -- that my grandfather, of blessed memory, might have mixed feelings about my participation in this ritual outdoors at this time of year!

I take three halting steps, decide that the water here is deep enough, take a deep breath, and plunge into a prone position, all of me beneath the water. When I emerge I whoop. I make my way to the mossy riverbank -- and now the outside air which felt chill, before, feels surprisingly warm and comfortable in comparison with the very cold water in which I just immersed.

The autumn sunshine is glorious. My hair is wet. I have socks to warm my feet. I've done my best to let go of the emotional, spiritual, and karmic baggage of the year which just ended. I feel ready to go home and shower and put on my whites, ready for the davening and singing ahead, ready for whatever may come.

Wishing all who read this a גמר חתימה טובה / g'mar chatimah tovah: may you be sealed for a good year to come!

New essay about mikveh at the Mayyim Hayyim blog

I've posted here many times over the years about my love of creative mikveh experiences, and last October I offered six blog posts from the Gathering the Waters mikveh conference held at / by Mayyim Hayyim. If these subjects are of interest to you, hop over to the Mayyim Hayyim blog, where they have graciously asked me to share a guest post. Here's how that post begins:

My first mikveh experience took place in early Elul. Shabbat was approaching at my first week-long Jewish Renewal retreat at Elat Chayyim, and I decided to join the group which was going to do "spiritual mikveh" in the swimming pool. Rabbi Phyllis Berman explained, beforehand, the ways in which our mikveh would be atypical: we were using a swimming pool (not a source of "living waters," though it is occasionally augmented by rain), we would go in together rather than one at a time, some women would choose to wear swimsuits while others chose to remove all impediments between themselves and the water. I had never considered immersing in a mikveh, but my week had already opened me to so many new spiritual experiences — heartfelt weekday prayer; women laying tefillin; chant and meditation — that I was open to trying one more...

Read the whole thing here: Immersing With Intention, Creating Mikveh Experience Beyond the Mikveh.

A prayer for pre-ordination immersion

Intention / כוונה

I come before You today
in gratitude for the teachers who have guided me
in deepening my spiritual practice
in heady intellectual learning
in opening my heart to Torah, to God, and to community
and in how to tie my shoes

Holy One of Blessing, thank You
for leading me to my community of learning
for being with me through struggles and rejoicing
for my beloved companions on this journey
for my family and friends who have supported me
and for the riches of this tradition

Help me to let go of what I need to release
So that I may be open to the changes which are coming.


I had planned a trip to Mayyim Hayyim last week, in order to immerse in a mikvah and in so doing prepare myself spiritually for the experience of ordination. A few days before the scheduled trip, I realized I didn't have the energy for the six-hour round-trip drive, and canceled it. (It's just as well; the day I had planned to schlep there was the day of a huge snowstorm, and we got a good two feet of snow here!)

I rescheduled my mikvah for a different place and time: an indoor pool at a friend's house, where I could have solitude and space. It's not a kosher mikvah (it's not fed by living waters), but in midwinter in the northern Berkshires I'm just grateful to have a place where I can immerse in water, period. I've experienced what we in Jewish Renewal call "spiritual mikvah" in swimming pools (and hot tubs) before, and have always come away feeling changed and cleansed. Anyway: the above is the prayer I wrote to recite before my immersions.

Those who are attuned to kabbalistic things may notice a hint of four-worlds teaching in the first stanza. (Those who are attuned to poetry things may note that the prayer took the loose form of a sonnet.) I offer this as a gift to anyone else who approaches ordination and wants a mikvah immersion ritual; the rest of your ritual is yours to create for yourself, but you're welcome to use this prayer to set your intention, as I have done.

Gathering the Waters Mikveh Conference Roundup

Here are links to the six posts I managed to make over the last couple of days at Gathering the Waters, the second international mikveh conference:

Deep thanks to all of the organizers and all of the presenters; this conference has been a great experience! Today (Tuesday) I hope to tweet occasionally about the presentations even though I won't be able to blog -- keep an eye on the #mikvehconf hashtag.

Gathering the Waters: the Emerging Mikveh Movement in Israel

I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikveh conference.

After lunch (which was tasty, and I got to sit at a table with a few ALEPH colleagues and also a few lovely people who aren't, or aren't yet, part of that world) there was a lunchtime session on the Emerging Mikveh Movement in Israel, featuring Rabbi Maya Leibovich (who identifies herself as the first Israeli-born female rabbi), author Varda Polak Sahm and Rabbi Haviva Ner David. The session is moderated by Rabbi William Hamilton.

(I loved R' Ner David's Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, and am very much looking forward to her new book Giving Chana Voice: A Feminist Rabbi Reclaims the Women's Mitzvot of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, which will be published this fall by Ben Yehuda Press.)

Rabbi Maya Leibovich tells us that of all the places in Israel, she thinks Jerusalem is the most special place to be. "As a Jew, when you walk in Yerushalayim, even if you're nonreligious, something in your inner kishke beats Jewish," she says. "What happens in Yerushalayim should be meaningful to anybody sitting here." It is her most beloved and most sacred space. "And yet, I want to bring you in to two opposing pictures of Yerushalayim, and I want to say that both of them coexist although they are very contradictory."

She tells us about the most recent Sukkot in Jerusalem. "If you come to Yerushalayim now, you will see more black hats than you've ever seen before." Many non-religious folks have moved out of Jerusalem, and a lot of black hats have moved in. Though she notes also that many black hats have left Jerusalem because they don't have the money to live there! But there is violence. She tells the story of a woman named Adi who wanted to show her boyfriend what Sukkot was like in Mea Shearim, where she had grown up; the woman was most modestly dressed, but she was not allowed in to the neighborhood because she had her boyfriend with her, and she was physically attacked. And was also physically saved, by three haredim (ultra-religious people) -- but the whole thing was exposed in the Israeli papers, and it's a dreadful story.

To a secular Israeli, this looks like a monolithic, zealous world which is meaningless to someone who is secular. And these communities are expanding -- e.g. stories of haredim who want women to stand in the back of the bus. "This is one side of the picture, and it's worrying, because it wasn't like this in the past. Jerusalem was the most pluralistic place!" Rabbi Leibovich describes how it used to be, and says "we've lost something, and we grieve that."

"On the other hand, in that very same city, if you dig a little deeper, you will see a variety of new religious expression crossing all denominations," she tells us. "You will see Israelis who for years said 'this is not for me; I'm Israeli, I couldn't care less for synagogue' saying now, 'wait a second, I'm a Jew, I want to daven.'" There are egalitarian Orthodox minyanim with a mechitzah (a curtain separating men from women) which looks like a little shmatte, she tells us! (Indeed there are; I've been blessed to visit some.) She tells a story about an Orthodox woman whose daughter became bat mitzvah, who read from Torah, and when this rabbi asked her how was this possible and how did the men respond, the woman said, "what men? they didn't even know!" Mikveh is like this in Israel, she says: it's something women can do on their own, and men don't need to know.

Continue reading "Gathering the Waters: the Emerging Mikveh Movement in Israel" »

Gathering the Waters: Marking Life Transitions with Ritual Immersion

I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikveh conference.

In the second slot of the day, there are six options to choose from, all happening simultaneously! I opted for Marking Life Transitions with Ritual Immersion, which is described this way:

The power of water in times of change, joy and sadness. We will explore the power of the mikveh immersion and the elements—in preparation and process—that are critical to a “successful” experience: the water, the ritual, and you, the Jew. How can these forces combine to create psychological, social and even physical change? Led by Rachel Brodie (watch a brief interview with her about "wide-angle Judaism" here on YouTube) and Dr. Vanessa Ochs.

(Tangentially, I posted about one of Dr. Ochs' books years ago when this blog was still relatively new: More than meets the eye. I'd like to reread that book now; I suspect it might strike me differently than it did then...)

Vanessa Ochs tells us that today we'll be talking about using water to mark moments of joy and moments of sadness. "Many of us think about [these issues] day and night, in our personal lives and communal lives," she notes. The goal of this session is to help us understand this ritual (mikveh immersion) more deeply, and to understand how we can become more adept at transmitting our knowledge of ritual to our students, congregants, family members -- how we can become more attuned to the kinds of work that ritual needs to do, and how we can become better teachers, facilitators, participants in this work.

Ochs invites us to name different kinds of transitions which are marked ritually which are not-so-neat. (Transitions which aren't simple or binary.) People around the room call out suggestions like "retirement," or "saying kaddish" during the year of mourning for a parent. Someone else mentions brit milah. Someone else mentions coming out. Someone else mentions saying the mi shebeirach, the prayer for healing -- when is someone "ill enough" to say the words, and when are they "well enough" for us to stop doing so? And in return, someone else mentions receiving a life-threatening diagnosis. Preparing food for a celebratory moment: how does that act provide joy, or not, and what happens when the food is all gone? These are all ritual moments which have the capacity to be a bit ragged, a bit blurred.

In the case of these transition rituals, is part of their purpose to bring us to God, or to please God, or to act in God-like ways? Ochs asks. "Maybe we shy away from that theological question, but what if we enter into this ritual, and the communal work has been done, but what if we didn't feel that we recognized God along the way?"

"Mikveh isn't the answer to everything," says Rachel Brodie. "Mikveh isn't the answer to all of the things which have been mentioned. But we'd like to think about, if you're using a medium like water, what's the symbolism, and does it match with your intention for the transition that you're marking?"

Continue reading "Gathering the Waters: Marking Life Transitions with Ritual Immersion" »

Gathering the Waters: Navigating Ambiguity, Rituals & Transitions

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

Today's first session (following shacharit, which alas, I had to miss, because I was taking Drew to daycare for the day) is Navigating Ambiguity: Mikveh and transitions. This session will "explore the concept of liminality and the way rituals help ease the confusion that comes with change. We will examine how and why water works to transform sexuality, Jewish identity, and even the 'identity' of inanimate objects." (Does that last bit sound far-out? It's because mikva'ot have traditionally been used to make things like glass dishes kosher.) The speaker is Dr. Erica Brown, scholar in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, whose most recent book is Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism.

Aliza Klein welcomes us this morning and talks about who we are as an ad hoc community: 270+ people from around the world, ranging in age from 20s to 70s, ranging in observance / affiliation from Renewal to Orthodox to non-Jewish. She offers a little Hebrew word game: the word "mayyim" (water) can be understood as mah + im, "what" plus "if." Water offers us a chance to explore the what-ifs, to flow fluidly into new possibility. We're here to share the possibilities of mah + im.

It's fascinating, Erica Brown says, that we're having a public conversation about a very private ritual. There is no safer space than mikveh. During mikveh immersion are in a private, renewing space; in absolute privacy; and in the mystical readings of the experience, we're re-entering the womb! (I blogged about a Hasidic texton that subject a while back: returning to the divine womb.) And yet we're talking about it in public today.

Liminal time is in-between time; "liminality is the feeling of being in-between." We collectively brainstorm examples of this: mezuzot, which are between public space and private space, on a threshold, in a doorway which is both exit and entrance. "Right at that point, Judaism says: put a marker there. A reminder of who we are. Every time you go in and out, there's a certain thoughtfulness about who you are." Havdalah, which is in-between Shabbat and week, a ritual which separates these two time periods but also cushions us in getting to the next point. Applying to college but not yet being accepted -- being in some way done with high school, but not yet into the new thing, the new place. "Transition on a lot of levels!" For parents as well as for children. Anxiety and excitement.

"What we've identified are space, time, and milestone events which are actually transitions," Brown says, and she notes that all religions are intrigued by transitional times, which produce anxieties; we place rituals in those moments for that reason. We brainstorm some of the anxieties involved in transitional moments: bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, and so on. Within an ancient framework, these are often sexualized in some way -- for instance, the classical determination for becoming bar mitzvah has to do with having three pubic hairs! And this is one of the reasons that we have so many rituals around these moments of entering puberty and entering into marriage.

Brown also talks about death. "We [Jews] do death well," she quips, and talks about all of our familiar rituals around death (from organizing the food, to gathering the community, to the stages of grief as they unfold.) By the end of the shiva week, a mourner told her that instead of the grief she expected to feel, she felt instead that she had been given the gift of hearing about new parts of her father all week long, and that it felt like a holy time. We have mitzvot for the seven days after, for the thirty days after, for the year after. "There's an orderliness to the way that we express happiness and the way we express grief." We experience these transitions in a powerful way anyway; the rituals force us to pay attention to the subtle gradations of how our experience changes over time. The rituals allow us to experience what we experience within certain structures.

That's our introduction to liminal time: liminality is the cushion in transitional times, and every ritual can be understood in this framework. "What is prayer? What is kiddush? What are all of these different ceremonies which the mikvah comes in handy to mark -- what's liminal about them? What is the anxiety that's produced, which the ritual is trying to ease us into or ease us out of?" These are the questions at hand.

Continue reading "Gathering the Waters: Navigating Ambiguity, Rituals & Transitions" »

Gathering the Waters: Opening Session


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

The opening session is Why Now? Understanding the resurgence of mikveh in the context of contemporary American Jewish history, featuring American Jewish historian Professor Jonathan Sarna (author of American Judaism: A History) in conversation with writer/Mayyim Hayyim founder Anita Diamant and Mayyim Hayyim Executive Director Aliza Kline (author of the article Beneath The Surface: Taking Our Principles Seriously, which offers a nice introduction to Mayyim Hayyim.) The session is moderated by Aaron Katersky, national correspondent for ABC News. (Here's the conference writeup on this session and on the four participants in it.)

First, Paula Brody -- another of the center's founders -- talks about how the center was founded nearly twelve years ago, and how at this point thousands of immersions have taken place there! She welcomes us to the second international mikvah conference; the first was in 2006. We are a crowd of more than 250 people, which amazes and delights me. We come from 22 states cross the USA and also from Israel, and at least eight groups of people are here because they're considering developing a community mikvah like Mayyim Hayyim in their own communities. This is an opportunity, she tells us, to see how mikvah can impact Jews from all walks of life.

Aaron's first question is, "Jonathan, what are we doing here, at a conference about mikvah -- how did we get here?" We got here, Jonathan Sarna says, because of Anita (Diamant), and the room laughs. "It is indeed an astonishing moment," he allows. Almost as far back as we can go, in American Jewish history, we can see men complaining that the mikvah is neglected and that women aren't doing what they should be doing -- these complaints are, he says, historically almost always issued by men! -- in the 19th century there are synagogue meeting minutes filled with notes about the problem of the mikvah, the leaking mikvah and so on, and in the 20th century suddenly it becomes hushed-up, "something that American Jews are rather embarrassed about."

Sarna cites the book The Secret of the Jew, a book which was self-published by Rabbi David Miller in 1930 and was once upon a time frequently given to (male) rabbinic students. It's all about mikvah. Sarna shows a diagram from that book, depicting all of the Jewish institutions in the country on one side of a scale, and the mikvah on the other, and the mikvah would outweigh everything else! Another slide shows a drawing of a mikvah hidden in the closet, which is, he notes dryly, rather telling.

How, then, Aaron asks, did we get from there (gesturing to the slide of the imaginary mikvah in the closet) to here?

Continue reading "Gathering the Waters: Opening Session" »

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!

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.

6 tastes of Ruach ha-Aretz


Pearlstone retreat center, home to this year's Ruach ha-Aretz East.

It is the evening of the fourth of July and the sun is beginning to cast low long shafts of light across the grass. A friend calls my name and I veer off the path back to the room, heading instead to a circle of women in the middle of the great grassy oval in front of the main building at Pearlstone. We talk and laugh and sing songs and crack ribald jokes and when I reluctantly rise to return to my room I am beaming. It is the first time since the first night of this two-week retreat that I've taken the luxury of staying out of the room "late," well after Drew's bedtime, and it feels so good to laugh and sing and talk with my chevre, my holy friends.

Continue reading "6 tastes of Ruach ha-Aretz" »

Moving into Shabbat

On Friday morning, my friends Aura and Shoshanna led an "Erev Fourth of July" (Fourth of July Eve) shacharit, which blended traditional nusach with a variety of American tunes. The first thing that really knocked me out was singing the entirety of psalm 148 to the tune of "The Water is Wide" -- the harmony around the room, and the gorgeousness of the Hebrew poetry combined with the power of the melody, brought me to tears. 

We sang the Shema to the tune of Gershwin's "Summertime," and "Mi Chamocha" to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." We sang Tom Paxton's "Peace Will Come" and a verse of "Simple Gifts." As our Aleinu, we sang an abbreviated version of "Letter to Eve" by Pete Seeger, where the chorus is a list of words which mean "peace" in a variety of languages. (Our version included shalom alongside pacem in terris, mir, shanti, salaam, and hey wa.)

It was completely extraordinary, and I suspect that it's going to subtly shift the way I feel about Independence Day this year.

I always love Jewish Renewal mikvah experiences. This time we were a group of maybe forty women, of all ages, including a few of the teens who are here this week. I wonder how I would have responded, as an adolescent, to seeing women comfortable like this in our varied and different bodies? I paired up with a mikvah buddy and we spoke quietly about what, from the week now ending, we each wanted to release in the world of assiyah (physicality), yetzirah (emotions), and briyah (intellect) and what we want to release into in the world of atzilut (essence.) We made the bracha for the immersion together as a group. And then, singing the "Woman I Am" chant I learned so many years ago at Elat Chayyim, we all made our way into the water, and sang throughout everyone's immersions. I watched my partner immerse four times, and then she witnessed me, and then we joined the singing circle. At the end, all those who were new to mikvah made their own smaller circle in the middle and we blessed them with a shechecheyatnu and with whooping and song, and then tromped out of the pool so that we could make space for the men's mikvah which would follow our own.

I forgot to bring my little jar of wearable glitter this time around, but even without it, as I moved into Shabbos I felt sparkly.

Of the three Shabbat evening davening options, I chose to daven with Nava Tehila -- no surprise to anyone who remembers my posts about the three Shabbatot I spent with them last summer, all of which were grand.

Continue reading "Moving into Shabbat" »

Two sweet mikva'ot

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.

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