Recalling our ‘mikvah women’

Two decades ago, I read Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family, written by Lis Harris, a reporter for The New York Times.
She actually moved into the home of one such family, living with them for several weeks to absorb the atmosphere and share the experiences that authenticated her story. From it, one small bit made this lasting impression on me: the identity of small children, she wrote, is established very early in Hasidism. Boys and girls know from toddlerhood what their adult lives will be; they are already little men and women, growing into the parentally modeled male/female, father/mother roles they are expected to assume.
Twenty years later, I read Uncovered, Leah Lax’s account of living in, and ultimately leaving, that Hasidic world. In her time within the community, she raised seven children who echoed what Harris had reported, each taking on his or her accepted role as new siblings arrived: the girls as little mothers, the boys as wedded to Torah study as their father.
Very recently, I had the opportunity to discuss Lax’s book, and to touch on others such as Harris’ that cover similar subject matter, with some 20 Jewish women, none of them Hasidic. We talked about why a young girl from a Reform family would choose this life for herself, and why she would ultimately reject it.
Uncovered isn’t one of the many self-indulgent, self-published memoirs that flood today’s book market. Lax, now in her late 50s, is a writer of recognized quality. Her story is of finding a lifestyle that promised the stability missing from the disorganization and dysfunction of her nuclear family home. In Hasidim was the structure she had never experienced before; she walked its straight, rule-bound path for 30 years, leaving it only after finally understanding and accepting her essential, individual self.
A key factor in all of this, a theme that runs through Lax’s life story, is the mikvah. This ritual bath, and the purity laws that mandate it, are the keys that unlock Lax’s self-discovery. The enforced separation of husband and wife for long periods each month not only builds mental and physical discipline into the marital relationship; immersion into the mikvah’s waters also presents a woman with symbolic rebirth at regular intervals in her cycle of life. This is far from a simple physical bath; it is a spiritual experience as well.
While Leah Lax ultimately rejected Hasidism, she did not reject the mikvah. Rather, she identified in it aspects of potential meaning far beyond the seemingly simple monthly requirement of immersion and prayer. If the mikvah’s waters symbolize a regular transition from the impure to the pure, why should they not mark other important transitions in a woman’s life as well?
The law sends a young Jewish bride to the mikvah for the first time before her marriage; why shouldn’t it also bring her comfort and solace when her marriage ends, whether by divorce or widowhood? Why shouldn’t it celebrate other major events in her life, like the bar mitzvah of a son or the wedding of a daughter, or of becoming a grandmother?
These possibilities and many others found voice in 2001 when The Mikvah Project, with the sensitive text by Lax that accompanies artful photos by her friend Janice Rubin, was published. Interviews with many women reflect poignancy, need, and fulfillment; the pictures were pre-approved by rabbis since they show nothing that might be considered even remotely prurient or pornographic. I think this book stands as Leah’s lasting contribution to the community she ultimately rejected for herself.
As the annual Kosher Chili Cookoff in Dallas approaches, I’m recalling a group of “mikvah women” who used to appear in bathrobes and slippers as they dished out their samples. I hope they’ll come again, this time offering copies of The Mikvah Project along with tastes of their cooking. The combination would be good for both body and soul.

Leave a Reply