Beliefnet News

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
In the seclusion of nightfall just days before her wedding, Leah Kahn stepped into the soothing lukewarm waters of a mikvah, drew in a deep breath and plunged into her new life.
After seven dunks in the ritual bath, the bride-to-be had symbolically washed away her identity as a single woman in a Jewish ritual she will partake in regularly for the rest of her child-bearing years.
The mikvah is traditionally the cornerstone of a Jewish congregation, and since this one opened in the spring at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Lakeview, dozens of women have visited the ritual bath. Religious law requires immersion for converts and new brides, and married women must bathe in a mikvah after menstruation before resuming sexual relations with their husbands.
“It’s emblematic of who we are as Jews,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of the modern Orthodox congregation. “We celebrate family life. We celebrate integrating religion into our most intimate moments.”
But the mikvah is also a sign of changing times. Many Jews have abandoned the tradition, not wanting to be told when they can sleep with their spouse or believing that Jewish purity laws objectify women. Now, some in the younger generation are reclaiming the ancient rite, seeing it as a way to honor and nurture women in times of transition.
Today Jewish women use the mikvah to mark a variety of milestones: menopause, hysterectomy, recovery from illness, divorce, a new job. At Anshe Sholom, one woman visited the spa-like space after leaving an abusive relationship.
The Lakeview mikvah has even ignited some frank talk about how ancient traditions can be used in modern times to enhance a couple’s sexual relationship.
“There’s a lot of sexual tension here,” said Rachel Kohl Finegold, Anshe Sholom’s director of ritual and programming. “You know that woman is leaving [the mikvah] to reunite with her husband.”
That reunion is often highly anticipated because, according to Jewish law, a married couple must abstain from sex nearly two weeks out of the month. Wives must immerse themselves seven days after the end of their period or childbirth. A husband may not touch his wife until she visits the mikvah.
Before Anshe Sholom’s mikvah opened, women had to travel to one of five mikvaot in Rogers Park and the northern suburbs to fulfill the requirement. Some who wanted to avoid the commute north let the obligation slide or never observed the two weeks of abstinence to begin with.
“This law was lost on a lot of Jews, even somewhat observant Jews, in America,” Lopatin said.
Historically, congregations built a mikvah even before buying a Torah or constructing a house of worship. But like many American Jewish communities, Anshe Sholom had worshiped without one for decades.
That changed thanks to a contribution from member Martin Straus, who overheard a discussion about the congregation’s plans after reciting kaddish for his late son Adam. Reminded of his son’s immersion before attending yeshiva, Straus consulted his wife and offered to finance the mikvah with a portion of his son’s estate.
Following negotiations with the rest of the Jewish community, the congregation set fairly liberal ground rules: All Jews, Orthodox or not, would be welcome, and all traditional and contemporary Jewish rituals could be performed there, with the exception of conversions.
Orthodox conversions would continue at the community mikvah in Rogers Park under an agreement with the Chicago Rabbinical Council. Conservative rabbis can oversee conversions at a mikvah in Wilmette.
According to Jewish teaching, the mikvah must be fed by a natural spring, a well of flowing water or a cistern filled directly by rain. Though the mikvah space opened with great fanfare in November, only when the winter snow melted and spring rains came was the congregation made complete.
Finegold and Lopatin emphasize that though men bathe in the mikvah occasionally before the Sabbath and High Holidays, the bath is primarily for women.
“It’s a celebration of women carving out their own space in the world where everyone is demanding on them,” Lopatin said.
Vanessa Ochs, an expert at the University of Virginia on contemporary women’s rituals, said the modern embrace of the mikvah comes out of a Jewish feminist movement to mark milestones in women’s lives and redeem a ritual viewed by some as anachronistic and intrusive.
“Particularly for people who felt Judaism isn’t there for me when I needed it to be . . . these new rituals say Judaism is there,” Ochs said. “It just needs to be tweaked a little bit.”
Finegold and her husband, Avi, rejoiced when the mikvah opened. He immerses himself every Friday to prepare for the Sabbath. She goes monthly and serves as a mikvah attendant. The couple say the mikvah has inspired more candid conversations about sex.
“People in the Orthodox community don’t talk about sexuality or intimate life,” said Rachel Kohl Finegold. “Judaism is a very sex-positive religion. One of the holiest things you can do is the union between a man and a wife.”
For Leah Kahn, the ancient rite of immersion before her wedding marked a milestone in her relationship with her new husband, Darrell Cohn.
“You can get very caught up in the physical aspects of the wedding,” said Kahn, 27, who married three days later in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony. “It was acknowledging what was happening on a soul level. [It put] a final spiritual stamp on my marriage.”
It was also an important step in her spiritual journey. Raised by a Reform Jewish mother, she discovered Anshe Sholom’s community and embraced modern orthodoxy during college. She met her groom, who also immersed himself in a mikvah before their wedding, at a Sabbath dinner.
Once underneath the surface, Kahn let the water cover the crown of her head, swirling her long tresses around her face. The first time she surfaced, she recited a blessing. As her mikvah attendant and a friend looked on, she went under again and again, losing count as she lost herself in the experience.
“I feel like I’m entering into something Jewish women have done for thousands of years,” Kahn said. “I feel very blessed to have something in my life that comes from a place of holiness and spirituality and God . . . and knows what humans need at the time we need it.”
Copyright (C) 2008 Chicago Tribune

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus