OyChicago blog

Surviving Mikvah 101

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I hate water.  I don’t love drinking it, I’m not a swimmer – not even to cool off while sunbathing – and as my college roommates can attest, I went through a phase where the shower and I were basically frenemies, interacting only when absolutely necessary.
Thankfully, I’ve grown up enough to recognize that even though I hate getting wet, showering is non-optional.  However, even on the hottest of summer days, you couldn’t pay me to jump into the pool and I can provide a 100% guarantee that I will never step into Lake Michigan.
So when my rabbi informed me that I’d have to visit the mikvah before I got married, I panicked.  For those not familiar with the mikvah, rest assured – you are not alone.  I didn’t know much about it myself until I found out I’d be going.
According to Orthodox Judaism, a bride must visit the mikvah before the day of her wedding, as a ritual of purification before entering the chuppah and getting married.  As a not-so-Orthodox Jew, I had a lot of questions – and the mikvah lady was there to answer all of those questions and more.

The mikvah lady, otherwise known as my rabbi’s mother-in-law, walked me through the process.  We toured the building, which looked more like a spa than a scary bath house, and she asked me a lot of awkward questions about my sex life, my menstrual cycle, and my plans for starting a family.   I asked her about the technicalities, what I would need to do to prepare for my visit, and most importantly, how long I’d actually have to be underwater.  And while it was mortifying talking about premarital sex and family planning with a lady my grandma’s age, it was a very eye-opening discussion.  As I am certainly not an expert in the Jewish laws of Mikvah, Nidah and family purity, I encourage those harboring curiosity to click here or here or here for more info.  Riveting stuff.

Back to the story.  After wrapping up my Mikvah 101 course, I scheduled my appointment for my pre-wedding dunk and promptly put the whole issue at the back of my mind.  I returned to sorting out seating charts, confirming last-minute details with vendors, and finalizing honeymoon plans.

At last, the day was upon me.  No – not my wedding day.  Dunk day.  I arrived at the mikvah and spent about 20 minutes preparing:   shampooing and combing my hair, exfoliating my skin, and removing my nail polish.  I took out my contacts, because no foreign objects are allowed into the mikvah (not even ones that keep you from stumbling into the mikvah by accident).  And then I hit the buzzer to let the mikvah lady know that I was ready to head in.

It was only when I stepped into the water that the mikvah lady and I found out that the water heater was broken.  Just my luck – the girl with the water aversion stuck in a freezing cold mikvah.  Luckily, the only requirement is that you are completely submerged for literally one second, three times.

Quickly, I repeated after the mikvah lady as she helped me say the prayer before plunging into the pool and then, about six seconds later, it was over.

I know many brides who have described their experience at the mikvah as a deeply spiritual moment. For me, my connection to Judaism is rooted more in tradition and community than spirituality, and despite the technical difficulties, I left the mikvah feeling a profound connection to the Jewish women over dozens of generations who had gone through this ritual cleansing.

And if thousands of other women could suffer through getting wet long enough to start a marriage with a clean slate, I could too.


Choosing to be Chosen

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Annoyingly, the timing of my conversion coincided with Charlotte’s on Sex on the City, leaving my friends all wondering why the hell my conversion process was taking so long when Charlotte managed to convert in 3 episodes. (For the record: it generally takes one full calendar year.)

Understandably, most assumed that, like Charlotte, I converted to Judaism in order to marry my husband. It’s an answer that I’ve learned to give out of self-preservation. Ever try telling a Fundamentalist Christian that you don’t believe Jesus Christ was the son of God?

Actual response: “You know that you are going to spend eternity in hell, right?”

I should have told her that there isn’t a Santa Clause either, but I took the high road.

Anyway…frankly, a deep philosophical conversation about religion just doesn’t make for good TV, or good cocktail conversation. Few truly are interested that, at age 8, around Easter time, I had begun to question if Jesus was the Messiah, doubts that I feared to give voice to lest I become an outcast. That by age 13, having been exposed to Judaism through friends, I found that it was a religion that I could believe in, and when I went to college I slowly started to practice it, and this brought me a closer connection to God. And, by the time I met my husband at age 28, despite my upbringing, I had spent most of my life “feeling” and identifying as Jewish.

I told you it was boring.

So, instead I say I became a “Jew by choice” because of my husband, who “brought me to Judaism. “ And he did, in a way.

Despite having been drawn to Judaism, I think I could easily have married a Jewish man, practiced a Jewish life and raised my children Jewish without ever formally converting to Judaism. Before him, I had seriously dated a Jewish man who did not feel any religious conflict with my technically-Christian status.

So it somewhat surprised me when my husband (then boyfriend) brought up the topic, telling me that he would not marry someone who would not raise the children Jewish. Promising that was not a problem for me, and vaguely committing to consider conversion “someday”, the conflict was seemingly resolved.

And then he decided that 7 years in politics was enough to bring him to God, and he applied to Rabbinical school. And the application asked him to promise that he would only marry a Jew. ‘Nough said.

(I like to say he went from working for people who thought they were God, to working for God himself. Or herself, whichever floats your boat.)
And so, I formally began my conversion process, a decision that I have never regretted. It took a nudge, but now I cannot imagine NOT being Jewish – to not be the same religion as my husband and child. For me, it was like a homecoming, and the ability to practice a religion that I believe in has brought joy and meaning into my life. And it lifted a weight off my shoulders—I never felt good about being Christian and not believing Jesus was the Messiah—I felt that was disrespectful to the religion and those that do believe.

That’s not to say my decision to convert came easy. It took a lot of courage to make that choice- being Christian was part of my identity and the foundation of my values. As a kid I had gone to Bible camp, sang in the choir, and was an acolyte (I lit the alter candles).

Choosing to be Jewish set me apart religiously from my family—and 98% of Americans. I’ve been fortunate that my family has been very accepting and supportive of my religious choice, but it does pain me to know that there are people out there who will hate not just me, but my child, simply because of my religious choice. I find myself easily angered by those that use the Bible to spew anti-Semitism, because as a Christian, I was never taught to use religion as a weapon, and I find those who do despicable.

Beginning the conversion process was also scary. I didn’t know how the Rabbi would respond to my request, and I feared being rejected. Once “in”, it required a lot of work, I attended class, met with my Rabbi regularly, and read many books spanning a range of topics from Jewish history to philosophy. Basically I had to cram a lifetime of learning (or at least a childhood) into a year.

Consequently, I often get the comment from Jewish-born people that I “must know SO much more about Judaism than they do.” I know the remark is meant to flatter, but really I find it annoying. I can read and study all I want, but there is a cultural part of Judaism that is hard—if not impossible—to master.

But that is also the fun part- the constant discovery and exploration of my chosen religion. Along with listening to my mother try to pronounce Rosh Hashanah. (A woman who pronounces quesadilla as “keysadillya”. Gotta love her, she tries about 3 times and finally just says “Happy New Year.”)

And so, that’s my story of how I became a Jew. Former WASP meets nice Jewish boys, falls in love, converts, and gets married. And becomes a Rebbitzen.

I’ll save that story for later, ideally when I’m drunk in the city.

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