Sisterhood Blog

There's a Shark in the Mikveh

By Deena Yellin

  • Print
  • Share Share

Perplexed souls seeking enlightenment about what to expect when taking a dip in the mikveh have generally found a limited variety on the shelves of Judaica stores and libraries: On the one hand, there are a myriad of volumes devoted to the halachic intricacies of family purity, and then there are the numerous works extolling the ritual for enhancing marriages and providing spiritual renewal.

But those searching for an insider’s take on the mikveh experience have been kept wanting.

Enter Penny Harrow Thau and Naava Pasternak Swirsky, both working mothers in their 40’s and American émigrés to Israel.

Their recently published, “There’s a Shark In the Mikvah: A light hearted look at Jewish Women’s Dunking Experiences” (Createspace Publishing 2014) is a compilation of stories from women who have encountered unusual mikveh experiences and survived to tell the tale.

Among them are the adventurous vacationer who battles sharks and surfers to dunk in the freezing waters of the Indian Ocean, the mikveh attendant who is an aspiring opera star, and the late night mikveh goer who gets locked inside.

Some reviewers have referred to the book as a literary watershed for the courage to talk about a subject generally kept under wraps. But others have accused the authors of being disrespectful about a topic that has intentionally been kept discreet for reasons of modesty.

The authors argue that there’s nothing immodest about sharing adventures and foibles at the ritual bath. Furthermore, shrouding the mikveh in a bubble of secrecy is not always beneficial. It should be kosher, for example, to discuss mikveh-related problems.

Swirsky hopes the book will open dialogue among friends, as well as between mothers and daughters. “It should be okay to share our stories with them, good and bad.”

Unfortunately, there can be a disconnect between what many women have been taught about the ritual and the reality of the experience. While the mikveh is supposed to be viewed as a sacred place or spa-like retreat, some women find it to be an awkward encounter which they rush through purely for the sake of, ahem, resuming “interaction” with their spouse.

But most women are hesitant to talk about any strange scenarios floating around at the mikveh because in their kallah classes before marriage they were taught to keep it all on the down low.

The tradition of silence about this subject is for good reason, said Rabbi Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck, an author of several books about rabbinic Judaism and Talmud. “Sex is one of the most personal, sensitive and private domains of our lives, therefore we strongly agree by matter of social conventions to put some aspects of our lives off-limits to chit chat, gossip and public scrutiny.”

Nevertheless, the authors are gaining kudos for sharing the stories – some inspiring, some humorous and others downright embarrassing – to let veteran mikveh-goers know they are not alone and to encourage newbies to give it a shot.

Allison Josephs, Founder of Jew in the City, an organization which attempts to erase stereotypes of religious Jews, praised the authors for opening a new door. “How can we expect people to consider doing this mitzvah if we are all too afraid to talk about it?” she said.

Josephs asserts that a compilation of entertaining mikveh stories can be valuable in humanizing the experience for those who consider themselves outsiders. “Reading a first-person experience puts the human touch in it and helps people outside looking in get closer to it and make a more informed decision about whether they want to try this.”

It can also serve as a guide to the uninitiated: What do you do, for example, if the mikveh water is boiling hot or ice cold? What if you’re on vacation and there’s no mikveh for miles around? Where can you hide if you’re at the mikveh when your mother in law walks in? Real live women reveal how they fared in those situations.

Thau recalls that when she studied the laws of mikveh two decades ago before she married, she was sworn to an unofficial code of silence. But when she encountered unusual situations over the years, she couldn’t resist sharing them with her best friends. She soon discovered she was in good company.

“When the experience is not what you expect, you wonder “Why am I different? Why did nobody tell me it’s going to be like this?” said Thau, a cognitive behavior therapist and an accomplished jewelry maker. “Then you find out we all have these stories, that you’re actually part of a unique club you didn’t know existed, and we’re in it together.”

Realizing she had the makings of a book, she enlisted Swirsky and they began collecting anonymous mikveh stories through interviews and social media. What shocked them was how many women had unhappy mikveh experiences.

The pair debated about what they wanted to convey in their book, and eventually opted against including the negative stories.

“That wasn’t the story we wanted to tell,” said Swirsky, the founder of an intellectual property firm. Instead, they chose stories that conveyed a lighthearted and entertaining tone, which they hope will provide comic relief for an endeavor that can cause anxiety for women. (Novices who are really nervous should probably not read the one about the woman who came face to face with a lizard at the mikveh.)

Thau admits mikveh can be a particularly challenging mitzvah for the modern working woman who is juggling many tasks. “I find it difficult to get out of the house with a bunch of teenagers around and I have to make up excuses about why I’m going out. But it’s a nice feeling when you go. There’s a special camaraderie among the women there.”

And though she readily admits she doesn’t sail to the lofty heights to which she aspires every month, she is gratified when she succeeds in fulfilling the mitzvah of mikveh properly. “Ultimately, we’re all trying to keep the mitzvah. We’re all in this together,” she said.

Deena Yellin is a newspaper reporter in New Jersey who has written for Newsday, The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and other publications.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: mikveh, Jewish

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.