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There's a Shark in the Mikveh

By Deena Yellin

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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.

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