Sisterhood Blog

When the Mikveh Is an Ordeal of Faith

By Frimet Goldberger

Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh

The first time I prepared to immerse in the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, I was 18 years old and four days away from my wedding. I sat naked in a white bathtub as the mikveh attendant scrubbed my back with a washcloth and a dollop of baking soda.

“You’re lucky you will only have your hair this one time,” the “mikveh lady,” as she was commonly referred to, informed me in Yiddish. (Satmar Hasidic women shave their heads after their weddings and cover them with a wig or kerchief.)

Scrub, scrub, scrub. I pulled my hands in over my chest. Scrub, scrub, scrub. As I wondered if she was looking at my naked body, I shifted uncomfortably, making ripples with the water beneath my feet.

My mother accompanied me on this first visit to the women’s mikveh in the Satmar Hasidic village Kiryas Joel, one chilly December evening 11 years ago. She rang the doorbell of the vast grey brick building that sits on the corner of one of the village’s main roads and is surrounded by tall pine bushes to obscure the views of passersby. There was a buzz to let us in.

“Welcome to the woman’s palace,” the attendant at the front desk exclaimed cheerfully in Yiddish. “This is the place to relax.”

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Inside Sex Education for Orthodox Couples

By Chanel Dubofsky

Kallah teacher Rori Picker NeissKallah teacher Rori Picker Neiss

I’ve always wanted to know what goes on during a kallah class, in which observant Jewish brides learn about niddah, the laws of ritual purity, as well as issues of sexuality. I would have gone so far as to borrow an engagement ring to do so, but fortunately, I got to talk to Rori Picker Neiss instead.

Neiss teaches private classes to brides and couples and is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, a pioneering institution training Orthodox Jewish women to be spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities. In addition to founding and running an independent minyan in Brooklyn, she serves as the Rabbinic Intern at the Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk and the Hillels at NYU and CUNY’s Hunter College.

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Inside Sex Education for Orthodox Couples

By Chanel Dubofsky

Kallah teacher Rori Picker NeissKallah teacher Rori Picker Neiss

I’ve always wanted to know what goes on during a kallah class, in which observant Jewish brides learn about niddah, the laws of ritual purity, as well as issues of sexuality. I would have gone so far as to borrow an engagement ring to do so, but fortunately, I got to talk to Rori Picker Neiss instead.

Neiss teaches private classes to brides and couples and is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, a pioneering institution training Orthodox Jewish women to be spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities. In addition to founding and running an independent minyan in Brooklyn, she serves as the Rabbinic Intern at the Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk and the Hillels at NYU and CUNY’s Hunter College.

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Single Ladies Want Mikveh Access

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Creative Commons

The latest fight in Israel is not over where women sit on the bus or walk on the street, but about where they can immerse.

Some Israeli women are petitioning the country’s Supreme Court, asking it to reverse official directives that restrict ritual bath usage to married women, and bar women who are single, divorced or widowed.

Attorneys filed the legal papers on behalf of two separate parties, Plia Oryah and Amital Zaks, as well as The Center for Women’s Justice, and the Orthodox feminist group Kolech. The petition claims that prohibiting unmarried women from using a mikveh amounts to the violation of their religious freedom and their right to privacy.

Furious about this religious coercion, Oryah, the single, 19-year-old daughter of immigrants from New York, said “it makes my life miserable once a month.” In order to ritually bathe, she has either gone to the seashore after dark, or deceived “mikveh ladies” by disguising herself as a married woman.

“Without any regard to a relationship I would still go to the mikveh every month,” she told Haaretz. “I feel a sense of renewal. It is an amazing, wonderful experience.”

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Thoroughly Modern Mikveh?

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Given that rabbinic laws of family purity alternately repel and fascinate me, I recently decided to confront my prejudice and attended a panel discussion on “Exploring Contemporary Understandings of Niddah” at last week’s Mayyim Hayyim conference on all things mikveh.

While I’m offended by the idea of clean and dirty or pure and impure when it relates to a woman’s body, as a woman who grew up during feminism’s Second Wave, I’m also open to exploring whether or not these laws could actually mean something to me.

Once I left the yeshiva world I gradually realized that Jewish law could be dynamic, while at the same time staying true to its original intent. The rabbis were full of common sense and they applied their smarts to ensure Jewish continuity. For example, it’s not a big leap to figure out that the practice of niddah is all about creating optimal conditions for a woman to conceive. Judaism does not continue without Jewish babies.

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Sex and Women’s Pleasure Debated in the Orthodox Sphere

By Elana Sztokman

It seems that sex is on everyone’s minds this week. (“Just this week?” The cynic replied.) It’s not just on The Sisterhood that sexuality in Jewish life became a focus, but also elsewhere on the Jewish Web.

Asimon, “Israel’s Women’s Site,” for example, announced that in honor of “May is Masturbation Month,” they are holding a raffle to give away a free vibrator. Meanwhile, on Unpious.com, a rather funny post about financial pressures and family planning turned into a talkback debate about women’s sexual pleasure.

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Don't Divorce the Mitzvah from Mikveh

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

At last Sunday’s conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance there was an interesting session titled “Rediscovering Mikvah: Creating a New Construct in Thinking about Mikvah.”

Given my increasingly ambivalent relationship to my own mikveh practice, I slipped away from all the sessions on Orthodox women and leadership that I needed to attend to for my coverage of this central issue, and went for some personal inspiration.

The session was run by Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, an Orthodox Jew who is also a professional sex therapist, and featured Carrie Bornstein, the Mikveh Center director at Newton, Mass.’s Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center.

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Women With Braces Told To Stay Out of the Mikveh

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Just when I thought nothing more from the haredi world could shock me, after all that has transpired in the last year or so (women in a Jerusalem neighborhood being forced to walk on the opposite side of the street from men, rabbis issuing a new edict that women in Israel are supposed to ride only in the back of public buses), this recent took my breath away: A major decisor of Jewish law, Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, has ruled that women with braces on their teeth may not use the mikveh.

Now, to those who don’t observe the commandment to immerse in the mikveh, it may not seem like a big deal. Observant women immerse in the spiritually purifying ritual bath each month one week after their period has ended. But, as a liberal Jewish woman who has been observing the ritual — religiously, you might say, but with great ambivalence as well — it seems like a major development.

Not because I have braces, but because of the heartbreaking callousness and continued march toward radicalism at the expense of women’s wellbeing that this decision represents.

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