"Years gone by about sixty, we were burned in the oven in this century; the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me… come overseas trying to be free…erase the demons out of our memory. Changed your name and your identity … cut off the roots to your family tree… don’t see that’s not the way to be."
As Savtah spoke, I could hear the desperation in her voice. Desiring for me to continue the heritage that my mother had forsaken, she took advantage of our time together to teach me. I was now in Savtah’s crash course of everything Jewish. What started out as an afternoon visit, turned into two days of lessons and stories. Some of the stories have been lost as a distant memory, while others remain a treasured memory.
In the wealth of information that Savtah shared, she told me the story of her first trip to the mikvah the night before her wedding. Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke her trip by horse and buggy under the cover of darkness. Accompanied by several women in the community, when they arrived they had to break the ice along the river’s shore. Although the water was cold, she explained how this was a special moment in her life and that the women who accompanied her did everything they could to make her feel special. After her dip, she stepped onto the river’s bank where her mother was waiting with a lit candle and flowers. Savtah smiled big as she told me how the long ride there seemed shorter going home as they sang songs and rejoiced. At the time, I had no idea that a mikvah was required to be an offical community and I never asked why they went to the river. I just listened in awe of everything she was telling me. Latter she talked about coming to America and about the mikvah in New York. Without the modern connivances for collecting rain water and storage, the men of the congregation brought barrels of water or ice from the river to be used in the mikvah. I could hardly imagine the chore this must have been.
Savtah explained how the tradition of women using a mikvah had been passed down from our matriarch Sarah and how Miriam’s well was a mikvah. She talked about the hardships my ancestors had endured to ensure that this tradition continued. With tears running down her cheeks, Savtah told me about the hardships endured by so many women during Hitler’s reign of terror. Before I left, she made me promise many things, one of which was that I would pass this tradition on my daughter.
As any ‘good’ Orthodox wife would, after a few months I started going to the mikvah. I had no idea of what was really going to happen and the idea of having my body inspected sounded to be quite humiliating. I had already been subjected to having my life picked apart and feeling like every eye was on me to find a fault, inevitably this was not something that I was looking forward to. Despite it all, I knew that this was the right path for our family and I stuck with it. Looking back on it now, I totally understand why all of the fuss. If you take upon yourself the Jewish faith it entails a lot of ritual and laws that are not place upon the rest of the nations. Therefore, the Rabbinic (the court of Rabbis) wants to make sure that this is the right choice for you and that the lifestyle doesn’t become a stumbling block that hinders you from having a fruitful relationship with Hashem (G-D).
After checking myself daily and then counting down the days, I called to make my first appointment at the “ladies club”. When the night came I was scared to say the least. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Since I don’t drive and men normally don’t drive their wives to the mikavh, the Rabbi’s wife Chaya came by to pick me up. The ride was quite as I contemplated if this was something that I really wanted to do. Every time I had a doubt, I could hear my Savtah’s voice asking me to “take back our heritage”. Arriving at the mikvah, Chaya drove around the back door; “we always park here in the back”, she explained. After ringing the door bell a sweet looking little old lady came to greet us. As we walked in she asked “this is your first time, correct?” I was so scared I could barely get out the word “yes”. Explaining that there was nothing to be worried about, she showed me the preparation room and all the nice things that she had put in the room just for me. I was in shock, there was a gift basket full of everything that anyone would ever want to pamper yourself, candles were lit, and there was an open bottle of kosher wine with a glass. The room was pretty and had lots of nice touches to make you feel special. There was a Jacuzzi tub and a shower with more water pressure then I could dream of at home. Of course, there was the standard sink and toilet; however, even those seemed to be luxurious.
The attendant and Chaya told me to take my time, so I did. I ran the tub, grabbed a glass of wine and sat for a nice relaxing soak. Getting worried that they were waiting too long, I started to re-clean under my nails and everywhere else. I knew they must already be clean since I had spent hours at home preparing myself trying to make sure everything was just right. Still worrying that I had forgotten something, I went over the check list on the wall one more time before ringing the bell. I don’t know why, but all of the sudden I started to shake and tremble. All I could think was “why am I here and what am I doing”. The attendant walked in and asked me what seemed like a thousand questions. As she explained that we don’t want anything to be a barrier between my skin and the water, she looked at my nails, my hair and the bottoms of my feet. After I passed the inspection, she took me by the hand and said “don’t fear my love. It’s ok, everyone is nervous the first time.” Although she did everything to calm me, I felt like I was going to faint. All of these months of preparation had lead up to this one moment and I couldn’t even remember the blessing that I had practiced so many times.
As the attendant took my robe, she explained that she would not be looking at me. Pulling a few hairs off my back she told me that I could step in. Thank goodness, the steps had a hand rail or I would have fallen in when I missed the first step. Knowing how nervous I was, she turned her back as I walked in and told me to look at the wall or the bottom of the pool to read the blessing. This lady was good, how did she know I had forgotten it already. After a moment or two she asked if I was ready, “yes” I replied and got ready for my dive. Down I went and up again, I waited to hear her say Kosher, but she explained that my hair was on top of the water and for me to do a dolphin dive and take my feet off the floor for just a moment. So down I went again, as I popped up I heard “Kosher”. As I spit and sputtered to clear the water out of my nose, I wiped my eyes and read the blessing off the wall. Down again and back up, I started to say Shema before I heard the word kosher, “dunk again” she said in a soft voice, “your feet weren’t off the floor”. Oy vey (a Jewish expression that loosely means ‘oh my gosh’), I was going to freak out any moment. Here I was trying my best and it wasn’t good enough. Taking a deep breath I went back down and tried to focus on picking my feet up, not holding my eyes tightly shut, and fighting the urge to pinch my nose. With so much to remember, no wonder I kept messing up. Up I came, “Kosher” rang through the room and I said Shema.
I knew there was one more time, but I hesitated to catch my breath. The attendant said, “this time love, take your time, try to let all of your fear go and pray for anything you desire. Pray for your family and for yourself.” I took a deep breath and dove again. This time I tried to just float in the water and let the warmth cover me. As I popped up tears were swelling up in my eyes. “Kosher” echoed in the room and I could hear footsteps as she walked away. There I was in the pool, crying my eyes out, and trying to pray. I couldn’t stop crying the whole time I was praying. After I climbed out of the pool and made my way back to the preparation room, I fell to the floor and cried more. I cried for my mother who left the faith, for my children whom I desired to follow our heritage, and for myself. After years of carrying around guilt from being a stripper and prostitute, now I felt like it was all gone. Somehow I knew that I was different now, I knew that my tears were my repentance and that I was like Queen Ester who was allowed to keep her life after entering the Kings chamber uninvited. I felt like HaShem had extended a golden septur to me and He had made me new person, no longer a person who was covered in sin; but a new person with a fresh start in life.
Pulling myself together, I got dressed and walked out. There was Chaya waiting patiently for me with candles and flowers. Just like my great grandmother had given my grandmother, now Chaya was presenting them to me. I started to cry all over again. I told her the story my Savtah had told me. Chaya explained that this is common for mothers to do for their daughters the night before their wedding, and how she wanted my first time to be as special as a bridal night. I gave her a huge hug and we headed back home.
My next trips to the mikvah were not as lavish or emotional. Come to find out the preparation room they allowed me to use the first time, was the bride’s chamber and not normally used by others. The other preparation rooms were nice, but not as lavish. Dipping became easy and comfortable; soon I felt I was becoming a pro.
Here alone, without the watchful eyes of the community, I could easily let traditions fall to the way side. And for the most part many traditions have. However, there are a few practices that I continue. I say Shama every day, I cover my hair and dress modestly, I honor Shabbat with lighting candles, eat Kosher, honor the high holidays, and I go to my mikvah.
My mikvah is different from any other I have visited. No I don’t dart away under the cover of darkness to use the mikvah two hours away. I don’t travel to immerse myself each month. To get to my mikvah, I walk out the back door follow the trail through the woods to a stream. That’s right; my mikvah is the stream behind our house. There’s no heater in the winter, no attendant to declare my emersion kosher, and nothing there to pamper myself with. At my mikvah it is just me and nature. I prepare myself prior to taking my walk, my husband inspects me for stray hairs and such, I put on my clothes and take my walk. It’s not too long, but I love taking that time to reflect and draw closer to G-d. Although, we live in a rural area we are still worried that someone might be around walking through the woods. My husband follows behind me to keep an ever vigilant eye out for others.
I climb down the rocky bank and step into the water. Dropping my clothes and taking off my river shoes, I wade out to the deepest area and take my dip. No longer do I struggle to keep my feet off the bottom and my eyes open; now I take time to sort of drift and float under the water. Because I don’t have a friend with me to pronounce my dip kosher, as I dip I make sure to run my hands down my hair ensuring that it goes completely under the water. Long hair tends to float on top the water, so although it may not be completely appropriate for me to grab my hair, I do it.
I love my mikvah during the summer, the water is refreshing and it’s a joy to go. However, during the winter is a whole other story. It’s cold and all too often the water freezes around the shore and rocks. More times than not, I’m sure I will catch nemphonia during my dip; but I never have. It’s a daunting task during the winter and at times I have to force myself; but I do it every month.
“Why?” you may ask. The answer is not as simple as one might think. Many things factor into my choice to continue this tradition; but, number one is to honor my Savtah of blessed memory. My determination to continue this tradition has not griped my daughter’s heart, yet. She thinks I’m a bit loony and I never had the privilege of taking her to the mikvah the night before her wedding. Even so, I’m not giving up the hope. Each month when I dip in the mikvah, I pray for HaShem to ignite the flame inside of her and for her return to our beliefs and traditions. Until then, I keep telling myself that if those who have come before me endured all they did to continue this tradition, so can I.
You can’t really imagine the issues that an abused stripper and sex worker has trying to fit into the ‘real world’, unless you went through it too. My life in the French Quarter left me a mess and fit for a mental ward. I’m sure some people who knew me thought that one day I would lose my children to DHS. As I learned and practiced our traditions, I was able to change my past behaviors and thought patterns. Overtime, I became a modest and submissive wife. I strive every day to live what the Biblical book of Proverbs chapter 31 describes as the ideal wife.
Some may stand on the outside and think that the Jewish lifestyle is harsh and has too many rules. Others say that “we are no longer under the law but rather grace and that these practices are outdated.” For me, this lifestyle is not hard and too restrictive. I gladly embrace them and I truly believe that they are exactly what I need. These laws are not intended to be a hardship for us. Rather they were created to help us live a life that brings HaShem into the physical world. Through them we overcome and become who we were created to be. Practicing them is truly a joy and brings me closer to HaShem To those who question why I would want to practice Orthodox Judaism, I simply say with a big smile, “It’s what saved my life and my family”.