Going to the Mikvah (revised)

Eyes glittering, I enter the pool
and mouth the blessing in silent resentment, 
denying the mikvah lady the mitzvah
of an "Amen" over my naked body.

"Kosher," she confirms my hair fell fully
beneath the surface of the tranquil water.

I remember the generations of Jewish women
who immersed in frigid rivers and icy lakes.
At least this mikvah is warm. Still, 
a hissing boil of anger urges to break. 

Afterwards, I dress - stockings, dress,
re-tuck every lock of damp hair
under a cap till it is covered tightly- 
with short-lived relief.

***

Written for Go Dog Go Cafe, Shay’s Word Garden Word List, The Sunday Muse, and dVerse

***

Links for background:

  • The mikvah/taharat hamishpacha (family purity): this link and this link
  • Saying “Amen” after hearing a blessing: here and here
  • Married Orthodox women covering hair: here

56 comments

  1. I think I get this, but I also think that ppl with less understanding of this Jewish ritual than I have will not grok why you feel resentful about it.

    But very nicely written – I enjoyed this.

    -David

    Liked by 1 person

    • 1) FYI, the narrator in this poem is not necessarily me. (I’m not disclosing how much of this poem is based on reality)

      2) Yeah, it’s definitely a risk using something so Judaism-specific in a general prompt response. I debated a lot about whether to link to sources within the poem, provide a glossary, or link to reference at the end. You’re not wrong though that discussing this topic arguably requires an essay, not a poem.

      3) There may be an essay blog post on this topic in the future. Stay tuned.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It makes sense, even in my limited understanding of Mikvah. One of the functions of poetry is to offer readers new things to think about. No links to sources, references or footnotes needed. The reader can dig deeper if so desired.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve experimented with the question of how much context to put in a poem with allusions to Judaism. My college era poetry tended to explain everything within the body of the poem; my college era poetry was also extremely terrible, and I think those two things were correlated! I don’t love the idea of putting a glossary at the end because there are aspects of Judaism I simply cannot explain in a neutral and succinct way. In a blog post, I can link to external definitions if I want, but arguably, a poem should be able to stand alone – imagine if it were published in print, or if I were reading it aloud at an open mic.

      You do make a fair point. There’s so much poetry with references to Greek and Roman mythology and we don’t bat an eye even though many people, myself included, are not mythology experts. There is the question of making a very culture-specific reference accessible to a wider audience. But I also might not be giving my audience enough credit.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve posted pretty obscure references that I thought were so clever and hilarious. No one seemed to get the references or find them funny. I certainly wasn’t going to ruin the posts with explanations in case someone got them. Inquiring minds will want to know.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s a tricky balance. I’d say that I tend to lean more towards the side of less explanation than more (see above-mentioned crappy college-era poetry), and also, because I feel pretty strongly that a poem should be able to stand on its own without the poet needing to provide context or explanation – if it can’t, it’s often a sign that revision is needed.

          That said, I’m not consistent about this, and sometimes, I’ll provide more context depending on the poem. Like for this one, I updated the links as I also added the reference to hair covering for married women. But then there’s poetry where the situation is so specific, I’m not sure I could provide explanations even if I wanted to (eg. this one, a workable revision of a formerly crappy college/early-post-college-era poem: https://jewishyoungprofessional.wordpress.com/2021/04/28/that-which-i-could-no-longer-bridge/).

          Liked by 1 person

  3. This is an intriguing poem and I nderstood the references in context, even though I dont know the particulars. Immersing in icy waters is akin to First Nations people, some of whom also bathe in rivers and lakes year round as a spiritual practise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your feedback, and also for sharing about First Nations people. I should clarify that in this case, the commandment was to immerse in a specific type of pool of water known as a mikvah. The mikvah need not be frigid; it’s more than women of the past without the benefit of modern technology and kept the commandment when it was a lot less pleasant to do so.

      Like

  4. What a sweet narrative poem. Must be a wonderful and tough ritual. Jews have awesome rituals and narratives, running from Abraham the Father of faith to Jesus the Messiah And it’s wonderful. I remember that as the Luos of Kenya we’ve always taken pride in the belief that we are the black descendants of the Jews that resided in the Nile valley. It’s recorded in some history books that we migrated with the jews from “Behr El Ghazal” to Egypt where we endured 430 yrs of slavery with them until the time of their liberation. They did not however take us along with them through the wilderness, except one of our leaders called Achan. We even believe we’re prophesied about in Isaiah 18 since history has it that we travelled by boat from Egypt to Kenya through Nile. A lot other common cultural practices have also been found between the Jews and Luos and some miracles too in our land similar to those that happened in Israel. 😅 That’s what’s just believed here though. Anyway, I chrish your practices and beliefs.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I read Alice Hoffman’s “The Dovekeepers” a while ago and in that, women had to go to a hut outside the city at their time of month. Pretty fucking weird and degrading. I had to look up mikvah to get a clue about this piece; I have now learned something. I’d resent the heck out of it, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Modern observance of this commandment doesn’t involve going outside the city, thankfully. There are women who find beauty and meaning in the observance, and there are women who maybe don’t love everything about it, but tolerate it. As with everything else there is a spectrum. It shouldn’t be assumed that this narrator speaks for everyone who observes this commandment.

      I will also say that this poem narrator is not necessarily me – I’m not willing to disclose how much of this poem is/is not based in real life.

      By the way, I love your “A Brief Instruction On Style” (“many hats make the Hydra happy” – LOL!) and your “A Hollywood Haibun TLDR” (loved the three pet porcupines, the dialogue, and you gotta love it when the poem just goes rogue and breaks the poet’s no haibun rule)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the feedback! I should note however that this narrator does not necessarily = me. Nor does this narrator necessarily speak for all women observing this commandment. This narrator is a character (and I kinda love her relatable, passive-aggressiveness), but I do not claim that she’s representative.

      Like

    • Thank you for your feedback. It’s always a balancing act with explaining unfamiliar cultural references. Based on your comment, I updated the links to include a reference for the hair-covering.

      Thank you for the prompt inspiration! I’d actually written this piece earlier, but once I saw the hat theme, I realized I could revise this one and add another element of observance fraught with potential for resentment- there are a lot of strong feelings about hair covering – and add another layer to this character and poem.

      Like

  6. I didn’t realize the woman has to be naked for the ritual. I read about a rabbi who used to video tape women–he got arrested. If I were a modern woman, I would be angry at this archaic and silly ritual.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the Freundel case. (https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/barry-freundels-meticulous-roguery) That was awful. I think most mikvahs/mikvah attendants are dedicated to ensuring a safe experience, but the potential for abuse is definitely there and when you’re immersing naked for conversion or monthly immersion, you’re in a vulnerable position.

      There is a wide range of experience with this. There are women who find a spiritual beauty in going to the mikvah. There are women who resent it. The narrator of this poem is not necessarily me (I’m not disclosing how much of this poem is based on my own real life experience), nor does she necessarily speak for all women observing this.

      Like

  7. I wondered about the resentment as i read the ritual as being a parallel to adult christian baptism a desire for change and renewal

    Much💜love

    Like

    • There are different reasons for immersing in the mikvah. Immersing following one’s menstrual period in order to resume having sex is among the most common, but people also immerse for conversions and for spirutual renewal reasons. Really appreciate your feedback, thank you!

      Like

    • Thank you for your feedback. I don’t like overexplaining specific cultural references, but sometimes explanation is necessary to make it more accessible to readers from other backgrounds. I should also clarify that the narrator is not necessarily me, and the narrator also doesn’t necessarily represent all women observing this commandment.

      Like

  8. Great poem. Why is mikvah water better than having a shower or bath at home? I walk this strange line between wanting to believe in magic (or coincidences, if that’s a less loaded word) and being completely bamboozled by age old rituals which may have had a reason when they were instituted but seem pretty odd now. Like maybe, back when mikvah were invented, maybe people didn’t have easy bathing facilities at home. Maybe it was just a sponge down every now and then for hygiene and the complete submersion was considered more thorough. On the drive down to the coast from here, there’s a mountainous descent called “The Clyde”. In the steepest wiggliest part of the road there’s a sharp bend which has been christened “Pooh Corner”. Around a small cave in the rocks on the road edge has been assembled a huge collection of soft toys (which may or may not be Winnie the Pooh related). While it’s cute to look at as you drive by, again it’s a mystery to me how such a thing started or who stops there and when. It’s a busy and somewhat treacherous piece of road. I’m sure stopping isn’t encouraged. But the tradition persists and the soft toys look remarkably fresh and perky every time I go by (which isn’t often).

    Like

    • The commandment is based on verses from Leviticus on specific occasions when it is required to immerse in, the literal translation is “living waters” – this means a natural body of water. Interpretation and technology allows for the construction of a mikvah where the water is sourced from say rainfall and there’s various requirements about the volume of water and size of the pool etc. A bath or shower at home wouldn’t meet the requirements.

      That Pooh corner sounds absolutely adorable. What a cute idea!

      Liked by 1 person

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