What it takes to immerse yourself in faith
When I first encountered Leslie What’s “Living Waters” in the Summer 2009 issue of Calyx , the essay drew me in so completely—immersed, you could say—that I knew it would make for a wonderful excerpt in Utne Reader. We ran that excerpt in our Jan.-Feb. 2010 issue, but we also wanted our readers to be able to connect with Leslie’s vivid prose at its full length. We asked for her permission to reprint the entire piece online, and she graciously agreed. “Living Waters,” at any length, is a beautiful rumination faith and what sustains us. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. — Julie Hanus
Buford Park , March 1991
Bekah and I hike the trail beside a river swollen from spring snowmelt. It’s that time of the month, which, in the Jewish tradition, occurs about seven days after that time of the month has ended. Bekah’s best friend is out of town so she’s asked me to accompany her to the ritual bath known as mikvah. As an observant Jew she must immerse herself in the mikvah mayim chayim—a gathering of living waters—after her cycle ends and before resuming conjugal relations with her husband. I harbor misgivings about the need for such a ceremony, but there is no indoor mikvah in Eugene, Oregon—the closest being in Portland, four hours of travel to and fro. A ritual bath in the Willamette River, despite a dangerous and raging current, is only ten minutes from Bekah’s house. It’s the age-old dilemma: which to choose—drowning or traffic?
Fir needles, peeled bark, and decaying maple leaves cushion our path. The brisk air is made colder still with the rustle of winds through stands of alder. The trees conceal two scrub jays who observe our approach and gossip like a couple of old biddies. I’m wearing jeans, plaid flannel, ragg socks, hiking boots, and the burnt orange Gore-Tex jacket I’ve owned since I first heard of Gore-Tex, about ten years earlier. Bekah wears a flowing ankle-length dress of imported rayon, a silk headscarf, leather moccasins with buttons made from buffalo nickels, a thick wool shawl she knitted with matching gloves. We’re an odd couple, even for Oregon. Like the Blues Brothers, we are on a mission from God.
Bekah and I are both Jewish. She is deeply religious, and I observe the usual doubts of a nonbeliever. I’m unsure about God, less sure about the wisdom of our congregational rabbi, utterly unconvinced about the need to observe more than one or two of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) that Bekah’s family works to incorporate into daily life. The mitzvot are prayers, rituals, and mindful abstention from forbidden acts (building idols or bearing a grudge). My life is more harried than mindful, and I don’t aspire to a life without grudges. Like Bekah, I have been married about ten years. She has three children and plans on more, while I have stopped at two.
We are friends by way of our children, because children don’t insist upon friends who are exactly like themselves. We’ve managed to minimize clashes between feminism and tradition by focusing on our common interests. She’s invited our clan to her home for dinner a few times, a kindness I cannot return because Bekah and her family observe the dietary laws of kashrut and they cannot eat a cooked meal at our house. When her kids visit, I serve them unopened cans of apple juice, or uncut fruit, considered kosher by the strictest authority. Having been an on-again, off-again vegetarian, I value the decision to eat consciously, so I don’t take it personally that Bekah won’t eat at my house. But the ritual of mikvah gets me where I live, inside my body, and I was both surprised and curious when she asked me to accompany her. Everything I know about the mikvah is from reading about it. I don’t really understand the ceremony, especially why anyone would do it.
The laws concerning immersion arise from the scriptural passage: Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. (Ezekiel 36:25). Like so much of the Torah, the real story is told through rabbinic interpretation, and it’s the interpretation I find bothersome. While sex is viewed as a spiritual act, there is a prohibition against sexual relations during menstruation. Some religious people take this prohibition so far they will not touch any woman on the off chance she could be menstruating. One rabbi told me that my failure to immerse before marriage meant none of my children could become the messiah. Because I’m not a believer, this makes me laugh. I view the ritual as old-fashioned, a remnant of patriarchal religion that’s segregated and punished women since Eve first tried a new recipe with apples. Bekah interprets the ritual in a wholly, holy different way. She believes that human activities become deeply spiritual acts when sanctified through prayer and religious observance.
Hikers smile in greeting as they pass us on their return to the Buford Park lot. An old woman, holding a gnarled walking stick and a spiky plant with dirt clumped to the roots, notices me staring at her souvenir and stops to explain. “Knapweed,” she says. “It takes over. I’m always on lookout for invasive weeds.” She tells us she’s volunteered to be a steward of this fragile ecosystem and hikes this trail at least twice a week. The old woman smiles. “Haven’t seen you girls around here before. You better hurry if you want to climb Mt. Pisgah before dark.”
I love when women of seventy call women nearing forty girls.
“Thanks,” Bekah says, starting ahead. She’s less talkative than usual. Her task is too personal to reveal to strangers. Mikvah is a ritual of sexuality, exposure, and fluid—both of the body and of the earth. Here in the Willamette Valley, it’s a ritual filled with risk that can sound crazy to nonbelievers when women obey the technical requirement of complete immersion in living water, water that moves, like a river or a spring or water collected from rain, rather than the standing water of a swimming pool. Building an indoor mikvah is expensive, not only because of construction costs, but because the construction must be supervised by a rabbinic authority to ensure it is kosher. Larger communities build a heated structure to house the mikvah, which is said to be so important to family and tradition that observant Jews are instructed to build a mikvah before they construct a synagogue for public prayer.
Mikvah is known as the “ritual bath” though it isn’t really a bath. There’s no soap, no bath toys, no washcloth, and you do not lie down in the tub but instead immerse upright in the water. A woman is expected to be physically clean before she can be spiritually cleansed through immersion. A paid mikvah lady inspects the woman before allowing her to step into the water. Earrings are taken off, bandages peeled back, nail polish removed—the immersion is both symbolic and literal, and so much as a speck of dirt beneath the fingernails is unacceptable. I was to be Bekah’s mikvah lady, a volunteer position, like pulling invasive weeds, only with less cachet. I’d offered to drive her to Portland, but she’d insisted on coming here. “It’s so beautiful,” she’d informed me. “I feel connected to the world there.”
The sweet scent of cedar zigzags past, dropping and rising with the shifting breeze. Camas buds uncurl form the forest floor and a wild turkey with a rap-star swagger crosses the path in front of us and disappears into the brush. I finger my keys, a nervous habit that’s distracting enough to prevent my transitioning from the spiritual habitat of suburbia to nature. Bekah has made the transition and looks contemplative, calm. Her pace is purposeful. “I brought extra towels,” Bekah says. “In case you change your mind.”
“I don’t think so,” I say, and though I don’t want to argue, I can’t resist telling her I do not believe menstruation makes me unclean.
“It’s not about being unclean,” she says.
“A rose by any other name,” I say, recognizing it’s both pointless and unavoidable to argue our beliefs. Observant Jews believe that the Torah prescribes every behavior. I sometimes attend a synagogue that teaches the Torah has a vote but not a veto. The act of immersing in water is ancient, and these ritual baths have been discovered on Israeli archeological digs from before the first century. But being 6,000 years old doesn’t make it right in the user manuals I use to guide my life. Intelligent design? Why would God make us bleed every month for 30 years if it was something that made us impure? So I can’t help but tell her this is ritual that’s risen from man’s aversion of blood. “It’s not about God,” I say. “It’s about the yuckiness of blood.”
“Forget the blood already,” she says. “Forget God,” she says, aware I don’t believe. “It’s a celebration of how we bring life into the world.”
It’s 50 degrees out and the temperature is dropping. Without the swift current, the river would be an icy slush. I’m worried my friend might drown, perhaps pull me into her swirling vortex of doom. This is a celebration?
“I haven’t explained it right,” Bekah says. “It’s complicated.”
At this I laugh. Complications are a Jewish tradition. I once attended a lecture where two rabbis debated the meaning of two words of Torah for two hours. Two rabbis, two words, two hours, and no conclusion reached except that everything was open to interpretation, and through this interpretive process, one could learn to appreciate the Ineffable. In Judaism there is no simple explanation for why we do what we do to honor our beliefs. This drives me crazy. But I feel bad that I’ve made Bekah defensive and I really do want to understand her. I ask her to say more and promise not to argue. I’ve heard feminist re-interpretations of rabbinic laws and understand the desire to reclaim ritual. But Bekah is not a feminist, and she is immersing because she believes it is her duty to God and husband.
“Being ritually unclean isn’t a bout blood. It’s about what it means to shed that blood. How, each month you participate in creation, either by nourishing the child in your womb, or preparing your body for a future time when you might become pregnant.”
“Contingency planning,” I say. Maybe that’s why I feel no need to immerse. Bekah has three boys and yearns for a daughter. Because of complications during my pregnancies, and difficult deliveries that left me scarred and scared, I’ve stopped at two. My son and daughter are blessings enough, though I’d originally planned on a bigger family. Three. Maybe four. Zero population growth is for other people, not for me. It’s not my duty. I’m the child of a survivor. My family lost so many relatives to the Holocaust there’s no need to worry if I deliver more than my share. My mother raised me with the belief that having children could help make amends for those who were taken before they’d grown up, for those who were never born. My mother wanted to believe that her suffering could be made sense of trough her greater purpose of bringing children into the world.
We all believe what we believe, and though I am a cynical woman with a tendency to hold grudges, I’d be lying to deny that somewhere, deep inside, I worry I have failed the task I was assigned—to be fruitful and multiply. “I don’t want to argue,” I say, “but I’m not getting pregnant again. What would be the point for me?”
Bekah slows her pace, takes my hand. “What’s the point of anything?” she asks. “We do things because they matter to us.” She tells me it’s important for her to mark the cycles of life by observing ritual and ceremony.
In a way, I get it. I understand why a woman would want to acknowledge the concept that things might be very different, that the world could change because of what we do. Once a month, a woman sheds a living matrix that could, given different circumstances, nourish life. When my cycle ends, I empty the trash, and that’s that. Until the next month, the next box of tampons. If I chose to, instead of ignoring what just happened, I could view it as holy. In a way, it makes sense for her if not for me. I let go of her hand, pat her back so she knows I’m not irreparably annoyed.
The path closes in on the Coast Fork of the river. My backpack holds a knotted length of rope, a flashlight, leather gloves, flares, matches, granola bars—my version of contingency planning. We reach the swimming hole where Bekah has immersed before, a deep, still river pool hidden by brush. We veer from the path, stumbling single file down the mud bank to the water’s edge. The rocky shore provides enough dry space to stand and set down our packs.
Moss-green stones freckle the shallows before the water darkens and clouds with depth. Ten feet away the river churns past, a stark contrast to the quiet of the pond. I find myself staring in awe and wonder at the ineffable margin between stillness and rage, and the precarious task of straddling both places. Without the stillness to guide and calm us, we could not perceive nor understand the dangers and unpredictability of rage.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” I ask.
“Nobody’s making me,” Bekah says. “I want to be here.”
“So do I,” I say, and we watch the water and listen to the tranquil river music.
Before disrobing, Bekah turns back toward the path for reassurance that the ragged brush and steep slope fully block the view. She is about to expose herself to God, to an audience of One, plus one. I work on securing the rope to a tree stump, but though I tug until the knot feels snug, I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m terrified this won’t be strong enough to save Bekah if the margins blur and she slips from safety into snag. What hubris made me think that I could outsmart nature?
Bekah is unafraid. She folds hers scarf into a thin triangle, slides it into her pack. She wraps a beach towel around her slender frame, but it’s too small to hide her red feet, or the pale bumps forming on her arms. “When I stand inside the water I imagine I’m returning to the purity of the womb,” she says.
“There’s a big difference,” I remind her. “Isn’t the womb 98.6 degrees?” At this, she laughs.
“We might have a mikvah here someday,” Bekah says. “You’ll get your 98.6.”
“I’m holding out for a hot tub.”
“Dream on,” Bekah says, teeth chattering.
Because a woman must enter the mikvah pool in the same pure state as she enters the world, I take on the serious role of mikvah lady and examine Bekah for nail polish or dirt under her nails or anything that might get between her and the water. I rub a smudge from her forearm that turns out to be a mole. “You’d better get in before you freeze.”
She takes the rope, slides the noose around her wrist. “This is weird,” She says. She means the rope.
“Weird,” I agree, my observation not limited to the rope. I hold her towel as she stands naked before the river, all knots of pale flesh—shiver and stretch marks, cellulite and faith. She steadies herself with the branches of a partially submerged birch to avoid slipping on rock slime as she picks her way into the water.
I grip my end of the rope, aware it’s like playing tug-of-war with a pod of whales, and that, if the river decides to tug, I’ll lose the game. Bekah seems unconcerned about the rope, and that’s when it hits me that I’ve brought the rope for my peace of mind more than her safety, that the rope cannot save her from her fate, nor can it save me from mine.
I notice I’ve accidentally crushed a spotted trillium with my heel and the petals are bent beyond the possibility of healing. Nice product placement, I think, blaming God, as all nonbelievers tend to blame God for all things that go wrong. There is no reason to reserve inconsistent thoughts for the faithful.
The water is midthigh. Bekah peers back at me. “Cold,” she says before stepping into deeper water. The rope floats. Her hands disappear beneath the water. She utters something half-curse and half-shriek as the water slaps her groin. She goes deeper. The river tickles her armpits though she’s only a few feet from both the edge of the pool and the fast-flowing current. My part is easy. All I must do is watch to confirm her hair is immersed, ensure that water covers everything—a requirement that must be observed if the ritual is to be considered kosher. All I can do is hope I won’t be called upon to summon help. I grip the rope and stand with one boot on rock and one partially submerged.
Bekah lifts her arms, loosens the rope to expose her wrist. Her hands flutter over the water as she wets her hair. With a contemplative nod, she closes her eyes. I watch the river swallow her, watch the sweep of one hand rise up to catch any loose hairs and pull them under. Seconds pass without my seeing her again. I have just enough faith to keep from panicking that she’s lost her grip on that loose umbilical cord of rope tying us together. I stand immersed in awe of what she risks for her beliefs: her modesty, her vanity, her life.
What, if anything, have I risked in accompanying her?
I hold my breath until her head pops above the surface of the water. She gulps air, coughs, and shakes her head to shake away the heaviness of the water. Her expression shifts as she pauses to recite a blessing. I know only enough Hebrew to understand a few words: kidashanu, meaning sacred, and bemitzvotav, meaning commandment. It is at times like this when I catch myself praying that nothing bad will happen, and I think how the nonbelieving Jew does not pray for the fun of it. I am Jewish because I was born into a family defined by its history of loss. Growing up, we never attended religious services. To be a Jew meant we were instructed never to tell anyone else we were Jewish. I am a Jew by birth and family history, not a Jew because of custom or belief. I’d reluctantly joined a synagogue as an adult, wanting my kids to understand their tradition outside the context of the Holocaust. My children know Hebrew, know the prayers and what those prayers mean. They have a sense of pride about their culture I envy.
Bekah dunks down again, comes up for air, and immerses a third and final time. She treads water back toward shore. I take baby steps closer, and offer my hand. She’s cold and pale, a marble statue with chattering teeth and shriveling areolas. I hand her the towel and wrap a thin blanket around her shoulders. She stands without speaking, stretching out the moment of calm. “I feel like everything wrong is washed away,” she sais. She pats herself dry and dresses under the cover of the blanket, and once again I am struck by the inconsistencies of our lives, for while she is naked, it is I who feels ashamed and embarrassed.
I want what she has: a way to mark the possibilities. Bekah observes this ceremony every month, while I’m already finished celebrating my two greatest joys. Celebrations have an end, but mourning has no expiration date. Though Bekah has braved the river, I feel its crushing power in my chest.
My breath catches from the cold. Cold burns my eyes. My heart races. It’s possible to drown on dry land, to view the fluidity of life as a sinister force. I want to immerse myself in belief, but I know I will not do so. I believe life is illogical and there is no higher power; we choose our paths and justify the choices. Why do I hold faith to a higher standard?
Bekah’s dressed, her moccasins buttoned, her wet hair tamped beneath her thin scarf. With a last look at the river, I picture my children, my treasured son and daughter. I love them deeply. It’s a love I cannot understand nor explain. My love for them sustains me. Yet at times I’ve felt unpredictably sad after my cycle, the monthly reminder that I will bear no more children.
“Think you’ll ever try mikvah?” Bekah asks.
I know on an intellectual level how silly I am to believe one person can heal the world by bringing forth new life. It’s irrational to believe one person has the power to heal a grieving community or recreate a lost history. I want to believe there’s more to my time on this planet than the fruit of my womb. Yet, as a child of a survivor, it’s a constant struggle to keep from dwelling on the past and instead to seek comfort in the possibilities of what might be and what is.
“I don’t know,” I say, hoisting up my pack. “Maybe next time,” I say, with a glance toward the river, uncertain if I’ll ever have the courage to return and expose myself to the mercy of the world, and ask the living waters to carry my heaviness off to the sea.
Leslie What (www.sff.net/people/Leslie.What) is author of Crazy Love, Olympic Games, and Sweet & Sour Tongue, in addition to having been published in many anthologies and journals. She lives in Eugene, Oregon. “Living Waters” is reprinted from Calyx (Summer 2009), a feminist literary journal published by the press of the same name, both of which nurture women’s creativity.