What it takes to immerse yourself in faith
This is an excerpt. To read the full version of this article, visit Utne.com/LivingWaters.
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.
It is March 1991. We are here because 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 raging current, is only 10 minutes from Bekah’s house. It’s the age-old dilemma: traffic or drowning?
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. I’m wearing jeans, plaid flannel, hiking boots, and a burnt orange Gore-Tex jacket I’ve owned since I first heard of Gore-Tex, about 10 years earlier. Bekah wears a flowing ankle-length dress made of 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 incorporates into daily life.
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. Having been an on-again, off-again vegetarian, I value the decision to eat consciously, so I don’t take it personally. 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.
The laws concerning immersion arise from a scriptural passage: Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your unclean-nesses, 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 relations during menstruation. I view the ritual as old-fashioned, a remnant of a 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 they are sanctified through prayer and religious observance.
The sweet scent of cedar zigzags past, dropping and rising with the shifting breeze. Camas buds uncurl from 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 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 that 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. Intelligent design? Why would God make us bleed every month for 30 years if it was something that made us impure? I can’t help but tell her this is ritual that’s risen from man’s aversion to 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. This is a celebration?
“I haven’t explained it right,” Bekah says. “It’s complicated.”
At this I laugh. Complications are a Jewish tradition. 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.
“Being ritually unclean isn’t about blood,” she says. “It’s about what it means to shed that blood. How, each month you participate in creation, by either 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, I’ve stopped at two, though I’d originally planned on a bigger family. Three. Maybe four. Zero population growth is for other people, not for me. 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.
We all believe what we believe, and though I am a cynical woman, I’d be lying to deny that somewhere, deep inside, I worry that 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. 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. 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.
“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. 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 she slips from safety into snag. Bekah is unafraid. 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.
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 as she picks her way into the water. I grip my end of the rope, aware 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 it 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.
The water is midthigh. Bekah peers back at me. “Cold,” she says before stepping into deeper 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. 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. Her expression shifts as she pauses to recite a blessing. 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 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 says. She 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. 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. 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, I struggle constantly 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.
Excerpted from Calyx (Summer 2009), a feminist literary journal published by the press of the same name, both of which nurture women’s creativity.