The Beauty and the Horror of the Mikveh

by Rachel Putterman


Rachel Putterman

This summer, I had dialectically opposing experiences connected to the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath: one was exquisitely moving and beautiful, and the other was quite horrifying in its implications for women.

Until a few months ago, I didn’t know much about the mikveh even though I am nearly 50 years old, a rabbinical student, and a two-time user of the mikveh. In order to learn more, I trained to become a mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim, the local liberal mikveh. At Mayyim Hayyim, the grounds, building, staff and volunteers, are calm and welcoming; the air literally reverberates with the holiness of people converting, healing, marking life transitions and observing niddah, the family purity rules.

This past summer, I guided at Mayyim Hayyim for the first time. I was nervous, especially as I was going to be witnessing several immersions in a two-hour period. On the docket for the evening were a baby conversion, an adult woman conversion, a modern Orthodox bride, and a niddah. The same male Reform rabbi was sponsoring both conversions, and two additional female rabbis were sitting on the beit din, the panel of rabbis that constitutes a legal decision-making body. The baby conversion was easy. Next, the woman who was converting arrived. As she prepared for the mikveh, the bride arrived with her mother. The bride told me that the woman who taught her kallot, the rules of family purity, was going to be witnessing her immersion. Great, I thought, one less immersion for me.

Then, the other guide arrived, a modern Orthodox woman wearing a long skirt and a hat, and she was quite dismayed when she saw the conversion occurring with a male rabbi present. She said to me, “This is not right. There shouldn’t be a conversion scheduled for the evening, and there definitely shouldn’t be a man here. My kallah (bride) needs privacy.”

I gave the rabbi a heads-up that the other guide was upset. A few minutes later, the rabbi approached the guide, and in what can only be described as a state of grace, and he completely defused her discomfort. He recognized her name, and mentioned a mutual friend who went to her synagogue. At this point of human connection, the guide’s face softened, and the rabbi told her he would hold off on the immersion of the woman converting so that the bride could have total privacy. The guide was won over by the rabbi, and everything proceeded smoothly.

I, however, felt overwhelmed by the enormity of witnessing my first immersion. Immersing in the mikveh is the liminal moment when the convert actually transitions to becoming a Jew. I was going to witness this woman’s life changing event, and I didn’t even know her! I composed myself and went into the mikveh room. I had been taught that according to halakhah, Jewish law, for an immersion to be “kasher” or proper, there can be no barrier between the body of the person immersing and the water, which means in practical terms no piercings, make up, nail polish, contact lenses, nothing. Also, the woman’s entire body has to be surrounded by water. Her feet have to come off the bottom of the mikveh and her hair cannot float on top of the water. My concern was how to make sure the women immersing complied with these rules while respecting their privacy. I was taught to hold a sheet in front of me, and to peek over the top only once I heard the splash and knew she was under the water. While part of the job of a mikveh guide is to make sure the woman immersing feels respectfully tended to, the moment of witnessing the immersion is the guide’s true function, and I wanted to get it right. Despite my anxiety, I pulled it off. I witnessed her three immersions by peeking over the sheet, and after each immersion, I loudly said, “kasher” so that the rabbis in the anteroom outside the mikveh could hear me.

As I drove home later that night, I realized that the evening had been a peak experience for me. I was deeply moved by the gentle beauty of the ritual itself, as well as the vulnerability and trust of the women immersing. Perhaps most inspiring was the empathetic kindness exhibited by the Reform rabbi and the modern Orthodox guide, and the safe space they created for all involved.

The emotional high of my first night of guiding, however, was short lived. The following week, I attended a staff meeting at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, where I was an intern this past summer. On the agenda was a proposal for an art installation by an Israeli artist that documents the mikveh experiences of women converts in Israel. I was shocked to learn that the women immerse wearing robes in the presence of an all male beit din. I couldn’t believe it! This seemed to fly in the face of everything I had learned at Mayyim Hayyim. The women wear robes? What about the water needing to touch every part of their bodies? Also, the idea of a male beit din witnessing a woman’s immersion seemed blatantly wrong to me. Yes, I know that women are not considered valid witnesses in a Jewish court of law, but not even in the intimacy of the mikveh?

After the initial shock wore off, I read through the artist’s proposal and did a little of my own research. Sure enough, ultra-Orthodox male b’tei din are witnessing female immersions for conversion in both in the U.S. and Israel. Although this is not a widely known practice outside Orthodox circles, a quick search of the Internet reveals first-hand accounts of women who have experienced humiliation and embarrassment at having to immerse in front of male b’tei din.

I’m still trying to reconcile my evening of guiding at Mayyim Hayyim with the contrasting negative mikveh experiences of some women who undergo ultra-Orthodox conversions. Although discomfort with a male beit din witnessing one’s immersion may not be universal, that doesn’t detract from the fact that some women are traumatized by it. While I recognize that the need for privacy is highly subjective, it seems heretical to me that those varying needs are not being respected. Especially, when juxtaposed with my evening of guiding at Mayyim Hayyim, where respecting the privacy of the women immersing was paramount for all involved.


Rachel Putterman is a former HBI summer intern and HBI research associate. She is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College.

The Bat-Kohen: Between Holiness and Marginality

by Ranana Dine

ranana_dineIt’s an exciting time to be a religious Jewish feminist. Great strides are being made by many progressive halakhic communities to find more and better ways to include women in religious Judaism. From learning Talmud, to more egalitarian minyanim to wearing tefillin, women are becoming a larger part of the conversation of Jewish observance.

While all these advances are being made, however, people involved in these progressive movements are finding new obstacles to overcome. It might sound simple to say that women should pass around the Torah during services, but soon you may have a headache from discussing mechitza configurations and the weights of different Torah scrolls. As the progressive halakhic community continues to innovate, more questions and more conversations will emerge.

I am proud to be a young Jewish woman involved in these conversations and innovations. Recently, I found myself confronted with a halakhic question related to egalitarianism that I had not anticipated. I was participating in a small halakhic egalitarian service over a Jewish holiday. I was helping arrange the services as well as chanting Torah and leading prayers. I was comfortable with all of these positions and was glad to be helping out in all the ways I could. In this particular minyan, however, I was the only child of a Kohen (descendant of the priestly tribe) present. This presented me with some unanticipated dilemmas.

My background prepared me for a moment such as this. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox environment, but coming from an extended family that stretched the whole spectrum of Jewish identities and observance, I was taught at a young age to explore my own ideas about Judaism and religion. I was lucky to grow up surrounded by relatives, both men and women, who modeled strong Jewish leadership, and naturally I wanted to be just like all of them. By high school, I realized that to be a leader in my Jewish community also meant to speak up for my gender in ritual settings. Graduating from high school into college environments, my passion for observant Judaism has only grown stronger, along with my feelings that women need access to Jewish leadership positions and educational settings from which they may have been traditionally barred.

For the past few years I have been comfortable receiving the first aliyah (blessing over the Torah), which is normally reserved for Kohanim at traditional services, despite not being male. Traditionally, only men served the role as a Kohen, which in the Temple period included making sacrifices and in the Diaspora includes certain honors, like receiving the first aliyah, and performing specific rituals. Kohanic status for observant men also means that they cannot marry a divorcee or a convert and must avoid interacting with dead bodies – they do not attend funerals unless it is a very close relative and do not go to cemeteries. As a girl, I am considered a “Bat-Kohen,” daughter of a priest, which in the Temple period meant I was allowed to be part of the Kohanic tribe and could eat certain foods. I would also have had the distinction of having a worse punishment than other women for “becoming a harlot.” If I married someone who was not a Kohen, I would have lost this status and my children would not be part of the priestly caste, since only men pass down Kohanic status. Also, if I married, my brothers would not be allowed to go to my funeral, something that I find emotionally and morally upsetting. Because I am a woman, my status as a member of the Kohanic tribe is in a grey area – I have some different ritual obligations, but I am not a priest and so can go in to cemeteries or marry a convert. As a Bat-Kohen I live in a liminal, ambiguous zone, between honor and marginality.

When it comes to accepting an honor like the first aliyah to the Torah, I decided that I felt comfortable as a Bat-Kohen taking the honor. The tradition behind the Kohen receiving the first aliyah comes from the idea of retaining communal peace, rather than by direct biblical or rabbinic decree. My full Hebrew name includes the fact that my father is a Kohen, and in an egalitarian service where both men and women are called to the Torah, why should I lower my familial status? Plus, in the case of this minyan, where no male Kohanim were present, there was no one to assert his right to the honor. I gladly stepped forward and said my blessing over the Torah.

On this particular Jewish holiday however, the duties of the Kohen were not concluded with the Torah service. In the Diaspora it is traditional for the Kohanim to bless the congregation, reciting the text of Birkat Kohanim, later on in the service. The Birkat Kohanim is an ancient and sacred prayer – the text comes straight from Numbers and the congregation is supposed to avoid looking at the Kohen because of the holiness of the moment. Needless to say, traditionally this prayer was said only by male Kohanim, the verse in Numbers commands Aaron, the high priest, and “his sons” to recite the verses. Without any male priests present however, would I be willing to say the blessing?

I had never before been in a setting where I could say Birkat Kohanim. The blessing had always been off limits to me as a woman, as “only” a Bat-Kohen. I had to make a split second decision and decided not to say the blessing. The blessing seemed too momentous to begin saying willy-nilly without a lot of thought. Also, if the blessing is said to commemorate the Temple period, where I would have been barred from the tradition as a woman, would it feel right to break with the historical record?

My decision sparked a good amount of conversation among my peers. Some of my friends wondered how I could accept the Kohen aliyah but not say Birkhat Kohanim. Another Bat-Kohen who was not at the service told me she also struggles with figuring out her position as a Bat-Kohen. After the holiday was over I began looking for sources and asking knowledgeable friends about the ritual. I still am happy with my decision, but the thoughts and conversations it sparked have taught me much about my identity and my stake in observant Judaism.

I am proud of my family, and my family’s position as Kohanim. In most of life it does not mean much – an interesting tidbit of family history or a way to find long lost relatives. Sometimes being from a family of Kohanim (my mother is also a Bat-Kohen, so I get this from both sides of my family) is a struggle, like when a relative dies and some of the family cannot attend the funeral or visit the cemetery. Now, as I navigate my way through the world of religious Jewish egalitarianism, I realize that my status as a Bat-Kohen will lead to more questions and more conversations. I am excited to be part of them.

Ranana Dine is a former summer intern at HBI and a junior at Williams College.

A Feminist Journey into Prayer

by Amy Sessler Powell

Marcia Falk will discuss and read from her new book The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, on Thursday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall of the Goldfarb Library, Brandeis. Professor Jonathan Sarna will deliver introductory remarks. Fresh Ideas Editor, Amy Sessler Powell, interviewed Falk about her new book and her journey into writing new liturgies.

Marcia Falk

Marcia Falk

Poet and scholar Marcia Falk, acclaimed author of the groundbreaking Book of Blessings, has just published a new book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Why did she choose to focus on the High Holidays? For the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. That’s where the Jews are.

The High Holidays are the days when religious as well as nonaffiliated Jews attend synagogue services in unparalleled numbers. Yet much of what they find there can be unwelcoming in its patriarchal imagery, leaving many worshipers unsatisfied. For those seeking to connect more deeply with their Judaism, and for all readers in search of a contemplative approach to the themes of the season, Falk has re-created key prayers and rituals from an inclusive perspective.

But the story of Falk’s engagement with writing prayer began several decades earlier.

“The words of prayer have always mattered to me, “ said Falk. “As a Jewish feminist in the 1970s and ‘80s, I thought it was important not just where and how we participate in synagogue life, but what we actually pray there. I had been a regular davener for years; I belonged to synagogues and attended services every Shabbat. I participated, gave drashot (talks about the Torah portion). But in the early 1980s, the liturgy was becoming more and more disturbing to me as a Jew and a feminist trying to live with integrity.

“I was in crisis. The liturgy wasn’t speaking for me, and in many ways I found it hurtful. But I didn’t want to give up my relationship to my community; I was attached to being a Jew in the Jewish world. “

Falk started to silently change the language, sometimes while on her feet during the Amidah (the prayer recited silently, while standing). She was often the last one to sit back down, because she lost track of time as she struggled to adapt the Hebrew words, changing the patriarchal image of God as the Lord and King to other, gender-neutral metaphors. She was not yet writing her new prayers down or sharing them publicly.


The Days Between

A turning point came in 1983, while she was a teacher at the Havurah Institute in Princeton. Rabbi Arthur Waskow was in charge of the Havdalah service to take place on Saturday night, and on Friday afternoon he asked Falk to provide a kavanah, meditation, for each of the blessings.

“I told Art I just couldn’t do that, and when he asked why, I blurted out that I didn’t say those blessings any more. That was the first time I said aloud that I no longer prayed with the traditional words. Without missing a beat, Art said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, ‘So write your own blessings.’ I told him I thought they’d stone me. ‘Marcia,’ he said in a booming voice, ‘they won’t stone you.’

So I sat down that afternoon and wrote my first four blessings, and the next night, full of trepidation, I recited them before a community of 300 Jews ranging in affiliation from atheist to Orthodox. I recited the new words without introduction, as though they had been written a couple of millennia ago by the rabbis, rather than the day before, by me. I offered no apology or explanation (I didn’t dare to), and, to my puzzlement and disbelief, the community said, Amen.”

In March of 1985, Falk published an essay in Moment Magazine, in which she presented some of her new blessings, which would eventually become part of her path-breaking Book of Blessings, published in 1996. The article engendered strong and voluminous reactions across the spectrum; Falk received fan mail as well as attack mail. While there were many Jews, especially Jewish women, who had been waiting for an alternative to the patriarchal imagery of the prayer book and who were thrilled that Falk had met the challenge, there were also people who insisted that she did not have the right to make changes, especially to the Hebrew. But, Falk says, Jewish liturgy has always changed over time. “If it doesn’t evolve, it ossifies.” And Falk believes it is not enough to change the English. Her work is unique in that it offers new prayer in Hebrew poetic language.

“Many Jews want a liturgy that expresses their values and concerns. Keeping it alive in a fresh way has always been part of Jewish tradition,” she says.

It has been eighteen years since the publication of The Book of Blessings, and Falk’s readers have waited long for its sequel. In The Days Between, Falk offers Hebrew and English blessings for festive meals, prayers for synagogue services, and poems and meditations for quiet reflection. The Rosh Hashanah section of the book includes a blessing for apples and honey, a re-creation of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, and a new tashlikh (waterside ritual). Among the Yom Kippur prayers are a Viduy (confession) and a new Kol Nidrey. “Window, Bird, Sky,” a series of ten poems and meditations (one for each of the Ten Days of T’shuvah) bridges the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sections.

Emphasizing introspection as well as relationship to others, Falk evokes her vision of the High Holidays as “ten days of striving to keep the heart open to change.” Her new book promises to open her readers’ hearts and minds.

Marcia Falk is the author of The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Amy Sessler Powell is HBI Communications Director.

Holocaust Study Challenges Stereotype of the “Ungrateful Jew”

By Joanna Beata Michlic

Joanna Michlic

Joanna Michlic

When I began researching the history of those who rescued Jews in wartime Poland, I quickly realized that this is not a closed chapter: that this history has had a deep impact, for a long time after the end of the Holocaust, on the lives of individuals and families of both rescuers and survivors.

My work on rescuers also aims to debunk some skewed popular myths pertaining to the memory of the Holocaust that crystallized in the early postwar period such as the theme of the “ignoble ungrateful Jew.” My research shows that the myth of ungrateful Jew was rooted in prejudice rather than in reality. The early postwar letters of Jewish survivors reveal that in some cases, ironically the best form of gratitude for wartime deeds was for the Jewish survivors to pretend to cut off contact with the rescuers in the early postwar period so these Poles would not be exposed to their neighbors’ disapproval of their wartime rescue activities, expressed in robbery and violence.

I belong to a generation of scholars, who have a free access to major archives in post-communist Poland and therefore can analyze previously inaccessible primary sources including personal testimonies and letters of Polish rescuers and Jewish survivors that throw a new light on the nature of rescue. My role, as I see it, is to revisit, reevaluate and reinterpret the history of Polish rescuers and the relationship between rescuers and their Jewish charges written during the communist period (1945-1989). During that period, the subject was a highly emotional and politicized topic presented in a biased and superficial manner in both the historiography and public memory. Many aspects of the relationship between rescuers and Jewish survivors during and after the Holocaust eluded close treatment by historians, as had a detailed typology of rescuers and the analysis of the status of rescuers and attitudes and behavior towards them within their own communities.

My research on this topic first started while working on a book on Jewish child survivors. I studied personal accounts of child survivors and rescuers from the early and late post-war periods and official records. There is no doubt that to write a comprehensive and nuanced history of the rescue of Jews in Poland today one has to approach the subject anew. I argue that studies of rescue should steer away from analyzing the topic from one point of view. They require a solid empirical, theoretical, and comparative approach that would result in placing it in the broader historical context of rescue in the entire Nazi-occupied Europe—that should lead to the demystification of it in and for Polish history. It is important for scholars to develop analytical tools and new intellectual approaches that would allow them to write a history of rescue in which all types of rescuers will be discussed from multiple perspectives.

In my work I insist that the history of rescuers who were dedicated to saving their Jewish charges without any intention of benefiting from their actions, has to be retold because of the ongoing manipulation of these rescuers by right-wing

Conservative politicians, historians, clergy, and pundits in post-communist Poland. In rewriting their history, one not only has to examine the socio-economic background, gender, and religiosity of these rescuers, but also investigate the more subjective factors such as family practices, the individual system of beliefs, emotions, and parental and sexual desires of married, widowed and single male and female rescuers.

In my own research I focus on the “dedicated rescuers” who went above and beyond their sense of duty to save Jewish life, and the ways they were perceived and treated by the local environment. I am particularly interested in the stigmatization of dedicated rescuers within their local environment. I argue that during the war and in the immediate postwar period, “dedicated” rescuers feared of being insulted and robbed, but this fear cannot be understood without cultural underpinning. People who robbed and ransacked rescuers’ properties did not do so solely for economic reasons, though they may have stolen in the belief that rescuers had acquired Jewish wealth. Economic reasons and benefits were important, but the rationale and motivation was to stigmatize, ridicule, and punish rescuers for saving Jews.

The pre-1939 ethno-nationalistic intention in labeling an individual a ‘Jewish saviour’ was to make him or her stand out from the collective for betraying Polish social and cultural norms. Prewar symbolic stigmatization of Poles who spoke out against anti-Semitism, in the form of verbal abuse, took on much more violent and aggressive forms under German occupation with its genocidal policies against Jews and punitive measures against rescuers of Jewish fugitives. Verbal violence easily turned into brutal deeds against dedicated rescuers. And this situation continued in the early postwar period, when Jewish survivors began to come out of their shelters and leave their rescuers.

Dr. Joanna Beata Michlic is the Director of the HBI Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust. She is currently a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Strochlitz Institute for Holocaust Research and the Weiss-Livnat International M.A. in Holocaust Studies, University of Haifa. She is a member of the department of Historical Studies, Bristol University. She is the co-editor of Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe.

Experiences in the U.S.

Dr. Brygida Gasztold of Koszalin, Poland recently completed her Fulbright Fellowship at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Fresh Ideas editor, Amy Powell, spoke to Dr. Gasztold about her experiences here.

Dr. Brygida Gasztold

Dr Brygida Gasztold

Q: Tell us about your Fulbright and the work you came here to do?

A: This was a great opportunity for any scholar, especially one like me who lectures in American culture and history. It was my first time in the U.S. and the hands-on experience was great. Coming to America is important and interesting for any scholar, especially in terms of meeting other scholars and discussing academic achievements. For any person who does American studies, the U.S. is the place to be and for me, a first time visitor, it’s very exciting.

Q: You are interested in Jewish-American literature. How did your Fulbright help you learn more about this?

A: The U.S. is the place where I was introduced to Jewish culture for first time in my life. I live in northern Poland and it was not historically a center of Jewish Culture. Before the Second World War, this region was part of Germany. Being here and meeting so many Jewish people and learning about their cultural institutions gave context to my studies. I am a critic so I work with text, not real life. This whole experience not just clarified my worldview, but made it more complex.

For example, I have seen how many different ways there are of being Jewish in the U.S. I went to different kinds of synagogues including Reform, modern Orthodox, and Conservative. I attended services that had tambourines and some that wouldn’t allow that.

Q: Are many people in Poland studying American Jewish modern literature?

A: It is not a big field of study, but there is growing interest in Judaism in literature and history. We are rediscovering our Jewish past. In Krakow and Warsaw, there are festivals and lectures. We can call it a revival of interest.

Q: Do you feel like you accomplished your goals during your Fulbright?

A: I set out to study modern Jewish American authors, and female characters in fiction, applying gendered lens to contemporary American Jewish fiction. I focused on Allegra Goodman, Rebecca Goldstein, Pearl Abraham, Cynthia Ozick, Tova Mirvis and Annie Roiphe. This project will be published in a book with the working title, “Stereotyped, Spirited and Embodied: Current Representations of Women in Contemporary American Jewish Fiction.”

Q: What stereotypes did you study?

A: I limited my study to the time period of the 20th Century to the 1970’s, looking at the ghetto mother, ghetto girl, Jewish mother and Jewish American princess. Within these stereotypes, I studied spirituality, their relationship to religion, and the relationship to the female body.

Q: In addition to the research, how would you characterize your time in the U.S. at HBI?

A: By being here, I was able to take part in scholarly debate, conferences, colloquia and got to be part of the scholarly life at Brandeis. I went to many events, not only related to my field, but also went to films, art exhibition, talks on gender and culture, Israel and law. I learned so many things. It is interesting and important to be able to exchange information and ask questions, to get views and context of things I wouldn’t get in Poland. I learned so much from the many experts and scholars at Brandeis. I may want to teach courses connected with American Jewish femaleness or American Jewish female writers.

Q: How do American universities differ from where you teach in Poland?

A: The most profound differences is that in Poland, students do not choose subjects. They choose a path and follow what is prescribed. I like that the classes here are smaller and more individually oriented. There is more interaction between professor and student. I also like that the students are involved in so many different extracurricular activities and sports, political and social organizations and that you can hear their opinions. The students really have free speech and voice that can criticize without penalty. It’s interesting that activism is encouraged and they learned how to discuss politics. Overall, university life is so rich and it develops their character and teaches them a lot along side their academic pursuits.


Brygida Gasztold is a professor English at Koszalin University of Technology.