About a year ago, my whole family converted to Judaism. For me, taking on a faith in which I wasn’t raised was a mysterious, maze-like process, with lots of false starts and roadblocks over many years — my whole life, really. Just like with a completed maze, once it’s finished, you can look down on the page and the path is totally obvious. But in the midst of it, you never have any idea what the hell you’re doing, or where you’re headed, or if that’s the right place to be at all.
Our rabbi said that he was not the one who would “convert us” to Judaism. He told us that when we were Jewish, we would tell him! But when that happened, we wanted to mark it in a formal way, and he suggested three experiences we walked through to do that. The first task was my husband’s alone. Jews, of course, symbolize their covenant with circumcision. Luckily for my husband, like most American men, he’d already gone through that as an infant! But the rabbi did suggest a Hatafat Dam Brit — a ritual re-enactment of circumcision for Jewish conversion. My husband said he found it straightforward, and not really spiritual. He said the worst part was simply the embarrassment of trying to arrange it — we live in rural New England, where there are no mohels. There are Jewish doctors who are willing to do this ceremony, but their secretaries and support people are not Jewish, and for my shy husband to call up the doctor’s office and try to explain what he wanted made for an awkward moment!
The last task was a formal conversion ceremony, at the synagogue, where our rabbi gave us our Jewish names, said a blessing for us, and we spoke about what the experience meant to us for our family and friends.
But the middle task was the one that mattered to us: the mikveh. Everyone is familiar with this religious ceremony. Christians call it baptism — it’s what John the Baptist and Jesus were doing in the river Jordan. In Judaism, immersion in water is a purification rite. It is done during conversion, and women do it after childbirth or menstruation. Men do it for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons — some Jewish men go to the mikveh before every Shabbat. The idea is to become ritually clean, but there is also an idea of being “reborn,” of becoming like a newborn child in the waters of the womb, which is why both Christians and Jews use water for conversion.
Jewish law requires that the waters of a mikveh be “living,” that is to say, from the sky, not the earth. For conversion, we immersed ourselves in the lake in our front yard.
Our rabbi came, turned his back to us while he sat on the lake, and we waded, naked, into the water. There was immersion — each of us alone — you want the water to touch every inch of you. There was prayer: the Shehecheyanu, the Sh’ma. But the details are hazy for me. All I can tell you is that when I went into the water, I wasn’t expecting much. Because there were Hebrew prayers involved, we had practiced, on our own, days before. I expected the “real thing” to be like the practice. I expected the conversion to be symbolic, rote, nothing more. I thought the spiritual work was the reading, the study, the rituals we’d slowly been incorporating into our lives over weeks and months. Anyway, I’m not at all certain I believe in God, anyway. Belief in God was not what I was expecting when I converted to Judaism.
But I didn’t get what I expected.
The mikveh lasted all of five minutes, but those five minutes were something special for all three of us. I don’t know what happened — I don’t know who was there, what to name that presence that unmistakably showed up and pervaded the air and the water with electricity that you could taste, like smoke. I didn’t hear any divine voice, or receive any revelation, beyond simply a profound experience of joy and mystery — an awareness of the presence of God. And we all felt it, as we were astonished to discover when the rabbi went home and we were all inarticulate confession to one another.
I’ve never had another experience like it.
So now, every month, when my period is over, I create a little mikveh. I don’t like the patriarchal symbolism of purification after menstruation, or of the forbidding of sex during menstruation. But I find something meaningful in the ritual all the same, somehow. In the summer, I immerse in the lake, say my prayer, and have a little bath. In the winter I take snow or water from the lake if it isn’t frozen, pour it into the tub with my bathwater, and essential oils, and say my prayers and mindfully wash there. I do it at the beginning of Shabbat, because it sweetens Shabbat love-making for me. (My husband has grown to love the scent of the mikveh essential oils wafting through the house, portending a happy reunion.) It’s a small, but lovely thing. (And I should note that my little “mikveh” is not halachically kosher. I’m a reform Jew, I believe that God continues to command us in the present day, and although I’m happy to consult them, I listen to my own heart, not the medieval rabbis, when it comes to deciding what God wants of me.)