The mikvah lady rules.
For thousands of years, women like Janice Fellner have guided Jewish women through the monthly purification ritual God called for in the Book of Leviticus.
"I can tell you categorically there is no person in the community — no rabbi, no synagogue president, nobody — as dedicated as the mikvah lady," says Orthodox Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News.
Nor have the eons diluted her importance. The mikvah lady guides a woman, in complete privacy, to the mikvah pool. Here, Jewish law demands she immerse herself after her monthly period before she can resume sexual relations with her husband.
Not only Orthodox, but also Jewish women from many backgrounds use it, says Fellner, 53, who is married and the mother of a grown son and daughter. Only she knows exactly how many women come to the mikvah, and she's not telling.
"True intimacy is not about flaunting," she says. "What we're talking about here is intimacy between husband and wife."
The prescribed time period for using the pool following a woman's menstrual cycle is so strict that the mikvah lady must be available 24 hours a day. Denver now has two pools. The west-side mikvah was built in 1960. Fellner oversees the new pool on the east side — a state-of-the-art mikvah built in 1998 and costing $350,000.
It's an airy building with high ceilings and tile work of an elegant smoky-lavender hue. Discreet doors allow private entering and leaving. The full submersion is done alone, with only Fellner on hand to make sure the ritual is done properly.
"When she is submerged in the water, I like to say she's clothed in the clothing of God," Fellner says.
Jewish law mandates that the water must be pure rainwater — untouched
by human hands or instruments. In this case, it's collected into a
filter system that renders the water so transparent it looks like the
Fellner must ensure that the woman is free of all clothing, makeup, jewelry and any barrier to the ritually pure water.
"An untold number of people associate mikvah with uncleanliness — that it's putting down women," says Goldberg, who is an adviser to the facility. "It's based on a fallacious translation. This is spiritual purification."
In the union of the spiritual world with the physical, the shedding of an unfertilized egg is a kind of small death. Life is restored by the ritual immersion. Thus, like all spiritual laws, the mikvah rules are designed to create a bond between God and humanity. It is so important that Jewish law mandates building a mikvah even before a synagogue: "If a man can't live with his wife, and the wife can't live with the man, there is no Jewish family life," says Goldberg.
The mikvah brings blessings to family life, says Sharon Gelt, who
uses the east-side mikvah: During a couple's monthly separation, "It's a
very special time. You don't touch. You have to communicate in a whole
Following a mikvah visit, sexual relations resume, "and that creates a honeymoon experience."
Fellner sees joy and tragedy here: Brides come to the mikvah before their wedding, "and you can't describe how moved they are." After a miscarriage, "This is where the mourning takes place." Women with fertility problems find the mikvah a place of healing and hope, where, "Sometimes the problems clear up."
Besides heightening sexual intimacy, Fellner says there's another counter-intuitive blessing that feminists have come to recognize: "They're really in charge of the relationship because they're not permitted to be with their husbands until they come here."