A Modern Setting for An Ancient Ritual

A Modern Setting for An Ancient Ritual

It was August of 1994 and I was leading a kosher tour in Scandinavia; it was summer but we could already feel the bite of fall.

One young couple on the tour expressed concern regarding the feasibility of using the mikvah on the trip, and I assured them there would be no problem.  Then on the overnight cruise, approaching a large harbor city, another couple expressed the same concern. To my surprise, both needed the mikvah on the same night.

After breakfast aboard ship we enjoyed a guided city tour but immediately upon arrival at the hotel, the two couples and I began making plans to visit a local Mikvah.  But everything followed ‘Murphy’s Law’! One problem led directly into the next; and the importance of the time element involved in the mikvah immersion further complicated the situation!
To start with, the modern, metropolitan city into which we docked possessed  a tiny Jewish population.  Using the mikvah here would be vastly different from our experience in the heavily Jewish populated cities in the United States.  We take for granted the convenience of endless supplies of steaming, hot water, modern electrical appliances, shiny, gleaming tiles and the spotlessly clean, always available mikvah.  We take for granted the ease with which this mitzvah can be fulfilled – requiring perhaps a phone call to make arrangements, a taxi or car service if no car is available, and a nominal fee.

We were astonished to discover that mikvah arrangements had to be made days in advance.  We spent the entire afternoon fruitlessly calling the local mikvah lady. Apparently she had other plans for the evening and no answering machine on which to leave an urgent message.  The local Rabbi was on vacation – quite understandably, since most of his congregants left for their vacations in the mountains or nearby islands.

We could have postponed plans for the following evening; but there was no certainty of success that day either.  Without hesitation, each woman firmly expressed her desire not to postpone this timely mitzvah.
Up to this point, the entire matter had been handled with total discretion and, until this moment, neither woman had been aware of the involvement of a second individual. In unity lies strength and thus they inspired one another to forge ahead and make this happen as best as possible under the circumstances. After all, we found ourselves in a harbor city. Although their husbands were hesitant, somewhat fearful of the situation, the courageous attitude of their young wives won them over.

For me, this was a new experience and, likewise, the bravery of the young women inspired me to make this happen.  Knowing the situation could be hazardous, I asked  the husbands accompany us.

The preparations for immersion were done in the hotel rooms.  Unobtrusively, I visited each to check on the preparations.  All cosmetics and nail polish carefully removed, nails cut, hair carefully combed – so far everything was in order.

Finally all was ready and we went to hail a cab. Allowing five people in a taxi was against regulations; the exchange of a bill solved that little problem. Off we went, husbands in the front seat, the wives and I in the back! 

I wasn’t sure of our destination, but somehow managed an air of confidence and calm.  For the sake of privacy I wouldn’t divulge the real reason for our trip. Speaking in the native language of the driver, I quickly invented a great story.  The American men had made a bet with the young women about going swimming in the harbor, I said. What spot would he suggest for this activity?

Somberly, the cabdriver shook his head.  He had never attempted to swim in the harbor but perhaps it could be done.  Although disheartened by his response, I was inspired by the calm courage of the young women to face the unknown.

We drove to a park area on the outskirts of the harbor.  I asked the driver to stop at a brightly lit spot where a narrow path joined the asphalted city road.  Hopefully, it would lead straight to the water and a place that would be accessible for immersion.

During the day, in all seasons, this part of town was a very popular recreation area for nature lovers.  But on this dark August evening,  the area was deserted.  I suggested one of the husbands remain in the car with the taxi driver (which was heartily approved, for the glum, confused expression on the driver’s face made us aware that he might wish to drive off to safer areas, leaving us quite stranded).  The second husband was requested to accompany us for obvious safety reasons.

Without flashlights and without precisely knowing the way, the walk down this path was awkward .  Reaching the end of the path gave us a beautiful view of the dark sky sparkling with thousands of bright, shining stars. The light of the full moon illuminated the entire setting; and across the water we could see the cityline with its modern, tall buildings amidst historical places and sturdy pre WWII edifices. 

Before us were scores of pleasure boats safely anchored in the harbor.  . A ship that could hold 50 passengers, I surmised, was quite large and could not be anchored in shallow water.  A chill spread through me.  How deep were these waters?  Would the immersion be possible?  How dangerous was this?

I walked to the very edge of the dock and peered into the black water.  The entrance to the water looked quite difficult.  There was a sharp incline of about four feet, covered with huge, bulky, uneven rocks.  Reaching the water under these conditions would be a most hazardous feat and there was no way to get in without walking on those rocks.  It was about 65 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the water was much colder.

Still the women were intent on fulfilling the mitzvah, and began removing their sneakers and socks.  I was amazed at the composure in my voice, when I requested that they pause momentarily.  I suggested we first check the depth of the water.

The husband quickly removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, and proceeded to walk down to the water.  Using his hands to balance his descent, and almost crawling at times, he appeared to lose his balance and nearly slip while I watched in tense silence.  Finally, planted firmly on a rock halfway in the water, he pushed a nearby rock into the water with great force.  Gratefully we discovered that the water wasn’t too deep in that particular spot, and immersion would be possible.

The husband remained at the edge of the water, his back towards us as a guard lookout, and the women, shivered slightly as they began the hazardous descent.  It was, in reality, their spiritual ascent.

The two seemed so delicate and vulnerable as they gingerly moved from rock to rock.  Each crouched to keep her balance among the sharp, cold,  rocks.  Accustomed as they were to soft leather shoes and comfortable slippers, neither uttered a word of complaint as they bruised their legs and feet on this inhospitable floor.  My heart thumped loudly and I felt frozen in fear.  One wrong step, G-d forbid, could be disastrous.

I gazed up into the beautiful sky for reassurance.  “Hashem, please watch these young women.  Look how eagerly they rush to fulfill your mitzvah! Protect them and keep them safe.”  Over and over again I inwardly recited these thoughts.

Slowly, the women descended into the water.  Down each went, then up again and again! The brocha (blessing) was said. My own voice rang out loud and clear: Kosher, Kosher, Kosher!  Then followed the climb back up the sharp incline – and the sighs of relief as they wrapped themselves into the fluffy hotel towels.

An aura of holiness seemed to surround them.  Their faces radiated purity and joy as each had successfully completed the most basic mitzvah that forms the foundation of a Jewish home. Not in the spa-like atmosphere of the modern mikvaos to which they were accustomed, but in the most basic way that Jewish women have performed this vital mitzvah for generations. 

The pride on the faces of their husbands reflected and reinforced the genuine  happiness of their wives.

I shall never forget this experience and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in it. Brave, courageous Jewish women are familiar to us all from the Torah --, from our four Matriarchs, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah.  Our history is filled with illustrious women who risked their lives to ensure the continuity of Judaism.  To discover that in our day, too, there are American-born, American-raised, young Jewish women as brave and courageous as our role models of yesteryear, provided me with inspiration and a renewal of faith in the future of the Jewish Nation and in our world today.

NOTE: Please note that immersion in a natural body of water, when no proper mikvah is available, has its own halachic requirements. If this occasion should ever arise, please be sure to consult a qualified Orthodox rabbi on how to proceed to ensure a valid immersion.

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