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
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 Murphys 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
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 wasnt sure of our destination, but somehow managed an air of confidence
and calm. For the sake of privacy I wouldnt 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
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
drivers 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 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 wasnt 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
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
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.