Story by: Ellen Samek
It was a frigid autumn night in Siberia when Goldie Plotkin’s grandmother, Esther Goldie Futerfas waited in the icy wilderness on the banks of a river. She waited patiently for the ice to thaw and create an opening big enough for her. The timing had to be perfect. When the ice finally broke, the 19-year-old plunged into the water as naked as the day she was born. When she emerged from the river, she was cleansed and ready to marry her soulmate: Bentzion Shemtov, a renegade Hasidic Rabbi who was exiled to Siberia. Unloved by the government, he was banished for operating underground Jewish schools.
They were finally married the next day, Esther’s wedding ring fashioned from a melted down spoon. For Esther, a devout Jewish woman living in Stalin’s Soviet Union (where religion was illegal), plunging feet first into a frozen river was the only way to fulfill the religious requirement of mikveh. “She wasn’t scared, she had this spiritual inner strength that guided her,” says Plotkin about the grandmother she never got to meet. Esther Goldie died in 1964 when Plotkin was only four-months old.
Mikveh is spiritual cleansing a Jewish woman must do 12 days after the first day of her menstrual cycle. Jewish law states women must immerse themselves in water every month before being intimate with her husband. During this time a husband and wife refrain from all physical and sexual contact. The practice dates back to the beginning of Judaism.
Plotkin has been practicing this since she got married 34 years ago. Like her grandmother, she also married a rabbi. Her husband Avraham, is the founder and rabbi of Chabad-Lubavitch of Markham, a synagogue in Thornhill, Ont. They have eight children.
Plotkin jokes that her first mikveh experience was much warmer and more “spa-like” than her grandmother’s.
“Maybe she broke ice and I didn’t, but we were both immersed in water and came out renewed. The spiritual aspect is the same.”
The Jewish holy book, the Talmud, discusses what’s called “menstrual law”. These laws outline the rules and reasons for mikvehs. In Judaism, blood, especially the loss of blood from the body, symbolizes death. When a woman has her period, the ability to conceive a baby is technically over until her cycle begins again. The idea is that after a Jewish woman immerses herself in water 12 days after the onset of her period. After immersion, she is considered reborn and ready to potentially bring new life into the world. Before indoor mikvehs were created, ancient Jewish women would use natural bodies of water to immerse themselves.
“Everywhere Jewish people have lived throughout history there have been mikvehs,” says Plotkin who has travelled to both Europe and Israel. “There were mikvehs in Spain when the Jews lived there in the middle ages and there’s evidence of ancient mikvehs throughout Israel.”
Plotkin dedicates a large part of her life to educating Jewish women around the world about the practice of mikveh. For her, it’s the blessing every Jewish home and marriage needs. Her and her husband’s synagogue has a mikveh on-site.
“When you can’t be together for 12 days of every month, it keeps things exciting,” she says. “It gives a woman some time to herself during the month. It also gives her a lot of control over intimacy. Her husband has to respect that. Using mikveh is a two-way street. Both spouses need to be on board with it.”
The mikveh at Plotkin’s synagogue is small and has the same appearance as a day spa. It’s dimly lit and the smell of candles burning fills the air. When a woman using the mikveh first arrives she’ll venture to the bathroom to take a shower, remove her make-up, nail polish and any jewelry.
The actual mikveh is a small blue pool filled with warm water. The lower part of the mikveh is connected to a pipe that brings in rain water. Tap water and the rain water touch on a marble slab. This way, the water can be considered naturally occurring. Before a woman walks down the steps and into the pool, she will read a prayer asking for God’s blessing.
The prayers are in the bathroom, written on pink laminated paper in a curled feminine font. There’s one prayer for prospective brides and another for wives. Once she’s stepped into the water, she immerses herself, once, twice, three times. Then she is ready to be intimate with her husband again and possibly conceive.
Dr. Naomi Seidman, a professor of religious studies at the University of Toronto, says the idea that mikveh helps maintain harmony in family life dates back to the 19th century.
“It was German Orthodox Jews at the turn of the century that first attempted to create a modern explanation of Judaism that would speak to both men and women,” says Seidman who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. She remembers visiting the mikveh with her mother as a child from time to time.
“The Talmud, where mikvehs are discussed, says disparaging things about women, their bodies and their periods,” says Seidman, who notes that historically the Talmud was only read and studied by men. That’s changed now with more women pursuing rabbinical scholarship and coming up with their interpretations. “The modern orthodox discourse and
interpretation that mikveh is about sex, marital fulfillment and time for yourself, is very new.”
Carmela Grover, a mother of three, says visiting the mikveh once a month makes her feel fulfilled in her marriage.
“Mikveh isn’t about being dirty and impure,” says Grover who has no qualms with being as devoted to her faith as she is about women’s equality. “Getting your period is a good and natural thing, it shows that you’re a healthy woman.”
Grover finds that going to the mikveh once a month keeps her marriage of ten years exciting and that pursuing this lifestyle choice was a decision she and her husband made together.
“When a couple decides that they’re going to do this, they decide as equals, at least that’s how it was for me,” says Grover. “It’s a big commitment to do it, but for me it’s worth it.”
Plotkin stresses that participating in mikveh isn’t just reserved for the most devout. All Jewish women, regardless of affiliation, are welcome. “There are so many women who come to my mikveh that don’t observe anything or keep kosher,” says Plotkin.
“I keep a diary at the door and the women have written amazing things about feeling rejuvenated or closer to their faith after visiting.”
In her youth, Seidman had her own personal experience with mikveh. Before marrying her husband, she dated an Orthodox Jewish man with his own interpretations of what it meant to be modern and religious. They practiced the 12 days of abstinence rule even though they never married.
“It’s interesting to see discourse of feminine empowerment around a practice that was misogynistic or even worse – terror of women and their bodies,” says Seidman. “If women are reclaiming this practice and it makes them feel empowered, I think it’s great.”
Ultimately, Plotkin finds mikveh to be another important part of the ancient faith that means everything to her and her family.
“Because our matriarchs and the great women of Jewish history have kept mikveh, for me it’s a link in the chain that ties us together,” says Plotkin.
“Even when times were hard like during communism, strong Jews like my grandparents followed their traditions. That’s the way our family was raised, with a very, very strong connection to our faith. So, it was no question I would go to mikveh like my grandmother and my mother. It’s these traditions and the laws of the Bible that have kept the Jewish people going for thousands of years. It’s these things that really kept us.”