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The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikvehby Varda Polak Sahm
Synopses & Reviews
Immersion in the mikveh—the ritual bath based on Jewish laws of purity—is the cornerstone of Orthodox family life. Jewish women are commanded by their religion to immerse in the mikveh before marriage, and to do so every month after their menstrual cycle before sexual relations with their husbands may resume.
Varda Polak-Sahm considers herself a secular person. She viewed the mikveh as an intrusion of the religious establishment into the private domain. Yet she respected the traditions of her Sephardic family, who passionately believed in the sanctity and importance of the immersion ceremony before ones wedding. So on the eve of her second marriage, she reluctantly returned to the same mikveh she had entered as a young bride years before, only to be astonished by an immersion experience that felt hauntingly intimate and profound, like death and rebirth.
The revelatory nature of her experience, so at odds with her deep reservations about Judaisms purity laws, spurred Polak-Sahm to pursue a searching and wide-ranging investigation into what the mikveh is all about. As she discovered, despite the strict Orthodox roots of the practice, many women from all streams of Judaism use the mikveh, often for personal reasons that have more to do with faith than religion. The resultant narrative provides a richly nuanced, uncensored look at an experience that is for some holy and for others coercive.
The House of Secrets gives voice to women from all branches of Judaism as they open up about what immersion means to them; how it fits in with their attitudes toward religion; its effect on their marriages and families as well as on their sexual, physical, and spiritual self-perception and on their relationship with God.
Already widely praised in Israel, this English translation provides a firsthand account of the power of ritual immersion for the growing numbers of women reclaiming this practice.
1 The Place
2 The Balaniyot
3 A Dose of Impurity
4 Blood and Banishment
5 Purity and Sexuality
6 Female Rituals, Sisterhood,and Female Authority
7 Between a Woman and God
8 Between Man and Wife
For Orthodox Jews, immersion in a ritual bath—the mikveh—is the cornerstone of family life and is central to Jewish women’s practice of their faith. Yet women from across the Jewish spectrum frequent the mikveh, often for surprising personal reasons. Roused by her own immersion experience, for years Varda Polak-Sahm, a secular Jew, patiently observed and interviewed women at the mikveh, gaining unprecedented access to this hidden world. The House of Secrets offers a richly nuanced, uncensored look at an experience that is for some holy and for others coercive, ultimately illuminating the remarkable power of ritual immersion.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Varda Polak-Sahm is a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, the author of three books, and an internationally known photographer and researcher of folklore.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Table of Contents
From chapter one, "The Place"
“Escorts are requested to remain at a distance from the entrance, for the sake of modesty”: the large sign, appended to a high stone wall topped with barbed wire, stopped me in my tracks as I approached the rusty gate. I gazed toward the building that dwelled alone behind this wall, where rites of purity, sexuality, and fertility are performed by women and for women. Jewish women.
Three hundred and sixty-three days a year, the mikveh opens at sunset. It serves Jewish women who come to cleanse themselves of the impurity of their menstrual blood and ready themselves to have sexual relations with their husbands. Only on Yom Kippur and the Ninth of Av, days on which the halakha forbids a husband from having intercourse with his wife, is the mikveh closed. Upon emerging from the ritual bath, young women and not-so-young women hurry home to be with their husbands after two weeks of abstinence from physical contact.
A massive stone ramp, like the tongue protruding from the mouth of hell in the famous Pieter Bruegel painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), accommodates the wheelchair-bound visitors to the mikveh. On either side of it, worn gray steps ascend steeply to a narrow landing.
As I stepped inside, lightly touching the mezuzah attached to the door frame, a loud, clear voice greeted me: “Welcome!” When I turned toward the voice there she stood, as if it were just yesterday, the same head balanit. Her blue-green eyes peered intently at me from the heights of her tall, broad physique that made her seem a pillar of stability.
“Thank you,” I replied with a rush of excitement. What I actually wanted to say was, Do you remember me, the “orphan” from years ago? Her face brightening as if she’d read my thoughts, she stepped toward me and, slowly spreading her massive hands, said with a sweet, musical intonation: “Please come in, come in, come in! Would you like a bath or a shower or just an immersion?”
“No...uh...That’s not exactly...I mean, I...Yes, I am interested, but . . .” I didn’t know what to say. What should I say? That the memory of an overwhelming sensory experience had impelled me to return to her? That an irresistible impulse had prompted me to investigate what had happened to me in this place, which had never happened to me anywhere else? If so, then why not immerse? Why not experience that same extraordinary pleasure once again? I wasn’t completely clear on it myself at this point; how was I supposed to explain it to her? She’d probably think I was some sort of sick voyeur. “This time I didn’t come here to immerse . . . I came to ask . . . to talk with you.”
“With me?!” she roared, pulling on the kerchief that concealed every hair on her proud head. “Did you hear?!” She turned toward two women who’d been deep in quiet conversation, sitting next to an old school desk upon which rested a receipt book and a small money box. Startled, they both quickly smoothed the folds of their faded dresses and adjusted their head coverings. “What’s going on?” they asked. One of them I recognized from my first immersion. She was the one I remembered as the more pampering of the two assistants. Incredibly, despite all the years that had gone by, she looked almost exactly the same. “Why?” the head balanit asked as she thrust her head closer to me, her expression alight with curiosity and suspicion. “Are you from the newspapers or something? What’s this all about? Has something happened?”
“No, no,” I stuttered as I tried to find some way to answer her. Finally I blurted out the truth: “Look, I have this terrible curiosity. It’s almost an obsession. I can’t forget my immersion here. You supervised my immersion here about twelve years ago. You must not remember . . . So many women have been here since then. But I remember you . . . You’re hard to forget. So I came especially to you . . . to ask . . . I feel drawn to this place in a peculiar way. I have to examine what happened to me. What goes on here. What the mikveh is all about. Will you be so kind as to let me come and ask questions and observe what you do here? I won’t get in the way. I promise.”
“Just a minute,” the balanit said, shaking her head in annoyance. “I don’t really understand what you want. Do you want to immerse or not?”
“No. I want to know.”
For a fraction of a second it was as if all the planets screeched to a halt. Her blue-green eyes stared at me unblinking.
“All right.” The world stirred back to life. “Sit down.” She sighed expansively, pulled another chair up to the desk, and sat down beside me. “What do you want to know?”
“Tell me why you immerse in the mikveh.”
She regarded me intently for a moment, and then she began to speak, her voice strong and confident. “Immersion in the mikveh is the original patent for preserving intimacy in marriage. A device invented by Hashem to keep up the love and passion between man and wife. Love—how many dreams have been woven around it? How many stories have been written about it? How many poems? But how hard it is to sustain. How hard it is to sustain love and intimacy in marriage over a long period of time. There’s a saying that goes: ‘Love and marriage are like a kettle that is put on the fire and taken off just when the water comes to a boil.’ Meaning what? That when you get married, love blooms, it boils. Everything is afire, everything is at a peak. But unfortunately, afterwards, and it doesn’t take long, the fire of love cools and gradually fades. This cooling and fading is very destructive to the relationship between husband and wife. And it also poses a great danger to the family as a whole. Hashem, who sanctifies marriage, knows that it must be preserved so that Jews will build good, stable homes, which together will build a strong and stable people. Knowing the vagaries of the human soul, Hashem concocted a magic formula which has been working for thousands of years and will never go out of date—immersion in the mikveh.”
She went on to tell me about matchmaking, courtship, falling in love, and marriage. About impurity and purity and the sanctity of marital relations. She talked and talked, and it was a long time before she finally wearied. “Oy, the things I’ve said . . . I don’t usually talk like this. I’ve said too much—” She broke off, glancing over my shoulder. “Hello,” she said.
I turned to see a woman entering the mikveh. Her attire was breathtakingly skimpy, revealing much more than it covered. A pair of brown breasts seemed about to pop out of her tight-fitting red blouse. A bare midriff showed above swaying hips clad in a strip of red fabric no more than twenty centimeters wide. The red micro-mini gave way to a pair of long, long legs. The figure strode quickly toward the balaniyot’s table. Each stiletto-heeled footstep reverberated loudly, amplified by the woman’s towering height. I held my breath in anticipation, silently grateful for my good fortune in happening upon this absurd situation—a girl who appeared to have sashayed straight out of a cheap B movie mistakenly wandering into this domain of pious women. She approached the head balanit—whose name, I had learned during our conversation, was Miriam—pushed back a few strands of her bleached hair (the dark roots were showing) and said hello. I braced myself for the big explosion. To my astonishment, Miriam smiled warmly at her and, without batting an eyelid, asked in her friendly and professional tone: “Do you need a bath?”
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