That Time The Mikvah Lady Thought I Was Abused

On my most recent trip to the mikvah, the mikvah attendant thought I was an abused women.

As I was getting ready to immerse, we made small talk while she checked my nails and feet. We had never met before, so we exchanged pleasantries such as, “what do you do?” and “where did you grow up?”. Everything was fine and pleasant. She seemed sweet. Then, I pulled down my robe slightly so she could make sure there were no hairs on my neck or back.

Her tone changed completely. “Oh. My.” she said. “You, um, you have a LOT of black and blue marks all over your neck…” Her tone was one of immense concern. I had no idea what she was talking about. “Do you know where these marks came from?” She asked. I didn’t even know what marks she was talking about.

She gently touched one, and as she touched it, it started to rub off. “OH!” she said with a huge sign of relief. “They’re not bruises!” We deduced that I had been wearing a cheap, fake gold necklace earlier in the day, and that my skin probably reacted with the necklace material in some way. She wiped off the marks with some makeup remover, and I apologized for holding her up and thanked her for helping me. “Oh, it’s no problem at all” she said. “I’m just glad the marks aren’t bruises! Then, we’d have much more serious problems!”.

We finished, I dunked, and then I went home. On the way home, I thought about the irony of the situation. I, a woman who works with victims of rape and domestic abuse all day, was suspected of herself being abused. I also thought about the Mikvah Lady’s role in spotting the abuse. I know that they’re trained to recognize signs of abuse and to potentially confront women they view as victims, but I wondered, how would that conversation go? I can’t imagine it would be pleasant. And to intertwine it with the mitzvah of mikvah? I know that mikvaot often place ads for help agencies in the prep rooms, since those are a safe spot, away from the intimate males that could be endangering the women. They’re great places to make the initial call, to make a safety plan, and to seek help. But, still, what if a woman wasn’t ready to take the first step but the Mikvah Lady confronted her anyway? Then, the mikvah would just turn in to another source of anxiety and fear. Thoughts like , “Will she ask me about my bruises today?” and “What cover story can I use this time?” will replace the serenity that mikvah often brings. Some women might be pushed to not even use the mikvah, for fear of being confronted.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that for the thirty seconds that my mikvah lady thought I was abused, I felt very uncomfortable.

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4 comments on “That Time The Mikvah Lady Thought I Was Abused

  1. AS says:

    It’s generally viewed that asking about abuse is a relief. It allows a women to get help, without feeling like she betrayed her abuser (very complicated emotions). Even if she wasn’t ready, she knows she has someone who will ask her in the future. It’s one of those things that asking (when the women is alone) only helps.

    In NY are and several other place with large Jewish communities, special hotlines are available with people who understand the community and speak yiddish/ hebrew.

  2. Gillian says:

    I once went to the Mikva with many bruises from a week barging on a canal in France. Barging is very relaxing except for the locks which involve rushing about with ropes in narrow spaces. I felt I should mention something to the Balanit since the bruising did seem suspicious, but the real reason I did it was to fish a little to see how she would respond. I live on a moshav, so the Balanit knows everyone personally. I was left with the impression that she would never ask about bruising so as not to embarrass the woman. It was also obvious that she knows women on the moshav whose bruises wouldn’t surprise her and whose cause is clear.

  3. Atara Weinstein says:

    I hear the discomfort. At the same time, I guess there is room to weigh the potential benefit against the potential risk. If a woman does choose to disclose or even begin to think about abuse, or chooses not to, but leaves feeling less completely alone, does that outweigh any potential discomfort or even added stress?
    Of course, balaniyot (and any other caring person!) should take care to be as sensitive and respectful as they can be when asking. It is easy enough to sense when a question is coming from curiosity or a need to save, or genuine caring.
    Often there are many factors that lead up to a woman’s choosing to ask for help, and often it takes some measure of moving out of her own comfort zone. Even when someone is not THE person a woman chooses to disclose to, it does not mean they didn’t play some role along the way.
    Always, along with good intentions and a desire to help, we must take care to remember that we all want, and deserve, to hold on to dignity and self respect, even when we are struggling.

  4. Janet Yassen says:

    Dear Orthofeminist:
    Thank you for writing about “That time the Mikvah Lady Thought I was Abused” I am responding as a mikveh guide from the Mayyim Living Waters Mikveh in the Boston Area. Over the years we have been concerned about the exact issue that you raise; how to be sensitive to survivors of abuse while at the same time, maintaining the privacy, comfort and safety of those who come to immerse. We have developed a program called Embracing Waters, which offers sensitivity training to our guides and awareness education to the community about the mikveh as a resource for healing. In addition, we partner with Journey to Safety, domestic violence program which is part of the Jewish Family and Children Service. They are an important resource in our community to provide information about some of the realities of Domestic Violence as well as other abuse. Part of our protocol is to never discuss or have conversation with immersees at any time during the immersion process. We have resource information in our dressing rooms and are available for referrals and comfort, should victims or survivors choose to discuss these matters. Thank you again for your posting, and for all that you do. Feel free to be in touch with us.
    Janet Yassen, LICSW and Mikveh Guide

    Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Paula Brody & Family Education Center
    1838 Washington Street, Newton, MA 02466
    Tel: 617-244-1836 x201
    Fax: 617-244-1830
    http://www.mayyimhayyim.org

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