Failing Mikvah

Last time I went to the mikvah, I’m pretty sure I failed. Okay, maybe I got a D. Just barely passed.

Just like an exam, I prepared carefully. I removed my nail polish and bathed and combed my hair and checked to make sure there were no stray hairs.

But as soon as the mikvah lady opened the door, things started to go down hill. For one, the slippers that the mikvah provides wouldn’t easily slip on to my feet. I had to wiggle, as if dancing, until finally I just bent down to put them on.

Then, when I got in to the mikvah, I said the bracha. I forgot that my custom is to dunk once and THEN say the bracha. Okay, just roll with it. I did my first dunk.

“Um, I think your hands were closed. Try it again” the mikvah lady instructed.

I tried again. Kosher.

Now for dunk two.

“You touched the wall.”

No shit I touched the wall. I was so paranoid to spread my hands and make sure that you could see that they were fully opened while I was underwater. Fine, I’ll do it again. Kosher.

By this time, I was so anxious about having screwed up twice already that I think I just wanted the whole thing to be over. I leaned back, and apparently went so far back that my head hit the side of the mikvah. OUCH. The mikvah lady didn’t even have to tell me to re-do. I knew.

Finally, I believe out of pity, she told me that my last try–the SIXTH of that night–was kosher. I’m not convinced there wasn’t any hand clenching involved, but if she said it was kosher, I’ll go with that. Frankly, I think we were both a little relieved I was done.

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Mikvah Preparation for Men

Recently, I attended the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) conference. It was a fabulous, enlightening, and thought-provoking day, and my only complaint is that I have to wait another THREE YEARS before the next one. The one session that stood out among the many others was the session on mikvah. It was called No More Whispers: Talking Openly and Honestly About Mikvah. The session used anonymous polling technology to allow participants to have a conversation and ask questions to others in the room via text message. One participant asked, “How can men prepare for mikvah night”. I responded that my husband prepares for the mikvah by showering and shaving. The room laughed, but I think appreciated the sentiment.

I have come to realize that this ritual that we do–I leave the house after he returns from work, while I’m cleansing myself he cleanses himself–is more than just happenstance for him. It really is his way of making the mitzvah of mikvah relevant to him, too. While he doesn’t immerse in the mikvah, he makes sure that he is thoroughly cleansed for my return. He showers, shaves, cuts his nails, and maybe even puts on a little cologne.

I realized how important this ritual was for him, when this past week, mikvah night fell on Monday. Monday was MLK day, so I didn’t have work. I told him I was thinking of going earlier in the evening, say around 5pm, right when the mikvah opens. That way, I’ll be all ready for him as soon as he gets back from work. He looked sad. “But then I won’t have a chance to prepare” he complained. It was only then that I realized, he doesn’t just shower and shave because it’s a good opportunity-his shower and shave are part of his mikvah night ritual, just as bathing and combing my hair are part of mine.

Judging by the response at the JOFA conference, this is not the norm. Apparently most men don’t have a mikvah night ritual. Perhaps some men have child care responsibilities that prevent them from having any sort of personal preparation time. But for the men who don’t, I would like to humbly suggest taking some time to prepare yourself while your wife is at the mikvah. You don’t have to soak in the bath tub for half an hour–unless that’s what you want–but do something. I think it will make mikvah night more special not only to your wife, but to yourself as well.

The Bar Exam is Awful

I would like to just complain a little bit about being a lawyer. Or, more accurately, about the process of becoming a lawyer.

1. The Bar Exam

This is the most grueling test you will ever encounter. In New York, there are over twenty topics tested (somewhere between 23 and 26, depending on how you divide the topics). You have to know them all perfectly, but you may not even get questions on some topics, or worse yet, the question will be buried so far under all the other material that you can’t identify it as a question. There are prep courses that cost anywhere from $1500 to $3500 and span 8 full weeks of 10 hour days. The bar examiners basically expect that you will be taking one of these courses. Don’t have a couple thousand dollars to drop? Don’t have the luxury of spending 10 hours a day studying (god forbid you have to work or take care of children while you are preparing for the bar)? Too bad, you’re basically screwed.

2. Limited Reciprocity

Worse than the exam itself, I would say, are the licensing requirements. Some states have zero reciprocity with other states, meaning, if you ever want to practice in, say, New Jersey or California, you would have to take that bar exam in order to get your license. And taking the bar exam is not fun. See number 1.

3. Limited Testing

The bar examine is given only in February and July. Twice a year. If you miss a deadline for your test date, you have to wait a whole six months to take it. And there are A LOT of deadlines. And A LOT of paperwork. Registering for the exam is almost as hard as taking the exam.

And then there’s me. I took the New York bar in July, and passed! Yay me. Well, then I got a job in New Jersey, but see, I never took the New Jersey bar because I was silly and assumed I would get a job in New York. Tsk Tsk. Well, now I’m stuck working and studying for the New Jersey bar, which is awful. But the worst part is, I don’t really feel like I can complain too much to my lawyer friends. See, because the bar is only given twice a year, the assumption is that everybody who graduates law school in May will take the bar in July. If you fail, you will take it in February. Therefore, the unspoken assumption is that every recent graduate taking the exam in February is doing so because he failed July. BUT I DIDN’T FAIL. I just didn’t take the exam at all. But without going into my whole work history, I can’t just throw the fact that I’m taking the bar soon into conversation, because of all the unspoken assumptions. So I suffer in silence, whine to the people who already know about my situation, and occasionally blog about it.

Now back to studying.

The Empowering Skirt: What I Learned From My Mikvah Lady’s Outfit

I know a  lot of women who have anxiety about going to the mikvah. Many of them feel that they have to “put on a show” or act frummer than they are, in order to gain acceptance at the mikvah. Some women cover their hair at the mikvah when they don’t in real life. Others walk in wearing a skirt and long sleeves, so as not to arouse more questions. Some make sure to remove all their nail polish, even though they believe it is kosher to tovel.

Luckily, I don’t have to worry about such problems. The mikvah in my town is relatively open, people wear any and all outfits (I’m more surprised with the women in high heels than I am about the ones in sweatpants), and there’s really not much of an “interrogation” feeling.

That in mind, I was more than surprised when I encountered my mikvah lady leaving the mikvah. I had the last appointment of the night. When I went to tovel, she greeted me in a long skirt with pants sticking out at the bottom. I didn’t think anything of it, it was cold that night, perhaps she just wanted an extra layer of warmth under her skirt. We did our thing, and I left. I went back to the preparation room to get dressed and gather my things. As I was walking to my car, I saw her going to her car as well–wearing only the pants!

I was shocked. Not because she wears pants, but because she specifically wore a skirt over her pants in the mikvah. Apparently, she too feels that she has to dress “frummer” at the mikvah. Many, many women wear pants in our modern orthodox community, but I guess that some women might not feel comfortable with a woman in pants as their mikvah lady.

Lest you think that she’s doing this because her boss told her to, she is the boss. She is the woman who runs the mikvah, trains all the new mikvah ladies, and has been around there longer than I’ve been alive. She doesn’t have to answer to anyone, except, I guess, her clients.

It makes me think about the power that clients have in places like mikvaot. We can sit here and complain on the internet all day about the crazy rules or the rude mikvah ladies or the dirty water, but we also have to remember than we are consumers. Just as we have the power to insist that our mikvah ladies wear skirts, we also have the power to insist that they are kind, open, and welcoming. And we should utilize that power. When we are upset with something that happens in the mikvah, call and file a complaint. Write about it. Tell your friends. Soon enough, you will start to hear things like “Oh, yeah, that happened to me, too.” Well, encourage those women to complain as well. We are the consumers in this relationship, and we are the ones with the power to effect change. So let’s do it.

I Went To The Mikvah With Nail Polish And The World Didn’t Explode.

Yep. Last month, I went to the mikvah with a fresh coat of Shelac nail polish on my fingers. The mikvah lady checked my nails and feet (what for, I’m still really not sure) but didn’t say anything about the polish. She didn’t ask me who my rav was or how fresh the polish was or what type of polish it was. All she did was say, “Oh, what a pretty color!”.

Now, I know the halacha. I know that wearing shelac nail polish in the mikvah is acceptable, specifically if the polish is not chipped. The reasoning is as follows: It is impermissible for a woman to immerse if there is a chatzitzah on her body. A chatzitzah is defined as both something that covers a majority of the part of the body, AND  something that a woman is makpid (careful) to remove. The rabbis have expanded the definition of chatzitza to mean EITHER majority OR makpid. The definition of makpid is viewed as both subjective and objective, meaning that it’s not just a matter of the individual, but also a matter of what women generally care about. Furthermore, a minority of rabbis have said that if something is going to have the status of makpid in the future, it will have the status of makpid at the time of immersion as well. Since most women are careful to remove chipped nail polish, it is considered a chatzitzah. Furthermore, following the minority opinion, many modern day rabbis have ruled that all nail polish must be removed prior to immersion, because it can chip at any time and once it chips, most women will be makpid to remove it. Freshly painted regular nail polish is considered okay if one does not follow the minority opinion that future chipping will constitute present chatzitzah. However, gel/shelac manicures are different. Gel and shelac manincures last for several weeks, and even then, it is advised to have a professional remove the polish, as the polish is actually bonded to the nail. This type of manicure specifically does not chip. Therefore, the concern that it will chip shortly and be something that a woman is makpid to remove is not present, and the nail polish does not constitute a chatzitzah even under the minority opinion.

However, I also know that mikvah attendants can be quite finicky, and might insist that no nail polish is allowed in the mikvah, ever. I was all prepared for a fight. I was prepared to tell her that  I had my nails done the day before with my friend who is terminally ill as part of a ladies day to help her get out of the house and have some fun, and that my rabbi (aka myself) had ruled that gel nail polish is not a chatzitza, and I was prepared to storm out in a huff and tell her that any sin I get from not immersing this month was going be on her. (anger problem? nahhhh….)

But I didn’t have to do any of that. She took one look at my nails and told me they were pretty and then proceeded to make idle chit chat as we walked from the preparation room to the mikvah. I dunked, and she said “kosher” and that was that. No fight. No making a statement. Just a regular day at the mikvah.

In my opinion, that’s how going to the mikvah should be: pleasant and non-confrontational.

My New Year’s Resolution

I was recently sitting at my computer, typing in all sorts of feminist twitter hashtags, hoping someone somewhere would link to some article about feminism or judaism or both (GOD PLEASE LET IT BE BOTH), when I began to get this itching feeling in the back of my head

“You’ve read all of the internet” it told me.

“Don’t be silly” I replied.

“OK, fine, you haven’t read all of the internet, but you’ve read a good majority of the stuff relating to women, judaism, abortion, rabbinic rule, contraception, modesty, sexuality…”

“Well, okay. But there has to be MORE. There is always more.”

And that’s when the nagging voice in my head told me that if I want more, I should write it. And why not? I’ve read and experienced so much lately, I have so much material.  There’s the woman that stopped covering her hair because she was angry at god. There’s the JOFA conference I attended, and especially the session on mikvah. There’s the time that I went to the mikvah with nail polish and absolutely nothing happened. So, why don’t I write about it? Well, because writing is hard. Writing in secret from my husband is even harder. But-I owe the internet my input. Like any good user-generated content system, it works better the more you add to it.

And then I pushed that thought aside. But not a week later, my husband shared with me an interesting article he found on Cracked.com. He didn’t send the link, and I’m too lazy to look for it,*  but the gist is that there are basically two types of internet users: producers and consumers. He, without knowing about this blog or my feelings of inadequacy for not posting more regularly, told me about how it’s not fair to only be a consumer, you have to do your duty as a producer as well.

And now here we are.

About 30 seconds before writing this post, I decided that my New Year’s Resolution will be to write a post every Friday. Fridays are good because I don’t work but my husband does. I tend to spend the first few hours sitting lazily around my apartment in my pajamas, sipping coffee and checking facebook. Well, now I have a reason to make my mornings more productive. I’m counting on you to keep me honest. If I skip a Friday, send me an angry email or write a comment. Keep me accountable. That’s how this relationship can work best.

So, without further ado, I will sit down to write my next post, and hopefully have it up here within the hour.

*Edited to add: I found the article. Someone else posted it on facebook and I read it. Link here.