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.

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.

Keratin Treatment and Mikvah

A few weeks ago, I had a keratin treatment put in my normally thick, dry, curly hair. The treatment was wonderful. My hair is still curly, but the curls aren’t as tight, and there is absolutely no frizz. For the first time in my life, I have wash and go hair. I don’t have to use gel or mouse or anything else. I can even leave the house without showering in the morning and still look like a respectable human being.

As anyone whose had this treatment done knows, the treatment comes with a lot of rules. Don’t wash your hair for 24 hours. Don’t use shampoo/conditioner with sodium chloride. Only shampoo your hair every other day. And–if you go swimming, make sure to treat your hair with a leave in conditioner before you go, because the chlorine can strip the keratin from your hair.

Well, the mikvah has chlorine, so that posed a problem. Since the whole idea of mikvah is to not have any barriers between the body and water, leave in conditioner is inherently a problem.

I debated the whole week before I went to the mikvah about what I would do. I finally decided to call a yoetzet halacha. I figured that a woman would know more about keratin treatments and leave in conditioners than a male rabbi would, so she’d be the better person to speak with. I called and left a message, and we played phone tag up until it was time for me to leave for the mikvah. So, I ended up deciding on my own to do something that made me comfortable both halachically and cosmetically:

When I started doing my prep, I wet my hair and then put the leave in conditioner in. I let it sit about 5 or 10 minutes, then I rinsed it out, using only water. Then, I did my regular prep, including washing my hair with shampoo (I used my own sodium chloride free shampoo instead of the stuff provided by the mikvah). Then, when it was time to tovel, I told the mikvah lady that I was only going to dunk once, even though I’ve been doing three. I dunked really quickly, she said kosher, and I got out. I then showered with my shampoo, again.

Overall, I’m happy with the results. The keratin stayed in my hair. I spoke to the yoetzet afterwards, and she confirmed that what I did was acceptable. I stressed about it beforehand, but I think it’s a system that will work in the months to come.

I wanted to share this with you all on the one hand because it’s an interesting look into the particular concerns of mikvah, but also because when I was trying to figure out what to do before I went, I scored the internet and I couldn’t find one place where keratin was discussed in the context of mikvah. I hope that by sharing my story, I can help another woman figure out a viable option for maintaining her keratin treatment while at the mikvah.

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.

Niddah Diaries: Mikvah

I don’t hate the mikvah.

From all the hate that mikvaot get on the jewish liberal internets, and from all the love that they get from chareidi kiruv rebbetzins, I naturally assumed I’d be on the side with the haters. I roll my eyes when those women in the preachy youtube videos talk about how mikvah is such a spiritual time, a time to connect with God, a time when the gates of heaven are open just for women.

But. I don’t hate mikvah.

In fact, I kind of like it.

The mikvah I go to must be one of the nicest in the country. It has a whole hall of preparation rooms, and each time you go, they give you new or disposable clean items to prep with, the bathtubs are large and luxurious, the floors and walls really are all made of marble, and even though they see plenty of women on a given night, the prep room is constantly cleaned and you could never tell someone was there before you.

A typical mikvah

Before I got married, I think the last time I took a bath was when I was in elementary school. Now, I get to relax in a bath tub once a month. It’s time to just sit back and soak and think about…nothing.

I know people complain about having to make time for mikvah, and I know that while it can be hard for me to schedule in mikvah, it must be even harder for parents with kids to schedule it in. Still, at this point in my life, it’s not really a hassle. I’ve never had to go on a Friday night, I imagine that might be a weird experience, although it would definitely give me interesting material to blog about.

I’ll be honest, the Mikvah is not a spa. You don’t get facials or massages or even manicures (I’ve heard that there are some mikvaot that offer nail services, but none that I’ve ever been to). You’re not even supposed to use conditioner when you wash your hair. Plus, the mikvah has chlorine in it, so unless you take another shower after immersing (bringing the total bathing count to 3 times in less than an hour), you’re hair is sticky when you leave.

BUT. 30 minutes in the bathtub once a month is nice. I think I’ll take it, please.