On Being a Guest

“What would you do?” the post began. It was a question posed in a private Facebook group comprised almost entirely of Orthodox Jewish women. The poster explained that she and her husband were staying with a family for shabbos and were put up in a guest room with a Queen-sized bed. The woman was apparently niddah that weekend and as such would not sleep in the same bed as her husband.

The women that responded to this post all seemed to be of the same mind. “How could they call themselves Orthodox and not offer separate beds to a married couple?” one wondered. Another went so far as to say that she hoped that the original poster wasn’t also eating with that family, as any family that didn’t know the laws of family purity most certainly could not be trusted to keep the fullest standards of kashrut. One brave soul suggested that separate beds is not a widespread custom and in many out-of-town communities, it is rarely practiced. This person was very quickly shot down though, with loads of other women jumping in to say that they live “out of town” yet would never think of sharing a bed while niddah.

In response to “what would you do”, the women offered many suggestions. The most common seemed to be to make the husband sleep on the floor, while many others suggested that they would probably volunteer to be the ones to sleep on the floor. Someone suggested, half in jest, to build a pillow wall between the spouses, but she was quickly informed that this would still be a violation of niddah.

While reading through this thread, I kept thinking about the many times that my husband and I have spent nights at other people’s homes and have been given a room with two twin beds. At home we sleep in one bed all month long, and typically fall asleep cuddling. When we’re forced to sleep in two beds, the quality of our sleep drastically diminishes. I feel like our host is, unintentionally, driving a figurative if not literal wedge down the middle of our marriage.

I found it strange that the essence of “making guests feel comfortable” was to offer two beds–and the consensus being that if you could not offer such accommodations, you should either not have married couples stay over or should make it clear in advance that there will be only one bed.

I, for one, feel much more comfortable in one bed. My parents are God-fearing, fully observant, orthodox Jews and they only have one bed. In their community, I would guest that most people with guest rooms also only have one large bed in the guest room, that’s just “what’s done.”

Furthermore, as a guest, my philosophy has always been to not assume anything as a given and take things as they come. I pretty much don’t expect anything and am usually pleasantly surprised to learn that in fact my hosts did provide whatever they provided. If there’s only one bed, then fine, sleep in the one bed that night.

I suppose there are those who will see my response as closed-minded, that I fail to value the opinions of those who will not sleep in the same bed as their spouse while in niddah. I want to be clear that I hold nothing against such folks. If one or the other spouse wishes to sleep on the floor in such a situation, go ahead, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s actually probably the exact appropriate response for a couple in such a predicament.

My problem is with the lack of hakarat hatov  to the family that graciously opened up their home and offered sleeping accommodations to strangers over shabbat, and the assumption that if a family cannot offer separate beds for a married couple, they are better off not hosting at all.

So, what would I do? I would look my hosts straight in the eye and say “Thank you,” as all hosts deserve.

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Niddah and Illness

One of the problems we’ve encountered while keeping niddah is the issue of one or both of us being sick.

The niddah books talk about what to do when one partner is sick during niddah, and it’s pretty sexist:

When the husband is ill and there is no one else to assist him, his wife who is niddah may do what is needed to care for him. However, she should avoid [purely affectionate touching]. The rules are more stringent when she is ill than when he is, as when he is ill he is unlikely to initiate sexual contact.* When she is ill, he should be particularly careful not to touch her. 

-Deena R. Zimmerman, A Lifetime Companion To the Laws of Jewish Family Life, page 79. Based on shulchan aruch, Y’D 195:16-17. 

*The implication being, of course, that when a wife is ill but her husband is not, he will attempt to initiate sexual contact with her. Because, men, of course, are incapable of controlling their base animal urges.

This hasn’t really come up for us, mostly because we are relatively lax about touching during niddah and so of course the non-sick spouse can care for the sick spouse, even if it requires touching. Also, my husband is a big believer in the halachic theory that whenever someone is sick, you are supposed to do whatever you can to take care of them and put halacha aside. Even taking the time to make the calculation of “is she sick enough to warrant breaking halacha” is inappropriate in the situation, because your focus should be completely on the illness, not on the other halachot you might be breaking (shabbat, kashrut, fasting, etc.). Actually, we’ve talked about how this relates to pregnancy, and he’s expressed his concern that technically, a husband may not touch his wife or hold her hand while she is giving birth, and that that rule makes absolutely no sense to him. I’m glad we’re on the same page about that one, because you can bet that if there is an eight pound living being coming out of me, I will be grabbing on to my husband for dear life, and that’s just going to have to be okay.

Anyways, the point of this blog post really wasn’t supposed to be about touching while sick during niddah. It’s about being sick while not niddah. Because of the 2 week on/2 week off niddah cycle, there’s a lot of pressure to make the most of the 2 weeks on. Not just mikvah night, but the entire 2 weeks, because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it soon enough.

But, when one or both of us are sick during the 2 weeks on, we’re not having sex. We’re just not up for it and kissing someone who is coughing is just not fun for either partner. Still, there’s that lingering thought that couldn’t we get sick just a week later, because as soon as we’re over this cold, we’re not going to be able to have sex for another two weeks.

This doesn’t mean that we effectively rape the sick spouse, as the shulchan aruch apparently thinks we might. It just means that it’s sad for us, and that the niddah gods didn’t consult with the winter cold gods to get their calendars in sync. Oh, well.

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.

Niddah Diaries: Skipping a period

When I scheduled a trip to my parents for succot, I realized that I’d most likely have to go to the mikvah over chag while on vacation. I don’t like the idea of using this mikvah (I’ve used it once before, a few days before I got married, and it’s pretty gross), and I don’t like the idea of going to the mikvah on chag, either. Therefore, it was a pretty easy decision for me to use my birth control pills to skip my period this month.

For niddah purposes, this means five weeks of being able to have sex, instead of the normal two. It also means that if I don’t want to have sex one night because I’m tired, that’s okay, because we can just have sex the next night. I’m only on the beginning of week 3 (i.e. this is the week that I should be getting my period, but I went straight to the new pack of pills). I’ll let you know how it goes, but so far, the intimacy and romance has not been lacking, even if we chose not to have sex one or two times last week.

Over Rosh Hashana, we were staying at relatives’ house, in the same city that we live in. There was another couple there, too, and the woman apparently was scheduled to use the mikvah the first night of Yom Tov. They weren’t eating with us that night, and instead were intentionally eating with an elderly couple that tends to eat quickly. However, apparently they missed the mikvah appointment and had to go back there the next night. By the end of chag, everyone at our house knew they were going to the mikvah and knew that they had missed their appointment and knew that they went again the next night.

While we were waiting for them to get back from the mikvah the second night, I had a conversation with one of my relatives about the whole thing. She, a woman in her 50s who has been keeping niddah her whole adult life, said that she didn’t understand why this women was so insistent to go now, and why everyone had to know about this woman’s mikvah schedule. She said that when she was younger, no one was supposed to know that you were going to the mikvah, and therefore, people usually waited and went after shabbat/yom tov. My husband spoke up and said, “Yeah, but delaying mikvah is REALLY frowned upon”. I spoke up and said, “She could just manipulate her birth control” (We all happen to know she takes birth control pills because she’s mentioned it before).

To me, and this relative, avoiding mikvah on shabbat/yom tov would be a priority. But for her, it’s not. And those are choices we all make.