Posted on: April 15, 2012
One of my friends has a mikveh date scheduled for late April/early May. She asked me few questions and expressed some hair concerns so I thought I’d write another “What To Expect” post.
~One of the most shocking parts of the Deborah Feldman book wasn’t the scandalous rejection of her hasidic roots, it was her mikvah experience. I am fully aware that Satmar, pre-wedding, post-niddah mikvah experiences are far different than a Reform conversion mikvah experience, but I was shocked. I’ve only been to the mikvah once, and I don’t plan on going back as regularly as a married frum woman would, but any time you are required to stand naked before a strange woman you’re bound to be a little apprehensive.
With this particular friend on my mind, and all of you who will go to the mikveh in order to be converted, here are a few things you should definitely expect.
Disclaimer: The following post is based on my personal experience of a liberal conversion mikvah experience. It in no way represents a post-niddah mikvah experience or a pre-wedding mikvah. If you are looking for information about traditional/Orthodox/Halachic mikvah requirements, please go to the bottom of this post and find links there.
When you enter the mikvah waters you’re supposed to be just as you were when you were born. This means no piercings, no make up, no hair product, no nail polish, no dirt anywhere! If you wear a weave, you have to take your weave out. If you wear your hair in braids, the braids need to come out-Dreadlocks are okay. I’ve heard stories where a Mikvah Lady couldn’t understand how a JOC’s hair was wet, as it didn’t hang down like fine hair. My Mikvah Lady was awesome and seemed to understand that the hair on my head was, indeed, soaking wet. You literally need to be spick and span-though no one is going to “check” you the way that they did in Deborah’s book. It’s incredibly exciting and overwhelmingly nerve-wracking at the same time, but in the end when you say your final blessing you are a Jew!
Take multiple showers.
When I woke up on my conversion day I took a really long shower, my last shower as a non-Jew, really. I took my time washing every part of my body (every part). I scrubbed my skin with a loufa, I scrubbed my feet with a pumice stone, I scrubbed my back, I scrubbed my scalp-all under hot-enough-to-bare water. When I got out of the shower I clipped my toe nails and finger nails I didn’t put lotion or oil on-something hard for this black girl to do. I didn’t put any product in my hair (another hard task) and set out to the mikvah.
Once at the mikveh I needed to take another shower. Once again I scrubbed every part of my body. I didn’t wash my hair a second time (they didn’t have my nopoo) but I scrubbed my scalp again. I washed behind my ears, in my ears, between my toes, etc. Except this time, you don’t dry off. You step out of the shower dripping wet, put on a robe and push the magic button that tells the mikvah woman that you’re ready.
Be naked in front of a woman you’ve never met.
The Mikvah Lady is basically your gateway into Judaism. She’s the one who makes sure that you’re dunks are all kosher and in order to do this, she has to see you naked-sort of. When she comes to retrieve you from the prep room she’ll take you to the mikvah. As I stood at the steps of the mikvah she was behind me when I took off the robe. She helped me out of the robe by holding it out in front of her as I walked into the mikvah- therefore she wasn’t looking at me, she was looking at a robe. When you get in, the water is about shoulder-deep (for me) so you’re underwater…naked. The inclination is to use your arms to cover your body, but that’s not kosher so yes, you’re naked in front of a strange person.
Which means you’ll have to re-dunk. In order for your dunks to be kosher the mikvah waters need to touch every part of your body which means that you’ll need to be completely submerged (hair and all) and that you can’t curl into a ball. Some people find it difficult to get completely under water and all I can say is that if you can practice, practice! I made quite a splash every time I dunked because I sort of jumped up to let momentum take me under water. While I was under water I made sure to keep my arms and legs away from my body. Resist the instinct to plug your nose (not kosher). Breath out through your nose instead and get under water! If you have long hair or long locs they may float up to the top (which is what hair tends to do) so you’ll have to make sure that every strand of hair is under water. If you’re curled into a ball, if you’re touching the bottom of the mikvah, if your hair floats to the top you’ll have to re-dunk.
Your beit din needs to hear you say your blessing, so you may have to shout unless you invite your three rabbis to be three more people who see you naked. My beit din stood outside of the door to the mikvah that was cracked open so I found myself shouting each blessing.
To be overwhelmed.
My emotion in the mikvah came in the form of laughter and giggles. Shouting my blessings, splashing like a child for each dunk and the loud and rowdy shouts and “whoot!”s outside the mikvah room every time the mikvah woman shouted “KASHER!” was so overwhelming that the emotional release I found was laughter. It was comical. If I were a fly on the wall I would laugh. It is incredibly emotional and many people find themselves in fits of tears. I think that we all handle being overwhelmed emotionally in different ways. For me the laughter came in the mikvah. With every dip, every loud Kasher! I heard under water and the resulting shouts of joy from the hallway was amazing. I kept thinking, “I’m almost a Jew!” The tears came when I held the Torah. If you find yourself crying, great. If you are laughing great. If you’re not emoting in any outward way, great. Mikvah day is YOUR day. Having an expectation of some sort of emotional reaction is anxiety-provoking. You may not feel anything emotionally and that’s okay. Mikvah day is your day. It’s not a day for the Mikvah Lady, your Beit Din, or your partner. It’s a day for you and Gd.
The Upper West Side Mikvah, where I did my dip, was sort of like a spa. There was a slew of products, rooms for prepping and post-mikvah, it was clean and incredibly comfortable. You are also welcome to bring your own hair products, etc. so that your mikvah experience is as pleasant as possible. I would just be certain that your products don’t contain any non-kosher products.
Being in the mikvah takes all of 10 minutes, maybe. It goes by fast. I’d say take time to remember each moment, but honestly for me it was so overwhelming that when it was all over and I was back in the shower room changing back into my cloths I was sort of numb…like, I didn’t feel different. I didn’t process what it all meant until I was reading Ruth’s famous words and holding the Torah in my hand that it hit me via uncontrollable tears. I plan to re-visit the mikvah on my Jewversary each year. Who knows how it will feel, if it will reconnect me, if I’ll feel reaffirmed or if it is just something that I do.
Halachic women’s online resource