Sometime in the spring of 1976, the rabbi found out that Mindy’s husband was smoking with his Sunday School students. They were the usual rum lot of high school age boys whose interest in religion had ceased with the cashing of their Bar Mitzvah checks; they put up with Eliyahu’s class for the sake of a reliable source of weed. A very unpleasant conference with the rabbi and the synagogue board was followed by a heated exchange with several outraged parents. Mindy and Eliyahu decided it was time to fulfill their dream of “making aliyah” — moving permanently to Israel. As their departure date neared, Mindy asked if I wanted to take over her job as balanit or attendant, at the mikveh.
The San Francisco mikveh (“ritual bath”) was in the Bnai David synagogue in the Mission District. Built in 1908 after the Earthquake, most of the congregation by then had long since departed, but the mikveh remained in use. Orthodox synagogues do not necessarily include a mikveh in their building plans, but this congregation, established in the 1880s by Eastern European Jews, was the first strictly Orthodox community in San Francisco. It is said that people came from as far away as Nevada to use the mikveh. The pool was unusually large — a dozen people could immerse at one time.
A mikveh, by definition, is natural flowing water — a spring, a lake, the Pacific Ocean — but in constructed mikvaot like this, the definition of “natural” was stretched to mean that the smaller of the two connected pools — the bor — was periodically filled with a load of snow brought down from the Sierras. Steps with a railing led into the larger pool for immersing, and a radiator stood at one end for heating the water.
Bible readers will be familiar with passages in Leviticus and elsewhere that mention being “unclean until evening,” and “washing” before re-entering the camp of the Israelites. Being “unclean” is not related to sin, but rather to a deep sense of the separation between the holy and the ordinary, between life and death, or between some medical conditions and the restoration to health. The New Testament records Jesus healing lepers, who then were to “show themselves to the priest” and the woman with a discharge who touched his garment to be healed. In those cases, they would have also bathed in a mikveh as part of their restoration to full communal life. In biblical times, quite a few things rendered both men and women, and some objects, “unclean” but never permanently. Today, the mikveh is primarily used by Orthodox women following their menstrual periods and childbirth; and for those converting to Judaism. In larger Orthodox communities, men often immerse before the daily prayers and before holy days.
Orthodox Jewish family life cannot exist without an available mikveh, yet in the 1970s I found a profound reluctance to openly discuss “family purity,” as it was sometimes called, especially around non-Jews. Partly, this was simply a normal reticence surrounding a private matter. But those early days of the sexual revolution, married couples taking a mandatory break from their sex lives, and then the wives going through a detailed process of bathing before being able to resume intimate relations seemed peculiar — apparently even to Orthodox Jews themselves.
Before my wedding, our rabbi insisted that I sit with his wife to review the “laws of niddah” — the rules concerning this period of abstinence. I made the mistake of using the word “taboo” at one point, and the rabbi’s wife absolutely freaked out: “No, no, no, it’s not a taboo! It’s not a taboo!” she cried. I was puzzled by her extreme reaction, since a taboo simply involves separation of people, objects, or foods for reasons connected to the sacred. The literature about the laws of niddah attempted to make the practice seem rational and understandable, but it always struck me that it was precisely the irrational, deep sense of the sacramental in marriage, and in the presence of God in the Tabernacle or Temple, that was operative. I also sensed a consuming fear among women like the rabbi’s wife that if outsiders (not just non-Jews, but secular and anti-religious Jews) knew about it, they would see Judaism as “primitive” and subject to ridicule.
Brides-to-be read booklets with stern and daunting titles like Jewish Family Life: The Duty of the Woman. Other publications took a philosophical bent, like Meaningful Sex: A Jewish View, by the late Rebbitzen Esther Jungreis; A Hedge of Roses by Norman Lamm, and Aryeh Kaplan’s Waters of Eden. A chapter in the popular Jewish Catalog, however, made the practice more accessible for those who were “returning” to Jewish observance.
At Bnai David, the door to the mikveh stood discreetly to the left of the main entrance to the synagogue and opened into a small apartment. My family did not choose to live there, however. — if the door to the pool was not kept closed, even the huge venting fan could not prevent mold from rapidly dotting the wallpaper. Worse, a married couple living there might find their children using the mikveh as a private swimming pool — another reason to keep the door to the pool shut and locked.
A dim waiting area held a beautiful old couch in need of re-upholstering. If a woman’s husband came, he could park himself quietly in a separate room so as not to encounter other women who had appointments. Allowing men to come in at all during the women’s hours was actually verboten elsewhere, but as the Mission District at night was not entirely safe, only a few complained. About fifty women from all over northern California used the mikveh regularly and most knew each other.
The most time-consuming and exhausting part of the job was pumping out the main pool, cleaning it thoroughly and drying it with towels, then refilling it, which took about six hours. Mindy had told me to do the thorough cleaning about once a month, but I did it every Sunday, because my husband, himself a mikveh enthusiast, opened it for men before Shabbat and holidays, and all his friends — who otherwise might have helped their wives prepare for Shabbat — came to hang out with him. The pool was always a bit grubby on Sunday morning, probably because men don’t follow the same strict rules about bathing beforehand that women do, and always seem to leave beard hairs behind. This fact once almost cost me the job:
Shabbat and a two-day Jewish holiday occasionally form a three-day weekend. A woman called on the private mikveh telephone that had been installed in our apartment on Friday afternoon, demanding an appointment for the evening immediately after the end of Rosh Hashanah. As I knew that more men than usual would come to the mikveh before the High Holy Days, it would certainly be filthy afterward. I asked her to come the next night instead, explaining that I would need time to clean the mikveh. She got quite shirty, insisting that I was not allowed to delay her appointment. Having been bullied into acquiescence, I hurried across town at the end of Rosh Hashanah. As expected, the water was murky and strewn with hairs. I did what I could to skim the surface, pump out part of the water and refill it, but it looked awful. Of course, she complained to the rabbi, who called the next day and chewed me out. It proved useless trying to defend myself. Had I refused to make her appointment, I would have been chastised for that. But I made a mental note to unplug the mikveh phone on similar occasions.
My very first night on the job, I had finished laying out clean towels and tidying the dressing room, when there was a sudden sharp report that sounded like a gunshot right outside the door. I listened intently for a few seconds for voices, a cry, a call for help, but all was silent. I cautiously knelt down by the letter slot to peer out, but couldn’t see anyone, although there was an odor I recognized — having spent many hours on the firing range with my father. I called the police. A recording instructed me to hold the line in about a dozen languages, and long after someone could have bled to death on the doorstep, an officer answered. I explained, gave the address and phone number… and waited. Half an hour passed and the police called back. They couldn’t find the address. A few minutes later, I heard men’s voices — the police at last — just outside the door. Apparently no one else was about, and nothing looked suspicious, but one of them said he could still smell that a gun had been fired. That was the last I heard about it, but I always felt a bit anxious when walking through Delores Park to the trolley stop late at night.
Many of the women who came were friends, relaxed and chatty; others were from the the Orthodox synagogues, and the Berkeley or Palo Alto Chabad communities — very strict and often rather nervous about their preparations. The Aquarian Minyan folks associated with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, by contrast always just enjoyed themselves. Before a wedding they made group appointments: one for women; and one for men which my husband took care of. The women brought candles and incense; we turned off the light, and all of them would go into the pool together with the bride, giving her blessings, singing, and overflowing with joy and anticipation. The more conventional mikveh users would have been horrified. Or maybe not: this was California after all, and as it happened, two of the Chabad rebbitzens were nieces of the “singing rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach, who had founded the “hippie synagogue” on 9th Avenue known as the House of Love and Prayer.
There were poignant moments as well. One of our friends asked a few times to come during the day when she brought her husband to the city for cancer treatments. On another occasion, a hasidic woman from New York, also in California for cancer treatments, asked if I might be able to help her with her preparations, as she was very weak. I told her I was a nurse, but in fact, it is also part of a mikveh lady’s job to help with this — even to go into the pool with a woman who needs help or is afraid of the water. She shyly explained that she was only coming to the mikveh in order that her husband could help her in her illness — when a woman is on her period or after giving birth, she and her husband are not to sleep together or even touch. I thought of Glückel of Hameln (1646-1724), who recounted in her diary that as her beloved husband lay dying, she longed to embrace him, but he gently reminded her that she would be able to go to the mikveh that night, and they had always taken great care to observe the commandments… He died in the afternoon, and reading of Glückel’s pain at the loss of a last embrace can still bring tears to my eyes.
I had one bad experience with a visitor. When she came in, I cheerily asked where she was from. “I’m from Monsey,” she replied. “Really? I’m from Indiana myself,” I chirped, thinking she meant Muncie. “That’s Monsey.” she said sharply, “M-O-N-S-E-Y; it’s a very Orthodox community in New York.” She paused for a moment, and then inquired, “Are you a convert?” I was taken aback by her nasty tone, as well as embarrased at having admitted to being a Hoosier, but even more shocked that she would ask if I were a convert — a question so utterly forbidden that in my confusion, I actually said, yes, I am. Luckily, another woman waiting to use the mikveh that evening could oversee her immersion. I should have told “Mrs. Frumkeit” to go jump in the ocean, but I never think of these things in time to make a useful retort.
I did have one funny mikveh experience myself that illustrates the perils of being from out of town. My family and I stopped to visit my parents before moving to Israel in 1980, and it happened I needed a mikveh appointment. At the Jewish Community Center in Indianapolis, I found the door labeled “Mikveh” unlocked, but no one was there. A note instructed users to put the payment on the plate in the dressing room. Even more strange, the water in the pool was scalding hot. I couldn’t even stick my toe in. I got dressed again and told my annoyed husband the problem. When he came in to see for himself, even he agreed there was no way to get into the pool. We didn’t know quite what to do as the Community Center was closed. Fortunately, I had written down the phone number, and we drove around the area, eventually spotting a pay phone at a sketchy-looking 7/11-cum-gas station. I dialled the number, worried that no one would even pick up the phone at that hour. A woman with a pleasant deep South voice answered. “Oh, honey,” she said sympathetically when I had explained, “Y’all didn’t have to drive around to find a phone; we live in the caretaker’s apartment just around the back. You coulda jus’ knocked. Y’all come back here and we’ll take care of it.”