The good and bad of religously-mandated separation.
The plunge into Lake Superior was a certain kind of awakening. Cold. Shocking. Fresh. Every nerve ending tingling awake.
Last summer, three of my kids and my husband jumped from a 20-foot cliff into the ice-cold waters of our greatest lake, while my youngest son and I waded in slowly from the shore. The startling cold of the ice-melt lake lapping at our skin was enough to awaken from any slumber, be it metaphorical or literal.
In a way, it was what mikvah (the Jewish ritual bath) was supposed to be like so many years earlier, during the decade I spent as an Orthodox Jew.
Back then, I followed the marital laws of niddah religiously, withdrawing from sex and any touch between husband and wife from the day my period began until it ended, plus another full week for good measure. We slept in separate beds (we kept a twin bed in the corner of our bedroom for this purpose; I claimed the king, since I was the one being banished, and sent my husband to the "niddah bed.").
We didn't pass the salt, the car keys or the baby to one another. We didn't undress in front of one another. We didn't share food from the same plate.
At the end of the period of separation, I made my appointment at the mikvah (a ritual bath) in my neighborhood, always late at night, always in stealth quiet for this private, but important, observance.
There are a whole lot of rules around mikvah. You have to mark seven "clean" days after your period before you can immerse, so if you typically see spotting after the major flow of blood is done, Jewish law demands that you ask a rabbi to determine if the red on your underwear or pad is period-red or old-blood-red.
I'm not kidding.
There were times I put a little pad in an envelope (gross, I know) and had my husband take it to a rabbi, who would hold it up to the sunlight to determine its actual color. Every single time it was decided that it was not new blood and it counted as a clean day, because the goal of the community is to get wife and husband back together.
That's not the only checking-up that happens when you observe this mitzvah. You book time in one of the prep rooms at the mikvah building and are supposed to take a long bath, then a shower, and comb out your hair until no knots are left (with my tight curls, that is hard to achieve).
You have to clip your nails, remove nail polish, floss your teeth ... every little thing to make sure you are clean as a whistle before you can immerse.
When you get into the mikvah room itself, the mikvah lady (that's her official title) checks you. She pulls loose hairs off your back, scans your naked body from head to toe, and asks you a bunch of questions as if you can't be relied upon yourself to have followed the law meticulously. And then she'll allow you to immerse.
At the time, I didn't really mind this ritual; It was just part of our life and something I accepted when I pledged to be Orthodox.
To be honest, the mandated time apart from intimate relations with my husband was a nice respite, after which we could resume intimacy and sex with renewed passion.
I can't say with full honesty, though, that every mikvah immersion was a wake-up call like the plunge into Lake Superior. I can say a few things about this mitzvah that I don't think I will ever observe again.
On the bad side:
1. It's too long to wait to resume sex.
In a marriage, it's important to have boundaries and breaks. Too much sex gets boring and you want to keep that spark alive. So mikvah is helpful in forcing a married couple apart during a woman's monthly cycle, when I personally am not that interested in having sex anyway.
Except for me, the time I want to resume relations is sooner than the biblical mandate, which comes out (not surprisingly) right around the time of ovulation for most women. So it begs the question: Is niddah about the relationship — or about making babies?
2. I shouldn't be banned from having sex with my husband just because I'm bleeding.
We women have the power to create new life. Like God himself, we can create something from nothing with the help of a quick deposit from a guy.
But it's our job to carry the baby, grow it, nurture it, birth it, and then nourish this new life post-partum. We do the heavy lifting — literally — for this act of creation and yet we are the ones penalized for the beautiful and holy way our bodies are made.
That never sat right with me. Banished because I'm bleeding? Come on. I thought we'd moved beyond such archaic notions.
3. The strict rules for mikvah remind me how I hate being checked up on.
One thing that ended my love affair with Orthodox Judaism was the militance about being each other's watchdogs. It's between me and God, thank you very much.
Think about not being able to hand off your newborn baby to your husband but rather, having to put your baby on the couch and wait for your husband to pick him up, hoping the baby doesn't roll off and crash to the ground.
And, there's the pent-up anticipation of the marital reunion night that can be, well, kind of awkward. My ex-husband took to opening the door from the house to the garage when I pulled in after my mikvah immersion. He stood in the spotlight of my minivan's headlights, a dopey grin painted across his face. I couldn't even turn off the ignition before he was reaching for me.
That was, well, not so romantic; more like desperate. I know he wanted me but after 12 days of no-touching and no intimacy (which sometimes resulted in grumbling and arguing as an outlet for pent-up physical hunger), I needed to rebuild the magic. There was no turn-it-on-fast for me like there was for him.
But it's not all bad. On the good side...
4. Little things become a big deal.
For long-married couples, it's nice to not have to make excuses or reject a partner's sexual advances. That's the blessing of mikvah. Plus, the reason Orthodox Jews are so reproductive has a lot to do with the fact that when they do have sex, it's prime breeding time.
If you observe niddah to a T, you don't pass the salt or the casserole or the baby to your husband until after your mikvah immersion (remember, during niddah, you can't touch your husband) which makes passing the salt a little racier than you might think. That's a nice side effect.
5. There's something incredibly comforting about water.
A mikvah looks a lot like a whirlpool or hot tub. It's tiled and clean (hopefully) and in a private, quiet room. (Although technically, a woman can immerse in any body of natural water.)
The mikvah waters have to come from nature, so every mikvah has an irrigation system which collects rain water and allows it to mix with city water. My mikvah was always warm bordering on hot, but the water rocked and swelled like any untamed waves when I dunked completely under, recited the blessing for the immersion, and dunked twice more.
I've always felt at peace, at home, and myself around water, on the water, in the water, or beside the water. I understand the transformative nature of a dunk in a clear pool, the energizing qualities of renewal you feel when you burst forth from underneath and gulp in that first breath. There is something magical about immersing in water — something restorative.
No system is perfect, least of all religious systems that are made to control and organize communities. There is divine inspiration in this idea of marital separation, which happens anyway in most relationships if not imposed. It can be a beautiful thing to step away and regroup before stepping close once again and plunging into the bliss of ecstasy.
But it can be harmful, too.
In the years since I've stopped observing so rigorously, I've felt closer to God and to my current husband than I could've imagined. We observe our own self-imposed sort of niddah without requiring strict rules or an immersion before we reunite. It's a flow toward each other and to our own corners at that time of month that just happens naturally — and that's the way I like it.
Yet, there's nothing like the awakening that comes from that first step into fresh water, the lap of waves against skin, the feeling of coming alive for the very first time. Dunking in holy waters for sure — except now, it's on my terms.