A slightly different version of this essay appeared in CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism
My husband and I were married for five years, together for seven, when I suggested we learn about the laws of family purity.
“The laws of what?” he said.
I told him that we wouldn’t touch for a certain number of days each month until I went to the mikvah. Baffled, he wondered if I might consider changing the dishes during Passover and staying off my cell phone on Shabbat before I started worrying about “something like that.”
See, I’d upset the balance of Judaism in our relationship. My husband was the “religious” one, the one who’d been a member of a Conservative synagogue all his life, a counselor at Camp Ramah, the one who could read Torah on short notice. Now I, the “Reform” one, was saying that it was hands off for part of every month. He thought I’d lost my mind. While my husband’s background in the Conservative movement gave him a deep yearning for a Jewish home, he didn’t know the laws guiding the physical relationship between a husband and wife.
Our wedding was the perfect example of our confusing Jewish beginning as a couple. We were married in Chicago by the same Reform rabbi who married my parents and officiated at my bat mitzvah. And although this rabbi supported our plans to hold tisches (traditionally when men gather around the table, and in this case a similar gathering of women) he didn’t suggest I visit the mikvah in anticipation of our wedding. The idea hadn’t occurred to my husband either.
Then five years later, seemingly out of nowhere, I came home with my big pronouncement about family purity without telling him the real source of my inspiration – a nonaffiliated friend who casually mentioned abstaining from any contact with her husband for about two weeks and then visiting the mikvah. “Are you kidding?” I’d asked her, unable to understand why she of all people would do something “so Orthodox.” It wasn’t that I’d never heard of a mikvah, I’d just never heard of someone like me going to one. “It does wonders for your sex life,” she said without blushing. I was intrigued.
Coincidentally, soon after hearing about the steamy benefits of family purity, I was invited to a fundraiser for Minneapolis’ new mikvah, an event that attracted women from every denomination. All of us smiled as the speaker, an exuberant rebbetzin from Borough Park, used the metaphor of cooking to inspire the audience. The most exotic, most delicious stews, she insisted, were enjoyed only by those who let the pot simmer. She made an evening at the mikvah sound like a luxurious, spiritual spa retreat. And she used plenty of other food euphemisms to give us an idea of the spicy situation that would follow at home.
I was shocked, but I seemed to be in the minority. The Orthodox women in the audience had been nodding knowingly the entire time, along with the few non-Orthodox women I recognized in the audience. “I didn’t realize that non-Orthodox couples do this,” I said to someone I knew from our synagogue. She explained that the private nature of the laws of family purity is one of the most beautiful aspects of the mitzvah. “Nobody has to know but you and your husband.” But that was the problem, I thought. Nobody knows.
My intrigue turned into frustration at the idea that I’d never encountered this information before. I realized quickly, however, that I wasn’t being fair. After all, my husband and I weren’t married by a Conservative rabbi, and because we’d moved to Minneapolis in the middle of our engagement, we’d missed the window for the marriage classes at our synagogue. Maybe the benefits of family purity weren’t being treated as a secret, maybe they were only a secret to us.
I found a study partner who helped me slowly examine the how, when, and why of both the days of separation between spouses and the actual evening at the mikvah. Now, five years later,I’m something of an unofficial public relations person for our mikvah, but I’d love to see more non-Orthodox women encouraged to at least try this unique mitzvah. If our grandmothers and mothers and friends don’t observe taharat hamishpachah, or if they have preconceived notions about the practice, then how will a new generation discover the potential benefits?
The benefits, of course, run deeper than the lure of an “exotic stew.” Yes, my interest in family purity began with a promise of a magically improved connection with my husband. But I’ve continued observing the laws for other, unexpected connections, including to God and to my heritage. Every time I submerge myself in the water of the mikvah I perceive an intangible lifeline between the past and the future. And I sense my secure place in that line, even if I’m still addicted to my Blackberry seven days a week and my Passover kitchen isn’t exactly up to snuff. I’m constantly improving those aspects of my observance too. I just wish I could find a way to make some of those mitzvot as much fun as adding spicy new ingredients to a familiar old dish.