The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh by Varda Polak-Sahm
One clear evening in Jerusalem, Varda Polak-Sahm shows up alone at her neighborhood mikveh – a ritual bath for Jewish women – to purify herself before her second wedding. After her first mikveh experience, during which she kept her out-of-wedlock pregnancy a secret from her family and the Orthodox balaniyot (mikveh guides), she’s understandably nervous. Yet this time, as the balaniyot towel her off and push congratulatory candies into her mouth after her plunge, Polak-Sahm experiences “an elemental emotion so stunning in its intensity, so acute, it was as if every fiber of my being was stirring wondrously to life.” Fascinated by the incongruity between the dull building, the slightly scary women running the place, and the depth of her spiritual experience, she decides to return to the same mikveh and interview all the women connected with it – clients, guides, and anyone passing through.
Among the various commandments that Jews observe, the commandment to immerse is one of the more obscure. The purpose of the mikveh is to bring women out of niddah, the spiritual impurity associated with menstruation, but Polak-Sahm quickly discovers that the practice has taken on a whole host of extra meanings and superstitions. She paints a decidedly unflattering picture of the Orthodox women who subscribe to it, chronicling bizarre and often offensive claims that impure brides give birth to disabled children, that ritual purity is the only way to keep a marriage together, and that Jews are preternaturally brilliant because their mothers immersed before conception. Unsurprisingly, purity laws are used to oppress women, as Polak-Sahm demonstrates when she describes rabbinical control over reproduction.
But she’s not alone in her spiritual – and intensely pleasurable – reaction to immersion. She interviews secular women who abstain from sex during niddah and love the feeling of purification. She even meets a non-Jewish women from the same Kabbalah center as Madonna, desperate to immerse during her trip to Israel. (The balaniyot, recoiling at the cross around her neck, don’t let her in.) Despite its superstitious overtones, the mikveh clearly functions as a center where women can support other women without male interference, and the scenes detailing the tender moments between mothers, daughters, aunts, nieces, and cousins – not to mention the balaniyot’s protocols for gaining the trust of battered women – attest to this. In between the chilling glimpses into Orthodoxy, in which women are banned from studying sacred texts and must present underwear stains to rabbis for inspection, the mikveh reveals itself as an oasis of female control.
The book’s biggest limitation is Polak-Sahm’s unfortunate decision to write about only one mikveh. We only see the Orthodox interpretation of the commandment to immerse, which comes with a maddening list of “barriers” that nullify the immersion (letting a hair touch your back, leaving your earrings in, forgetting to empty your bowels beforehand). Even liberal clients’ experiences are seen through the Orthodox lens – for example, the woman who grudgingly comes in just to fulfill Israel’s draconian requirements for a marriage license. Stories like that are interesting in a depressing sort of way, but aren’t there any progressive, non-traditional, or LGBT-friendly mikvehs out there? Well, yes, but they’re relegated to quick descriptions in the Afterword. The book would have been richer if Polak-Sahm had given them more attention.
Still, the book is an interesting window into Orthodox beliefs and customs. It also functions as a refreshing cross-section of Israeli Jews, who are too often portrayed as 100% Ashkenazi (even though Ashkenazim make up less than half of Israel’s Jewish population). Polak-Sahm herself is Sephardic and a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, and many of the women who run and frequent the mikveh are Mizrahi. Arab delicacies and Ladino folk songs fill the room every time a bridal party bursts in.
What exactly caused Polak-Sahm’s spiritual experience? Unfortunately, after the prologue, the book never addresses that question again. Instead, it spirals off into a survey of different beliefs and attitudes about immersion. Furthermore, the book is laced with ableism and fatphobia, which are especially evident in one treacly scene involving a bride in a wheelchair. But if its purpose is to shed some light on what goes on in a ritual immersion, the book succeeds. Despite its off-putting rules and taboos, the mikveh can clearly be a powerful spiritual tool for women, and Polak-Sahm’s respect for it is evident on every page.