Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2006
Thoroughly Modern Mikvahs
The ritual baths that Jewish women take to fulfill purity requirements are getting a makeover

It was an obligation Tammy Cohen had fulfilled regularly, but never quite so fabulously. For years the 44-year-old New Yorker, like generations of Jewish women before her, had immersed herself monthly in a mikvah, or ritual bath. The act, which marks the seven-day juncture after menstruation when the Orthodox Jewish tradition considers a woman ready to resume marital relations, was indisputably meaningful to Cohen, but some of the facilities she had been using were uninspiring. The pool, she says, looked "like someone had dug a hole and put some plaster in it"; its rabbinically mandated rainwater sometimes bore someone else's hair. Cohen sighs, "You just wanted to get in and get out."

Not so tonight. Descending a grand spiral stair at the newly opened Jacques and Hanna Schwalbe Mikvah on Manhattan's wealthy Upper East Side, Cohen was met by an attendant offering fine towels from Israel. Then it was on to a prep room fragrant with vanilla-scented candles, floored in Chinese tile, furnished in red cherry and featuring an eight-jet Jacuzzi — rather than the standard shower — for pre-immersion cleanliness. The mikvah itself, beneath a mosaic of a blue sky and white clouds, was pristine. Cohen's eyes widened. "It's spectacular," she gasped. "I feel like I'm at the Four Seasons."

After a period of relative eclipse, mikvahs are getting their total makeover. For almost two thousand years, in keeping with a passage from the Bible's book of Leviticus, traditional Judaism required its womenfolk to submerge themselves in "living" water — from an ocean, spring or rainfall — fulfilling purity rules and marking the rhythm of marital life. The baths were a staple of traditional Jewish life before World War II. After the Holocaust, however, a majority of Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere liberalized their practice, abandoning Orthodoxy's many rabbinic obligations as pass鮠The mikvah was a case in point. Even within Orthodoxy, says Rivkah Slonim, author of the mikvah book Total Immersion, many Jews, including the baths' builders (who were inevitably male) "felt that they belonged to the old country and didn't have a future." The result were mikvahs that would test any faith: "They were horrid: small, sparse and unfortunately, sometimes very dirty," she says. By the 1960s fewer than 200 survived in the U.S., and those were embattled: a feminist critique that ritual purity denigrated female sexuality seemed like "the last nail in the coffin," Slonim says.

It turned out merely to be a low-water mark. Orthodoxy has thrived, confounding its critics, and mikvahs found a patron in the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, head of the orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement (chabad.org), which campaigns for the retrieval of less traditional Jews. Seeing a potential selling point, says Slonim, Schneerson, a savvy marketer, "started to push beautiful mikvahs," and encouraged female proprietors who might care to make them more inviting.

The results can be found in or near almost any major American city. The website www.mikvah.org reports 395 mikvahs in operation, 118 of them built since 2000. Locations extend from Anchorage (where at least one practitioner previously found herself competing with moose at a local lake) to Tampa and, as of July, in New York City's super-rich summer camp, East Hampton. Where once a woman could have expected nothing more than mikvah, shower, a bench and a clothing hook, today a Jacuzzi seems to be the starter amenity. Mikvah Mei Menachem in Mequon, Wisc., for instance, features Roman columns and post-bath strawberries or chocolate truffles. At Mikvah Shulamit in Plantation, Fla., the immersion fee is a standard $20, but at the adjoining Contour Day Spa, a patron can drop significantly more experiencing hot stone massage, hydrotherapy, or even a botox consultation from the resident M.D.

If this seems a bit much, Samuel Heilman, an expert on Orthodoxy at Queens College of the City University of New York, notes that "more and more Orthodox women are solidly middle class. Why shouldn't the mikvahs live up to the standard of everything else in their lives?" The luxe boom also coincides with a belated embrace by some notable mikvaphobes. While Reform Judaism rejects the idea of immersion on a monthly basis, it does support it as a conversion rite or a symbolic celebration of life changes such as a divorce or recovery from an illness. In Newton, Mass., the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters center, founded by author Anita Diamant (The Red Tent) and catering primarily to the non-Orthodox, reports 2,600 immersions in two years. Feminists, meanwhile, have also come around. One of the "National Partners" at a Mayyim Hayyim conference was the Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies.

But it is the Orthodox for whom the revival is most meaningful. Though critics have long associated the idea of female uncleanliness as a form of rabbinical sexism, some see the new and improved mikvah as a sign of respect. "There's great power here," says Slonim. "As a celebration of a woman's cycle, as part of a sacred rhythm of intimacy and fertility, and on the communal level of women taking care of each other. It's marvelous."

Cohen agrees. Having submerged three times while intoning a short prayer, she returned to the prep room in a fluffy white robe, droplets still on her cheeks. "I'm looking forward to seeing my husband," she said. But on the other hand, she laughed, "It's such a pleasure to hang out here. Who would want to go home?"

—Reported by Carolyn Sayre/New York