Bad Day At The Mikveh, Good Day At The Beach
10/07/2011 - 13:04

Huffington Post has a provocative piece this week by Jessica Langer-Sousa, a self-described “observant” Jewish woman who wanted to go to the mikveh before her wedding to a “devout” Catholic. (The quotation marks aren’t intended to be snide, but just to note that since “observant” and “devout” are both somewhat subject-to-interpretation adjectives that she doesn’t define, I am not sure what they mean in this context.)

After being rebuffed by the mikveh lady at one Los Angeles spot, Langer-Sousa consulted with “Rabbi Lori,” the rabbi officiating at her nuptials, and opted instead to dunk in the Pacific. The ceremony turned out to be even more meaningful and spiritual than she’d anticipated.

You might think my knee-jerk “In The Mix” reaction would be to indignantly side with Langer-Sousa as she rails against the (presumably Orthodox) mikveh lady, who told her she wouldn’t be permitted in the ritual bath because her marriage would not be recognized in the eyes of God. But, while the mikveh at the beach sounds great, I actually found the piece troubling. 

I’m ambivalent about posting this, especially right before Yom Kippur, because I don’t want to seem like I’m launching a personal attack on Langer-Sousa, who I don’t even know and who is probably a lovely woman. And who I wish all the best in her new marriage. But  I wish she had made different choices with the essay itself, which felt excessively angry, in an almost adolescent way, even identifying the mikveh lady by name and implying she deserves to be called a derogatory word. Was this necessary?

Also, it felt a bit disingenous. Surely as a Conservative-raised Jew who now identifies as observant (not clear what she means by this) Langer-Sousa knew, before dialing the local mikvehs, that her impending intermarriage might be a stumbling block at an Orthodox, possibly even a Conservative, institution. Since she writes that she had been “lucky enough to find a rabbi to marry us,” she obviously knew that traditional sectors of the Jewish community remain opposed to intermarriage. So why set herself up for such a rejection, why not first approach her liberal rabbi or even inquire about liberal or pluralistic mikvehs, like Mayyim Hayyim? (It’s in suburban Boston, but its website has a directory of mikvehs around the country.)

What could have been a positive piece about finding a meaningful ritual to prepare for her wedding, instead got bogged down in feuding with the mikveh lady. Who no doubt behaved inappropriately and rudely: she could easily (and with no compromise to her own morals) have politely explained her concerns, then referred Langer-Sousa elsewhere.

But respect also has to be a two-way street. It’s not fair to expect everyone to agree with you, particularly when you are on their turf and your behavior violates something they hold sacred. It would be wrong for me to walk into a Boro Park shtiebel and demand an aliyah, just as it would be offensive for an Orthodox Jew to come to my Reform temple and insist that we put up a mechitza dividing the men from the women.

Jewish life in 21st-century America is incredibly diverse, so there’s no need to expect everyone in the Tribe to accept us or agree with us (they certainly don't all agree with me!): better to find the Jewish community/institution that resonate with you and where you do feel welcome than to grouse about those whose practices and beliefs are less compatible with your own.

Representatives of Jewish institutions do need to be welcoming and respectful. But I think it’s also important for individual Jews to give others the benefit of the doubt and not overreact to a single negative encounter.

Best wishes to all for a meaningful (and not too painful) Yom Kippur, however you choose to observe it. Gmar chatima tova!

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A great piece. I wish there would have been more respect on both sides of the table. I've had several bad experiences, as an Orthodox Jew, in a mikvah situation and never had the heart to write about them so I understand how she feels in that respect. And many Jews don't realize that there are non-Orthodox mikvahs or that Orthodox mikvahs won't let non-Orthodox Jews use theirs.

Though everyone might be surprised by her decision to use the mikvah, I have, in fact, received letters in the past by other Jewish women married to non-Jewish men who follow the practice even after being informed that it is not necessary given their situation. I just wonder how and if this could have been handled better so that this whole ordeal wouldn't have blown up the way it did.

If she goes to the same Los Angeles mikvah, I do, the issue is much larger than that. It's just not a very welcoming place if you get the wrong mikvah lady even if you are Orthodox but you don't look the way they feel a Jew should.

I agree that there was no need for her to use the full name of the mikvah lady.

The article isn't clear on this point, but it sounds like she called the one place, had a bad experience on the phone, and then didn't try calling any other facilities. I find it disheartening when a person has one bad experience with one person or institution and then gives up, assuming they all must be alike.

I also would expect the rabbi to know which facilities are more welcoming, so she could point non-Orthodox people to it. Again, the article isn't clear on this, but it sounds like the rabbi didn't have this knowledge or didn't offer it, which, if true, is also disturbing.