Tag Archives: mikvah

My Return

by Genie Milgrom (Miami, FL)

I clearly remember the day I became a part of the Jewish people. How could I forget? It was the culmination of the four plus years of study for an Orthodox conversion that had once loomed before me with no end in sight. Throughout the period of conversion, I had many fears and frustrations.

I was born in Cuba and raised in Miami so the foods I was used to as staples became forbidden. It took me a long time to slowly let go of the ham and pork, then the milk and meat mixtures (cheeseburgers and lasagna) and finally, because the process took so long, I was able to let go of one shellfish every six months. Shrimp, scallops, lobster and finally crab. Crab was the hardest. I had to change completely what I considered to be my childhood comfort foods yet the drive to be Jewish was stronger than anything I could buy at the grocery store.

The change of identity was overwhelming as I would go from being a Cuban Catholic woman to an Orthodox Jewish one. I had doubts that I could make the leap but I knew that if I was to cause such an upheaval in my life, I needed to convert in a way that would cause no doubts about my Jewishness anywhere in the world . The only choice was the Orthodox Beit Din or Jewish Court.

The period of study was frustrating as well even though I knew that the Rabbis had to reject me again and again as part of the conversion curriculum. Even knowing that and still trying not to take it personally, was extremely difficult. I had to learn to read and write Hebrew, the laws of the Sabbath (several volumes), the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law), the laws of Kashrut, and the laws of family purity. I had to learn all this as one studies for a graduate level class. I learned the laws and I knew them by heart but it was overwhelming. I was afraid I would not be able to remember them or keep them fully yet all this build up led to one of the most important days of my life. Their mission was to daunt me. My mission was to not be daunted. I won.

It was a rainy and dreary day as I walked into the mikveh building practically squeezing the life out of the hand of my best friend, Bonnie.

The interior was one large square room with several worn-out couches strewn about. I sat on the edge of one of them shaking like a leaf and unsure of what was to come next. I was so scared. It had taken a long time to get to this point, and I had alienated so many people; my family, friends I had grown up with, people who went through thirteen years of Catholic school with me and just about every one else in my life. At that moment, sitting on the edge of that couch, I was literally hanging in mid-air between my Catholic past and my unknown Jewish future. The Catholic past had detached from me through those long conversion years and no one was throwing out a life jacket from the Jewish side. It was a lonely and difficult time and as scared as I was, I was still not daunted.

Slowly, three black clad Rabbis I had never seen before walked in from a back room, sat down and asked me many questions about my beliefs, my intentions, my conviction and my understanding of what I was getting myself into. They asked me if I knew that I would be joining the most hated people on the planet, a people that had been hated for centuries. They asked me if I was aware that infractions of some Jewish laws included stoning during the Temple times and a few others that were just as difficult and thought provoking. I had been unprepared for the questions but I did not find them difficult to answer with full honesty. You don’t crawl through a process that takes longer than four years with your eyes closed. I thought the questions had gone on for over a half hour before they let up but in reality, Bonnie told me that only seven or eight minutes had passed.

I was led into a room and helped into the water of the mikveh by a kindly attendant and once inside the water, the questions started again. The same ones as before but asked with greater intensity. This time, it felt like an hour. I had a recurring fear throughout the conversion that when this moment came, I would have serious doubts but that never happened. I felt stronger than ever in my conviction to join the Jewish people. Finally, I submerged in the water and it was over.

When I stepped into the large hall with my hair still wet, I was met by a long line of Rabbis waiting to get a blessing from my newborn Jewish soul. The line was as endless as the blessings they requested.

All in all, I gave many blessings that day which in turn, blessed me abundantly. My new life as a proud member of the Jewish people had begun yet my soul knew it had finally returned home.

Genie Milgrom has served as past President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami, past President of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies at Colorado State University, and President of Tarbut Sefarad Fermoselle in Spain. She is the author of My 15 Grandmothers, How I Found My 15 Grandmothers, Pyre to Fire, Mis 15 Abuelas, and De la Pirra al Fuego. The books have won the Latin Author Book Awards in 2015 and 2018.

An international speaker, she has spoken at the Knesset in Jerusalem on the return of the Crypto Jews, has been featured in The Miami Herald, Jerusalem Post and many other newspapers, and has been hooded by Netanya Academic College for work on the return of the Crypto Jews. Currently, she is the Director of the International Converso Genealogy Program to digitize Inquisition files world-wide.

A postscript from the author: Due to the research of my family from Spain years after my conversion, I found an unbroken maternal lineage going back to 1405 Pre-Inquisition Spain, and, via a Beit Din in Israel, was declared “Jewish all along.”  I do not regret my conversion period, however, because I always knew I was Jewish. And though the conversion process was difficult, I have come to see with time that it was a necessary period of detox that helped make me who I am today.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Judaism

Mayyim Hayyim (A Triptych)

by Arlyn Miller (Glencoe, IL)

Gathering the Waters
Approach the water.
Bring who you are
and what you have lost.

In its transparency
the water holds
every color.

Like light – every color contained;
though we cannot see this,
for seeing through it.

Enter the living water
which carries where it came from
and the mystery of its destination.

Immerse your self
and emerge with the whole
of who you are

which contains who you have been
and who you will be, though it may be
as invisible as light.

Immersion
As if you didn’t have a body,
were all thought and feeling.
As if the clumsy feet, the aging hands,
the blemished skin and unwieldy hair
were not you. Most of the time
you can move about in this way,
and name yourself
what’s housed inside, incorporeal.

The water will disabuse you.
Temperature and displacement
a stark mirror: you are finite and imperfect,
separate from what is not you,
no matter how connected,
connected, no matter how separate.

The waters have parted
to make room for you
and gathered you in.

Neither have they drowned you
nor have you made of them a flood;
you’re not that powerful – only human
holy human.

Mikveh Prayer
Begin
again.
This time in benevolence
without violence or betrayal.
This time without someone else’s story
dragging you under, drowning
you breathless with terror.

This beginning
begins with you.
Take the love you have been given,
that which you have seen
and that to which you have been blind,
and sew it together to make a whole
cloth of shelter and fertile comfort.

Begin
again.
Pick a name for yourself,
the name by which you want to be known,
the name by which you want to know yourself.

A poet, essayist and journalist, Arlyn Miller was inspired to write these three poems while attending an international conference at Mayyim Hayyim, a progressive, inclusive, egalitarian mikveh and learning center for Jewish spirituality near Boston, MA. Of the three poems, “Gathering the Waters” (which was also the title of the conference), appeared in the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, Volume 9, 2013, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

Arlyn is the founding editor of Poetic License Press, which publishes creative writing that is “authentic, accessible and engaging,” including the poetry anthologies, A Light Breakfast: Poems to Start Your Day and A Midnight Snack: Poems for Late Night Reading. Arlyn teaches writing workshops in the Chicago area.  Her poems, essays, and articles have been widely published. 

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Floating Between the Denominations

by Pamela Jay Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)

I am no longer surprised when people– upon hearing that I don’t drive or answer the telephone on the Sabbath– ask me if I am Orthodox.  The labels of denominations, and the assumptions about their adherents’ religious practices, are so ingrained that people momentarily forget that Orthodox women cannot be ordained as rabbis.  Personally, I enjoy defying the labels, finding the places where it is possible to be “just Jewish” and observe the mitzvot, commandments.

The week that we relocated to Atlanta I needed to go to the mikvah, ritual bath. I found a listing in a local Jewish directory and called to inquire about summer hours.  From the recorded message I learned that a woman must make an appointment 72 hours in advance and is given 20 minutes in the schedule to prepare and immerse.  In my old neighborhood all you had to do was show up, and with half a dozen preparation rooms there was hardly ever a wait.  Despite my last-minute call, I was able to secure 20 minutes that evening.

In New York, the mikvah attendant provided her clientele relative anonymity and freedom from small talk.  It’s not that she didn’t care who was patronizing the mikvah, it’s just that in what is arguably the most Jewish city in the world the mikvah attendant couldn’t possibly know everyone.  She lived in the house attached to the mikvah and treated the women who visited there as guests in her home.  She was a noble and modest hostess– never judgmental, always unobtrusive.  It was customary to give her a little extra, a gratuity, for her devotion to avodat kodesh, holy work.

That evening I was greeted by the attendant warmly with the requisite question: “Are you new in town or just visiting?”

“New in town,” I replied.  “We just moved here from New York.”

“Welcome! That’s great. We love it here.” The mikvah attendant had immigrated from South Africa many years earlier.

She followed up then, asking about why we had moved, whether we had family in town and where we were living.  She seemed surprised to learn that we were living within walking distance to a Conservative synagogue. So I admitted that I was employed there, but omitted the detail that I was serving as a rabbi in the congregation.  I didn’t want to burden her with explanations about non-Orthodox women visiting the mikvah or walking to synagogue on the Sabbath. I assumed that such a combination of ritual practices would be alien to her.

Finally, the small talk was over and she showed me to the back room, where I prepared for immersion.  Later, when I paid her, she followed me out to my car. Giving me back a few dollars she said, “It’s only 12 bucks.”

I mumbled something about it being customary in New York to tip the attendant.

“We’re volunteers here, so that isn’t necessary.”

As I turned to go, she said quietly, “tizki b’mitzvos,” which translates “be strengthened by [your observance of the] commandments. Clearly, I had misjudged her as judging me.  She recognized that any Jewish woman could be devoted to the mikvah–nowhere else are the fluid boundaries of Judaism’s denominations so apparent.  Thanks to a dedicated cadre of volunteers, the mikvah remains functional, and the observance of its ritual viable.  I promised myself to be a noble and modest guest in her home.

In time I grew accustomed to visiting the mikvah in Atlanta. I still have to remember to call 72 hours in advance, but the woman who coordinates appointments is kind to me when I forget. I have met most of the volunteer attendants and I’ve stripped myself, so to speak, of any disguises; now many of these women know that I am a Conservative rabbi.  In this community of women, I am happiest floating between the denominations, resisting labels and observing the mitzvot to the best of my ability.

Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist, and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom.  A New York City native and graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gottfried teaches students of all ages in churches, colleges, community centers, schools, and synagogues. She strives for balance in her life by spending as much time writing at the computer as she does working at the pottery wheel.

An excerpt of this essay originally appeared in Sacred Days: A Weekly Planner for the Jewish Year, 2004-2005, published by CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of CLAL and the author.

You can read more of her work on her blog, Pamela’s Pekele (http://rabbipjg.blogspot.com/), or visit her website for more information: http://www.pamelagottfried.com/

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