The first inside look at the experiences of women who visit traditional mikvehs ritual baths used to achieve purity
Immersion in the mikveh-the ritual bath based on Jewish laws of purity-is the cornerstone of Orthodox family life. Jewish women are commanded by their religion to immerse in the mikveh before marriage, and to do so every month after their menstrual cycle before sexual relations with their husbands may resume.
Varda Polak-Sahm considers herself a secular person. She viewed the mikveh as an intrusion of the religious establishment into the private domain. Yet she respected the traditions of her Sephardic family, who passionately believed in the sanctity and importance of the immersion ceremony before one’s wedding. So on the eve of her second marriage, she reluctantly returned to the same mikveh she had entered as a young bride years before, only to be astonished by an immersion experience that felt hauntingly intimate and profound, like death and rebirth.
The revelatory nature of her experience, so at odds with her deep reservations about Judaism’s purity laws, spurred Polak-Sahm to pursue a searching and wide-ranging investigation into what the mikveh is all about. As she discovered, despite the strict Orthodox roots of the practice, many women from all streams of Judaism use the mikveh, often for personal reasons that have more to do with faith than religion. The resultant narrative provides a richly nuanced, uncensored look at an experience that is for some holy and for others coercive.
The House of Secrets gives voice to women from all branches of Judaism as they open up about what immersion means to them; how it fits in with their attitudes toward religion; its effect on their marriages and families as well as on their sexual, physical, and spiritual self-perception and on their relationship with God.
Already widely praised in Israel, this English translation provides a firsthand account of the power of ritual immersion for the growing numbers of women reclaiming this practice.
“A fascinating book . . . [Polak-Sahm] views the mikveh as a house full of secrets-the secrets of women, the secrets of life, the secrets of love and purity.” —Peggy Cidor, Jerusalem Post
“In The House of Secrets, Varda Polak-Sahm describes the colossal dissonance between the negative emotions and prejudices she felt before entering the mikveh and her overwhelming experience at the actual immersion. Her narrative draws you into the emotions felt by ‘secular’ Jewish women at the very concept of mikveh and the intimate stories and sense of sisterhood she came to know in her time spent there. She brings up all the objections that have been raised to the status inherent in the laws of ritual impurity, but she retains a loving, sympathetic ear to the stories she heard from observant women. Her own curiosity and openness are fascinating to read and kept me reflecting on the book long after I closed it.” —Carol Ochs, Hebrew Union College / Jewish Institute of Religion, author of Our Lives as Torah
“Varda Polak-Sahm’s original research, which is based on tireless fieldwork, numerous interviews, and observations of every detail, opens a window to a fascinating world that is hardly known beyond the walls of the mikveh.” —Shalom Sabar, author of Ketubbah: The Art of the Jewish Marriage Contract and professor of Jewish art and folklore, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
“This work is totally honest and full of surprises. Mikveh is not something we think of as a spiritual journey, yet clearly it is as Varda Polak-Sahm reaches deep inside herself and shares her personal discoveries and transformation and those of other women as well. Refreshingly, this writing is neither a Pollyanna version of the laws of family purity nor a cheap shot at them. Go along with Varda.” —Blu Greenberg, author of How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household
“An intimate, nuanced look at a deeply private world from a gifted interviewer and observer. Polak-Sahm shares the beliefs and feelings of a fascinating range of mikveh users. Many are Orthodox; a surprising number are secular; all have intriguing stories. This book combines thoughtful analysis with emotion and heart. A thoroughly enjoyable read.” —Stephanie Wellen Levine, author of Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey among Hasidic Girls
Review: Jewish Book World - December 1, 2009
“The mysterious world of the female mikveh (ritual bath) is fully and reverentially revealed in The House of Secrets . . . Vivid . . . truly lifts the curtain on this world, often unknown to all but its participants . . . [A] captivating book.”
Review: Spirituality & Practice - September 10, 2009
“The House of Secrets is based on ten years of research in various mikvehs in Israel and expresses the views of an impressive crosscut of Jewish women, young and old, Moroccans and Yemenites, Sephardics and Ashkenazis. The result is a compelling examination of the nature and meaning of this ritual which has remained clouded with mystery and secrecy for centuries.”
Review: Feminist Review - August 14, 2009
“. . . informative and fascinating job Varda Polak-Sahm does in detailing a world many of us have no clue exists.”
Review: BUST - August 1, 2009
“Whether or not you agree with the concept of a purity bath, you can find inspiration in the stories these women share about their experiences, in life and at the mikveh.”
Review: Publishers Weekly - June 22, 2009
"Offering a rare glimpse into a mysterious world, Polak-Sahm delves beneath the surface of the Jewish ritual bathhouse, known as the mikveh."
From chapter one, “The Place”
“Escorts are requested to remain at a distance from the entrance, for the sake of modesty”: the large sign, appended to a high stone wall topped with barbed wire, stopped me in my tracks as I approached the rusty gate. I gazed toward the building that dwelled alone behind this wall, where rites of purity, sexuality, and fertility are performed by women and for women. Jewish women.
Three hundred and sixty-three days a year, the mikveh opens at sunset. It serves Jewish women who come to cleanse themselves of the impurity of their menstrual blood and ready themselves to have sexual relations with their husbands. Only on Yom Kippur and the Ninth of Av, days on which the halakha forbids a husband from having intercourse with his wife, is the mikveh closed. Upon emerging from the ritual bath, young women and not-so-young women hurry home to be with their husbands after two weeks of abstinence from physical contact.
A massive stone ramp, like the tongue protruding from the mouth of hell in the famous Pieter Bruegel painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), accommodates the wheelchair-bound visitors to the mikveh. On either side of it, worn gray steps ascend steeply to a narrow landing.
As I stepped inside, lightly touching the mezuzah attached to the door frame, a loud, clear voice greeted me: “Welcome!” When I turned toward the voice there she stood, as if it were just yesterday, the same head balanit. Her blue-green eyes peered intently at me from the heights of her tall, broad physique that made her seem a pillar of stability.
“Thank you,” I replied with a rush of excitement. What I actually wanted to say was, Do you remember me, the “orphan” from years ago? Her face brightening as if she’d read my thoughts, she stepped toward me and, slowly spreading her massive hands, said with a sweet, musical intonation: “Please come in, come in, come in! Would you like a bath or a shower or just an immersion”
“No...uh...That’s not exactly...I mean, I...Yes, I am interested, but . . .” I didn’t know what to say. What should I say? That the memory of an overwhelming sensory experience had impelled me to return to her? That an irresistible impulse had prompted me to investigate what had happened to me in this place, which had never happened to me anywhere else? If so, then why not immerse? Why not experience that same extraordinary pleasure once again? I wasn’t completely clear on it myself at this point; how was I supposed to explain it to her? She’d probably think I was some sort of sick voyeur. “This time I didn’t come here to immerse . . . I came to ask . . . to talk with you.”
“With me!” she roared, pulling on the kerchief that concealed every hair on her proud head. “Did you hear!” She turned toward two women who’d been deep in quiet conversation, sitting next to an old school desk upon which rested a receipt book and a small money box. Startled, they both quickly smoothed the folds of their faded dresses and adjusted their head coverings. “What’s going on” they asked. One of them I recognized from my first immersion. She was the one I remembered as the more pampering of the two assistants. Incredibly, despite all the years that had gone by, she looked almost exactly the same. “Why” the head balanit asked as she thrust her head closer to me, her expression alight with curiosity and suspicion. “Are you from the newspapers or something? What’s this all about? Has something happened”
“No, no,” I stuttered as I tried to find some way to answer her. Finally I blurted out the truth: “Look, I have this terrible curiosity. It’s almost an obsession. I can’t forget my immersion here. You supervised my immersion here about twelve years ago. You must not remember . . . So many women have been here since then. But I remember you . . . You’re hard to forget. So I came especially to you . . . to ask . . . I feel drawn to this place in a peculiar way. I have to examine what happened to me. What goes on here. What the mikveh is all about. Will you be so kind as to let me come and ask questions and observe what you do here? I won’t get in the way. I promise.” “Just a minute,” the balanit said, shaking her head in annoyance. “I don’t really understand what you want. Do you want to immerse or not” “No. I want to know.”
For a fraction of a second it was as if all the planets screeched to a halt. Her blue-green eyes stared at me unblinking.
“All right.” The world stirred back to life. “Sit down.” She sighed expansively, pulled another chair up to the desk, and sat down beside me. “What do you want to know” “Tell me why you immerse in the mikveh.”
She regarded me intently for a moment, and then she began to speak, her voice strong and confident. “Immersion in the mikveh is the original patent for preserving intimacy in marriage. A device invented by Hashem to keep up the love and passion between man and wife. Love--how many dreams have been woven around it? How many stories have been written about it? How many poems? But how hard it is to sustain. How hard it is to sustain love and intimacy in marriage over a long period of time. There’s a saying that goes: Love and marriage are like a kettle that is put on the fire and taken off just when the water comes to a boil.’ Meaning what? That when you get married, love blooms, it boils. Everything is afire, everything is at a peak. But unfortunately, afterwards, and it doesn’t take long, the fire of love cools and gradually fades. This cooling and fading is very destructive to the relationship between husband and wife. And it also poses a great danger to the family as a whole. Hashem, who sanctifies marriage, knows that it must be preserved so that Jews will build good, stable homes, which together will build a strong and stable people. Knowing the vagaries of the human soul, Hashem concocted a magic formula which has been working for thousands of years and will never go out of date--immersion in the mikveh.”
She went on to tell me about matchmaking, courtship, falling in love, and marriage. About impurity and purity and the sanctity of marital relations. She talked and talked, and it was a long time before she finally wearied. “Oy, the things I’ve said . . . I don’t usually talk like this. I’ve said too much--” She broke off, glancing over my shoulder. “Hello,” she said.
I turned to see a woman entering the mikveh. Her attire was breathtakingly skimpy, revealing much more than it covered. A pair of brown breasts seemed about to pop out of her tight-fitting red blouse. A bare midriff showed above swaying hips clad in a strip of red fabric no more than twenty centimeters wide. The red micro-mini gave way to a pair of long, long legs. The figure strode quickly toward the balaniyot’s table. Each stiletto-heeled footstep reverberated loudly, amplified by the woman’s towering height. I held my breath in anticipation, silently grateful for my good fortune in happening upon this absurd situation--a girl who appeared to have sashayed straight out of a cheap B movie mistakenly wandering into this domain of pious women. She approached the head balanit--whose name, I had learned during our conversation, was Miriam--pushed back a few strands of her bleached hair (the dark roots were showing) and said hello. I braced myself for the big explosion. To my astonishment, Miriam smiled warmly at her and, without batting an eyelid, asked in her friendly and professional tone: “Do you need a bath”
1 The Place
2 The Balaniyot
3 A Dose of Impurity
4 Blood and Banishment
5 Purity and Sexuality
6 Female Rituals, Sisterhood,and Female Authority
7 Between a Woman and God
8 Between Man and Wife
- Read an article that quotes Varda Polak-Sahm and mentions the book in The Jewish Week