Sivan and Yaron were married on the night after Independence Day in the Tel Aviv Port. Sivan was radiant and beautiful in a stunning wedding gown, and Yaron had a magnetic smile as they stood under the chuppah facing the rabbi and flanked by their parents, opposite the Mediterranean Sea.
At the end of the ceremony, a moment after Yaron finished repeating the passage from Psalms 137 “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither…” he broke the glass and then raised his arm in a gesture of “wow! I’ve done it.”
It was a great wedding. Fantastic food, fabulous drinks, amazing DJ. Sivan (28) and Yaron (30,) Tel Aviv attorneys, knew how to throw a party. But even days after all the excitement, with their feet still smarting from all the dancing, Sivan could not stop thinking about the trauma she experienced the night before the wedding when she had gone to immerse in the mikveh.
Although Sivan is secular, there was no question in her mind that her wedding ceremony would be conducted according to Jewish law (although not through the State Rabbinate.) With that same certainty she knew she wanted to immerse in the mikveh as Jewish brides from time immemorial have been doing on the night before their wedding. Something about the tahara (ritual purification,) the traditional immersion, seemed right to her.
She chose a mikveh in the center of Ramat Hasharon. She had heard that it was clean and aesthetic, and that the experience could even be spiritual. A control freak, Sivan had of course called before she went and received instructions from the female mikveh attendant: “Come without makeup. Make sure your fingernails are cut. No nail polish. And take a shower beforehand. OK?”
She arrived at the mikveh accompanied by the women of the family, her mother, aunts, a few good friends, and her mother-in-law and sister-in-law to be. A joyful group, laden with presents and high spirits to make the bride happy on this very significant, very Jewish occasion. But as great as the expectation, so was the bitter disappointment.
“Did you bring a referral from the consultation session for brides,” the attendant asked. “No,” Sivan answered. “Then the rabbi, did he give you a note?” “No,” Sivan replied. “My rabbi is not going to ask me if I immersed in the mikveh. It was my decision to do it.” “But without a note, you can’t go in,” the attendant decreed.
Sivan’s smile froze. She couldn’t believe this was happening to her. Not on the night before her wedding. The next hour was spent in the demeaning effort of trying to convince the attendant to let her immerse. The mother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunts, friends all joined the fray. The attendant was unyielding. These are the rules, she explained over and over and over again.
Watchful ultra-Orthodox eye
But Sivan didn’t give up. “This is a public place. It was built with my tax money. You have no right to prevent me from immersing here,” she insisted. The attendant called the rabbis, her superiors. She called one after another, but each time she came back with the same negative response.
Finally, Sivan remembered that she was also a lawyer. “This is discrimination and there is no legal basis for it,” she said. Her future sister-in-law mentioned the idea of calling in the media. This kind of language, the phone conferencing rabbis did understand. The attendant allowed Sivan to enter. So, choking down her tears, the bride-to-be immersed in the mikveh on the eve of her wedding.
Many brides, who choose to immerse of their own volition on the eve of their weddings, are humiliated in a similar manner every year. This is because not only has the monopoly on marriage in Israel been handed over to the chief rabbinate, but the mikvaot are also administered under its narrow-minded but watchful ultra-Orthodox eye.
So even though you may want to immerse in the mikveh because it’s important for you as a Jew, because this tradition speaks to you, if you have chosen, God forbid, a Masorti or Reform rabbi to perform your wedding, you will be turned away.
There are more than 1,000 public mikvaot in Israel that are supposed to serve any Jew who wants to immerse, without discrimination. This year, the Minister of Religious Affairs, Yakov Margi, has allotted NIS 33 million for the construction of religious buildings, for any municipality that wants to build a mikveh.
This sum does not even include indirect funding from the Minister of Housing and Construction, Ariel Atias. For example, NIS 3 million was allocated for a new mikveh in Zur Hadassah, as well as a special access road for it. Every municipality knows that the easiest thing to get is funding for a mikveh. Margi will arrange it, Atias will upgrade.
Getting back to Sivan, when she stood in front of the mikveh attendant, in such a vulnerable, sensitive position, the attendant didn’t just pronounce her “amen” after the blessing accompanying the immersion, but added one of her own for the bride: “You should study Torah and become a hozeret betshuva” (newly observant, according to Orthodox practice). Sivan, despite her state of undress, did not avert her gaze. She did not want to give the attendant the satisfaction.
Yizhar Hess is the Executive Director & CEO of the Masorti Movement