Mayim Bialik: Student of the Water
You may recognize Mayim Bialik for her lead role in the early-1990’s television sitcom Blossom as well as her current Emmy nominated role as Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory. After starring in Blossom Mayim earned a BS from UCLA in 2000 in Neuroscience and in Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, also from UCLA, where she was also an active student leader at UCLA Hillel. Bialik is currently a board member, co-founder, and chair of Jewish Free Loan Association’s Genesis branch, and is an avid student of all things Jewish. She studies Torah on a weekly basis with a study mentor through Partners in Torah. Most recently she authored the attachment parenting book Beyond the Sling: A Real Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachement Parenting Way.
Mayim Bialik previously blogged about her Jewish wedding and now she shares her mikvah story:
I am a good student. I know that sounds like I am bragging; but I’m not. I am just being honest. My parents are both teachers and I was raised with an immigrant philosophy: study hard and succeed. So when I planned to “study” with a bride teacher before my wedding in 2003, I decided I was going to be a good student. No matter what.
I approached this study sort of anthropologically: What have thousands of years of Jewish history been teaching women about being a “good wife?” What does that mean to me now? Will this tarnish my feminist sensibilities beyond repair?
I studied for several months (nearly half of our engagement!) with an excellent and very hip modern Orthodox woman, herself the wife of a Rabbi, a licensed therapist, and mother to 3 beaming and brilliant daughters. I mostly learned the rules of Niddah, which was daunting and kind of intimidating. The customs of not touching one’s husband for almost half of every month seemed, frankly, archaic and outdated. I was not at all sure if I even wanted to pursue this line of exploration. Not for me; no thank you.
However… what intrigued me was the ritualistic act of engagement which has been set apart as sacred by our people for thousands of years: mikveh. Let me get this straight, I thought: assuming you have no ‘relations’ while you have your menstrual cycle, and assuming you then ‘count for yourself’ 7 days after that (oy, the math!), the method of reintroducing yourself to your husband and to your physical sexuality is the mikveh? A simple — but of course, halachically supervised– body of water that requires that you strip yourself down totally lets you be born again on a monthly basis? And this has kept marriages strong for thousands of years? Come on. No way.
I was incredibly skeptical and my husband was not amused at all. He did not want to hear any part of this stuff. This all sounded crazy to us. However, I took a deep breath, put aside my rational secular education and pretended that I was willing to be open. I kept learning and learning. I read Aryeh Kaplan’s Waters of Eden: The Mystery of the Mikveh and I got the chills. The numerical value of water is 40. My name, Mayim, means water. It rained for Noah for 40 days and 40 nights. 40 years in the desert. Moses was up on the mountain for 40 days. Water is transformative. It is an entrance and an exit and a cleansing and a doorway. This was it. I believed in something magical about those waters. Even if I rejected everything else about being a “good wife” the Orthodox way, this water thing? This I could do.
Good student that I was, though, I studied it all very hard. I gave it my all. I practiced the ‘counting’ exercises in my The Secret of Jewish Femininity book. I read of the women of Auschwitz ensuring immersion for women so inclined in the camps. I read of Russian women trudging through the snow for an immersion in a secret dark icy mikveh during the Cold War. I read of the blessings women believed the waters could grant. I scheduled my visit for the night before my wedding and invited my mother (she saw my first “birth” so why not the second!?), my mother-in-law-to be (who seemed to be on a Margaret Mead-type mission on this one), my aunt from Israel who herself had reclaimed the Orthodoxy of my great-grandparents; she was so touched that I asked for the custom of my Hungarian family for immersion and she shared it with me like a long-lost recipe: 1 immersion before the blessing; 2 immersions after.
I immersed slowly and carefully and I prayed for a happy wedding. Lo and behold: it was powerful and cleansing. I felt like a baby swimming in amniotic fluid. I felt new. I felt pure and ready to begin life as a new soul. I felt like a real Jewish bride. It was amazing.
The path of our marriage has actually taken me through numerous visits to the mikveh with all sorts of emotions: joy, intimidation, respite, and sometimes annoyance (like the night my mikveh date fell on a shabbat evening and i walked in the darkness for an hour to the closest mikveh); but always there is that moment of quiet when I am under the waters when nothing can touch me. There is no sound; there is no fear; there is no room for doubt. I am immersed truly and completely. My husband, first so skeptical and wary of this commitment, now sees the value of this mitzvah and how it affects me and us.
When my husband and I wanted to conceive, the mikveh took on new power: It was the gateway to our hopes and the reminder that I was desiring to soon not need the mikveh, since during the time that one is pregnant and not cycling, one does not immerse. The mikveh held my prayers when I immersed as an almost full-term pregnant woman (some women immerse for good luck before they enter the 10th month of pregnancy). The waters of the mikveh held my prayers again after I healed from delivery (with our 6 week-old screaming in the car as my husband anxiously waited for my “relaxing” immersion to end before said baby woke the entire neighborhood), and again when I began my cycle again when my just-weaned son was almost 2 years old. The mikveh held my prayers for our second pregnancy, and it held them when I immersed before his delivery and again when I healed. How many prayers are held in those waters? And how many more can it hold?
I miss the waters when I am without them; nursing a child often keeps us away from the ability to cycle and thus immerse, but I still need that cleansing. I miss the preparation; often the only hour I got to myself every month was my mikveh-preparation time. I miss the ritual; the always perfect temperature of the water; the fancy robe and the paper slippers; the sound of the Brooklyn-accented mikveh lady telling me proudly and defiantly that my immersion is “kosher;” I miss the mikveh.
What is my tradition teaching me about the time when I am without the mikveh? Where will my cleansing come from? From all that I have learned, there are reasons for these things; it is for me to draw them out of the water, as it were. I guess I need to study some more to find out. The good student in me needs to rise again.
For now, the mikveh calls to me but it is not time for me yet. Soon. What will I pray for next? For now, I answer the call of the mikveh by sharing my positive story of the cleansing and rebirth I have found in the waters with others. All it takes is an open mind and the desire to feel born again. And again and again.
Photo Credit: Denise Herrick Borchert
Editor’s Note: If you are a fan of Mayim Bialik, you may be interested in her new book Beyond the Sling: