The House of Secrets: The Hid­den World of the Mikveh

Var­da Polak-Sahm; Anne Hart­stein Pace, trans.
  • Review
By – October 31, 2011

The mys­te­ri­ous world of the female mikveh (rit­u­al bath) is ful­ly and ref­er­en­tial­ly revealed in The House of Secrets by Var­da Polak-Sahm, a sec­u­lar Sephardic Jerusalemite writer. Halakha (Jew­ish law), man­dates that Jews prac­tice taharat hami­shipa­ha (rules of fam­i­ly puri­ty) which states that a woman is in a state of nid­dah (rit­u­al unclean­li­ness), when she is men­stru­at­ing, sev­en days there­after and after child­birth. At this time all phys­i­cal con­tact with men is pro­hib­it­ed. To restore her rit­u­al clean­li­ness” and allow sex­u­al con­tact with men, a woman must total­ly immerse her­self in a pool of may­im hay­im” or liv­ing water” which is nat­ur­al and untouched by human hands. 

To the sec­u­lar skep­tic, the female mikveh and rules of fam­i­ly puri­ty may sound bewil­der­ing and misog­y­nist. Polak-Sahm argues that the oppo­site is true. Based on her decade of research on mikvehs in Israel, she con­cludes that mikvehs func­tion as women’s tem­ples” where female bal­aniy­ot (mikveh work­ers) address the needs of oth­er women and women have full author­i­ty. The fam­i­ly puri­ty rules serve to put total con­trol of sex­u­al con­tact in the woman’s hands for she alone decides when she will go to the mikveh and by not going she stops all phys­i­cal con­tact with her hus­band. When she enters into a mikveh she is enter­ing into a women’s world and per­form­ing an ancient female rit­u­al. Even sec­u­lar women report a sense of feel­ing cleansed by the mikveh and rel­ish the joy of return­ing to have sex­u­al rela­tions with their sex­u­al­ly starved” hus­bands who have wait­ed two weeks to have phys­i­cal con­tact with them. 

The rules of fam­i­ly puri­ty reflect the foun­da­tion­al under­pin­nings of Jew­ish law, which is very pre­cise in defin­ing cat­e­gories and draw­ing bound­aries in all areas of life”— sacred and pro­fane, male and female, for­bid­den and per­mit­ted, kosher and non-kosher. Immer­sion in a rit­u­al bath as a means to attain rit­u­al puri­ty is a basic prac­tice in Judaism and is used in the con­ver­sion process and by Ortho­dox men to achieve rit­u­al puri­ty before the Sab­bath and hol­i­days. Of course, in the tra­di­tion­al mikveh, strict sex seg­re­ga­tion is prac­ticed and men do not use a female mikveh. 

Polak-Sahm sup­ports her con­clu­sions with vivid quo­ta­tions from women who fol­low taharat hami­shipa­ha and numer­ous quo­ta­tions from bib­li­cal, rab­bini­cal, soci­o­log­i­cal, anthro­po­log­i­cal, fem­i­nist, and Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. For some read­ers, the degree of real­ism and speci­fici­ty about the woman’s body and the process of check­ing for men­stru­al blood by the bal­aniy­ot may be offen­sive but it tru­ly lifts the cur­tain on this world, often unknown to all but its par­tic­i­pants. The author clos­es this cap­ti­vat­ing book with descrip­tions of two very inno­v­a­tive rein­ven­tions of the mikveh being done by two pio­neer­ing” Jew­ish women, the Israeli attor­ney Shim­rit Bein­horn-Klein in Israel and the renowned Amer­i­can author Ani­ta Dia­mant in the Boston sub­urb of Newton. 

Var­da Polak-Salem is an inter­na­tion­al­ly known Israeli pho­tog­ra­ph­er and researcher of folk­lore and the author of three books. Hebrew and Eng­lish bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions