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.