Lau­rel Coro­na is a pro­fes­sor of Human­i­ties and World Reli­gions at San Diego City Col­lege. Her newest book, The Map­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, will be pub­lished tomor­row by Source­books. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

There’s noth­ing like old friends. They con­nect us with our past, remind us of the con­ti­nu­ity of our life, embrace us in our total­i­ty, offer reas­sur­ance that what we have with­in us is enough to man­age the future. 

In my new nov­el The Map­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, the mikveh is that kind of friend. The pro­tag­o­nist, Amalia, stands guard as a young girl while her moth­er immers­es in a spring near their home in Sevil­la. It’s a dan­ger­ous act of Judaiz­ing,” as the secret con­tin­u­a­tion of Jew­ish prac­tices by forcibly con­vert­ed Span­ish Jews was known. 

Lat­er, when she is grown, Amalia’s friend leads her on a rainy evening to a court­yard foun­tain, where they immerse in bro­ken moon­light to com­mem­o­rate the begin­ning of a seis­mic shift in Amalia’s think­ing about the role of Jew­ish­ness in her life.

Amalia even­tu­al­ly pass­es on to her daugh­ter the use of the mikveh not just as a means of month­ly rit­u­al purifi­ca­tion, but as the sym­bol of the ongo­ing poten­tial for fresh starts. The book ends with yet anoth­er mikveh of anoth­er gen­er­a­tion of her family’s women. 

I sup­pose I have put a rosy glow on what for many women must have been yet anoth­er bur­den — find­ing the time to puri­fy them­selves rit­u­al­ly to resume sex­u­al rela­tions with their hus­bands. Still I hope that among the mil­lions of women who have fol­lowed this tra­di­tion over the cen­turies, there are some who saw the mikveh as I have pre­sent­ed it. 

Maybe I see the mikveh the way I do because I was nev­er bur­dened with it as an oblig­a­tion. As a Jew by choice, I spent decades of my life unaware it exist­ed, and even if I had grown up Jew­ish it is unlike­ly my fam­i­ly would have been that tra­di­tion­al. Per­haps that is the appeal of the mikveh today: not as an oblig­a­tion but as a means to link an ancient tra­di­tion to a mod­ern cul­ture, one which pro­vides more oppor­tu­ni­ty, time, and encour­age­ment to reflect on and per­son­al­ize our experiences.

As part of my con­ver­sion, I drove to Los Ange­les to what is now called the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Uni­ver­si­ty. The prepa­ra­tion area was the equal of the nicest spa I have been in, and the pool was beau­ti­ful. A cloth par­ti­tion sep­a­rat­ed the male rab­bis stand­ing on the oth­er side, so they could hear but not see. I must admit I found the expe­ri­ence dis­con­cert­ing and alien, as I strug­gled to get my whole body to sub­merge at once. The female mon­i­tor chirped pleas­ant­ly, It’s kosher” each time I suc­ceed­ed — anoth­er dis­trac­tion, since the first thing I think of when I hear that word is food. It seemed like some­thing I could check off a to do” list rather than a mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ence, but I saw the poten­tial and stored that thought away.

My most mem­o­rable expe­ri­ence with a mikveh hap­pened in 2012, a few months after my husband’s death from prostate can­cer. We had been togeth­er for eight years, and got mar­ried only sev­en weeks before he died. I was still griev­ing, but under­stood some­where deep inside myself that I need­ed to move on before I set­tled into any­thing less than the full life I want­ed. I invit­ed a group of women (includ­ing two rab­bi friends) to join me at La Jol­la Cove ear­ly one morn­ing, where we all reded­i­cat­ed our­selves to the lives we want to keep appre­ci­at­ing and the futures we are build­ing. That was the con­cept of the mikveh I want­ed to con­vey in The Map­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, although next time I will try not to include the incom­ing scu­ba div­er who came up rather abrupt­ly after catch­ing sight of my back side with­out a bathing suit.

The Map­mak­er’s Daugh­ter is ded­i­cat­ed in hon­or of the mikveh and the count­less Jew­ish women who have restored their strength and opti­mism in its waters.” May it always be so.

Lau­rel Coro­na received a Christo­pher Medal for her non-fic­tion book Until Our Last Breath: A Holo­caust Sto­ry of Love and Par­ti­san Resis­tance (St. Mar­t­in’s Press, 2008), and in addi­tion to The Map­mak­er’s Daugh­ter (Source­books, 2014) has writ­ten thee oth­er nov­els focus­ing on real women over­looked or mis­rep­re­sent­ed in his­to­ry. Vis­it her web­site here.