Monday, August 20, 2012

The New American Mikveh

Once a bastion for strictly observant women, Jewish ritual baths are reaching out beyond the Orthodox
Mayyim Hayyim, 2009. (Tom Kates)
Leah Chanin was raised in a traditionally observant home in Galveston, Texas, but it wasn’t until she was in her sixties and living in Washington, D.C., that she first performed one of the most ancient Jewish ceremonies: ritual immersion in a mikveh. “When I was growing up, no one went to the mikveh except the very Orthodox,” Chanin told me. “If someone said they were going, people would say, ‘That’s what my bubbe did—not me!’ ”

Now 82, Chanin is so enthusiastic about introducing younger Jews, women and men alike, to the practice that she volunteers as a mikveh guide at Adas Israel, a large Conservative synagogue in Washington. A retired lawyer, Chanin arrives in pantsuits and high heels, perfectly coiffed and turned out with bright red nails and matching lipstick, and patiently leads her charges through the small pool and adjacent shower area. It’s hardly glamorous—the dim, windowless mikveh, added in a 1989 synagogue renovation, is hidden on a lower floor beneath the main sanctuary, tiled in shades of beige under a yellowing plastic light fixture—but more than 400 people, many of them not synagogue members, venture in each year. -- Allison Hoffman, Tablet

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