I wasn't raised religious at all. My parents were very much aware they were Jewish, and tried to ingrain that in their kids, but they did only the vaguest of practices - we sometimes had an electric menorah for Chanukah, when we remembered, and one night of latkes because my dad loved them, and we always did *something* for Passover. Not that we cleaned or had a seder or anything, but we did have a meal and we did drink wine with it. Awful, extra sweet syrupy stuff we drank in my mom's good crystal with selzer and ice cubes, but wine nevertheless. And two of my brothers went to Hebrew school. My oldest didn't because he's severely autistic; I didn't because my dad didn't believe in bas mitzvah celebrations, and what was the point of going to Hebrew school without the party?
I guess we could ask my younger brother, as he never had one. And he's also completely turned off of Judaism.
Given this background, I don't think anyone would be surprised to find that I never heard of going to mikveh until fairly late. My mother never went at all, and I have a feeling my grandmothers went *once*, just before their weddings. I knew Orthodox men didn't touch women because of their periods (misconception #1) and that women having their periods were considered dirty (yes and no.)
That's all I knew until I read a book called The Physician when I was in college. In brief, an 11th C English barber-surgeon (preConquest) disguises himself as a Jew so that he can attend a Persian medical school and get the best training available. This school would not take Christians. He travels part of the way with a Jewish party in a caravan, and at one point, he talks about husbands complaining because their wives are currently unavailable for sex. But, see, this was almost a thousand years ago. Surely no one did *that* anymore.
And that's where it stood until I started going out with observant men, and started reading. And, yes, I was offended by the idea of being "unclean". Messy, yes, but unclean? Ick. How primitive and sexist and awful, and nothing Blu Greenberg could say would make me feel much different. And the apologetics my Lubavitch cousin gave me prior to my wedding didn't help. "It'll improve your marriage." "If you take "ish" (man) and "isha" (woman) and remove the "hey" and the "vav", which is Gd, you're left with "eish", which is fire."
That last still makes me cringe.
I determined that I'd go before my wedding, which was to be an Orthodox one officiated by my cousin who heads a yeshiva in Israel, but not again. My husband thought this was quite fair, as he also thought the idea was sexist and old fashioned and "we have a bathtub, so why go to this awful place", and to make it even more fair, he'd go himself on the morning of the wedding. He grew up with the story of how his mother searched until she found an Orthodox synagogue that would let her get married without dunking first. Oddly enough, *she* told me *not* to say "never", because I had no idea how I would think in the future. She herself has still never gone. (And the current rabbi of that synagogue would *never* allow that now.)
So, what happened?
I grew. I started learning Hebrew, from the aleph bet. I started reading books on the subject, and as I did, I thought about what they were teaching me, weeding out what I thought were (and in many cases still are) reasons that didn't apply to me or didn't make real world sense. And by the end of the first year, my body gave me signals I could not ignore, and I began to go, grateful to my mother-in-law for her wise words.
It wasn't a major hardship - my cycles at that point were months long, so two weeks off were only a minor annoyance, and all we basically did was abstain from sex during those weeks, and I found the experience itself pleasant. Not intensely spiritual, mind you - but taking a long bath and shower, grooming my nails and my hair, spending an hour on just preparation - these were just nice. So was knowing I wouldn't have to clean up afterwards. And the dunkage itself was just fine. Extra benefit - the long soaking makes my skin extremely soft.
Meanwhile, I dealt with issues such as tumah and tahara and how it applies to women and niddah and so on. I took classes, I read books, my husband and I had special sessions with a rabbi to make up for the bride and groom classes we never took, not expecting to need them. He gave us a book that *wasn't* goopy on the subject, which helped a lot.
This is what I learned about tumah and tahara. There is no stigma attached to tumah. A Torah scroll is tamei, yet it is the holiest thing we have right now. Taking care of the dead renders one tamei and yet it's a tremendous mitzvah. When a man ejaculates, he becomes tamei, and yet having sex and reproducing are also mitzvot.
A woman becomes tamei upon having her period because prior to having her period, there was the possibility that she was pregnant, or could become pregnant. She had the highest level a human being could have - she could create life. This is *Gdlike*. But now, she can't. She missed her chance, or was unable to take it. Now she's on a lower level - the same level, actually, as a man, who cannot create life within him. This change of state makes her tamei - if a woman never ovulates and never has a period, so she never reaches and then loses the potential to create life, she never become tamei in that way. (Also, any discharge makes one tamei, which is why ejaculation makes men tamei.)
This is not an apologetic. In former times, when we had a Temple and the ashes of the Red Heifer (the answer, btw, to finding a Kohen Gadol to do this is to use a thirteen year old boy. Children don't become tamei.), and ritual purity was of more importance, a menstruating woman had to be careful of where she sat and what she touched and even the food she cooked. We're not sure how they managed it. We just know there was no tradition of a menstrual hut. These days, the only thing she has to worry about is touching her husband, or performing other intimate services such as serving him food. (Think about Blair in that breakfast scene, dishing up eggs for Jim. Very intimate.) She can still touch/hug her male relatives, and while she and her husband cannot share a bed, it's for intimacy reasons.
We're not always good with that last, either. :)
This is all very nice and beautiful and all, except I'm infertile. And have known this, really, since before I got married, and had it driven home afterwards. You can't have a period only three times a year, or fewer, and not know this. We were calling them my "occasionals" because they were not periodic. Turns out, I did not ovulate without medical intervention. So I never actually entered this state of potential on my own.
And the infertility treatments only made things harder, as lupron made me bleed just slightly for weeks, and only luck made it possible for me to go to mikveh before the actual IVF's, and it did feel rather cleansing to go after they all failed - the first thing that happens after a failed IVF, once you stop getting the progesterone, is that you get a period.
So, where do I stand now? I don't feel demeaned. That's a start. I don't feel contaminated, which is a good thing because that's a very loaded word for me. I know my husband wants and craves my touch, as I want his. I do occasionally feel messy, but don't we all? Sometimes, it *is* a spiritual experience, as I visualize the tumah washing away in the waters of the mikveh, especially if I can feel the water from the bor, from the living waters themselves. There's a tremendous feeling of connection with all the women before me, even if my own chain broke two generations back.
And sometimes it's just a practical thing I do because I have to. No one can feel spiritual all the time. Sometimes, as with this vacation, it's annoying. And that's just the dipping part.
The hardest part is the no touching part. On the one hand, it does foster communication between us. On the other, we fight a lot. We had two today. Also, the coming together afterwards is wonderful - that first kiss *feels* like a first kiss, because we have to remind ourselves that we can. But you can get very starved for contact, and we're not very good about it yet. I have a feeling it's easier for those raised in this lifestyle, for whom it's the permission to touch that's the new part, not the prohibition from touching.
Another part is that I come out of it with a positive image of my body. Yes, I'm very overweight and lumpy and my measurements make me into a cylinder, not an hour glass, but I spend two weeks of every cycle making sure my husband does not see me undressed, and not because the sight of me would be disgusting to him, but so that he doesn't become aroused. This is law, but it's also true. And after spending two weeks thinking of my body in that way, it stays - I know how I look, but if he likes it, it's *good*. It feels good. I found this out by accident - a day or two after dunking, I took a quiz for fat women about body image, and I found I kept answering positively, which was very weird. I dress according to the laws of modesty anyway, and I think that might help, too - I'm covering something precious, not something ugly. Sometimes I believe that, and one of those times is post mikveh - especially when my husband's eyes just light up.
I'm not sure this helped anyone, but it's what my journey was.