By Leah Lax
Sometimes I wonder if they see me. These girls, these streams of hopeful eyes in tired faces, dreaming eyes, determined eyes, that pass here each night, each going home to meet whatever is really waiting - or maybe not waiting - to bump up against their expectations. Who am I to them? Just old Munya, who couldn’t possibly know their monthly ripening any more. Old Munya stands like a raisin. Old Munya forgot the tender rains and the dreams that come with waiting to burst forth. Old Munya doesn’t see their naked skin shimmering under the water, doesn’t hear the expanse or the strain in their whispered blessings that mix with the drip of water falling back into the warm mikvah pool from their wet heads. Old Munya doesn’t see the tears that masquerade as drops of water on a wet face, or how slow some of them are to leave the water and make way for the next one. An “eis ratzoin”, they say, when the Creator turns a kind ear. So Old Munya doesn’t hear their quiet entreaties leaking out from beneath hand-covered faces after the blessing, as the waves ripple the outline of hip and breast. Or so they think. When I stand above at the rail and look down at them, they lose their height. Their feet come out of their knees.
A new one, just married, comes in full like a breadbasket. “Don’t be shy,” I hear the older ones tell her in the waiting room. “Old Munya will take care of you.” Eyes shine and voice shakes. She has waited through the bleeding and the seven clean days and now he can come back to her bed. Her skin quivers as I inspect the soft, wet back for anything that might come between her flesh and the mikvah water. For the bashful young ones I hold the towel extra high. I make sure to show how I turn my head away as she goes down the steps into the small, deep pool. We both pretend the clear water replaces the towel for the prize she is saving for her husband. Then I watch as the hair slips beneath the surface to make sure she folds herself like a fetus and every inch is covered, and that the immersion is a proper one. I see her raise up and burst out again as her own child will from fetal waters. And still this is not natural for her or any of the new ones, not in the going in or the going down. But when she comes up, ah, that’s different. Every time she’s forgotten to worry if Old Munya saw the scar or the wrinkle or the new blemish or roll of flesh. I go transparent and fade away and she is alone in the water. It must be the walls that say, “Jump high to go down low. Hands in front, not to the side! Yes. Again. Yes,” and then “Omeyn!” Maybe she hears my silent blessings come out from the tiled walls - that He should hear her and ease her way. The walls welcome the women. Not always does a mikvah have the privilege of walls, or of rich, fresh water.
That’s when I drift to another mikvah filled with red that fading eyesight will not erase. They came to my town. I hear their march sometimes, odd times, and want to stop my eyes from looking up because I know I won’t connect what I see to the sound of marching. But I am still young, and I hide with my family in the synagogue hoping its scrolls will protect us. We feed the hope even when they laugh and force all the others of the town to join us and lock the doors. We feed the hope because that is all we can feed. For three days I grip my stomach with my fingernails until they come to take us to the new line of trucks. But Papa does not give up. Not our Papa. He leads me and Mama to the back of the synagogue in the tumult of shouts and shots and into an echoing humid passageway and then a door to an indoor entrance to the mikvah. The clatter of our shoes frightens me; I am sure we will be heard. I am twelve, and old enough to know that the women use the outside entrance, and only alone in the modest dress of night, and wonder that this must be strange for Mama. We are near the pool when we hear their boots behind us, and I can just turn around before Papa steps forward to shield me and Mama and the shot rings and echoes off of the tiled walls and Papa’s heart is pumping its life into the water, but he doesn’t see. His face is in the red water, but he doesn’t lift it. The last time I saw him. As they shout us into the trucks, I see Papa’s face in my mind, and the redness swirling.
Many times I have asked the Master of the World why He gave a woman her monthly death’s whisper, pumping out lifeblood like Papa. Why did I have to know my womb’s mocking disappointment? But, like Mama, I too, waited to be clear of it and dipped myself into the mikvah before letting a man come to me. I did it because I knew what my body held then, when it was smooth and uncalloused, before it was hollow. Hope. Hope of new life for my family, for Papa. Electricity that delighted my husband. A rope stretched to my people’s beginnings. So I immersed myself with tenderness into the water in the way a balabusta dips her crystal into the tub to keep its gleam. Every time together with him the night after mikvah was for the new life that might come, clean of the death stain. We had many beginnings. Munya hasn’t always been an old raisin.
The older ones who come here to me, they’re different. Not like the young ones who primp and comb after immersing, and smile to the mirror as if they see their men behind them smiling in return. It’s for the young ones that I keep a hair dryer and a makeup mirror in the bathroom, and leave them extra time to dress before I knock on the door to move them along. They are still in awe of their own bodies; they blush when they come out, and hold their heads high. They think, so recently taught, of our holy scrolls as the Creator’s wedding contract, and our immersion in His Law and our agonies of hope as our union with Him, and they know their men are circling the block in their cars like tigers pacing in a cage after the twelve days of waiting. I see the wish in the coins they drop in the charity box on the way out. Bargaining with God. I, too, bargained once. After she leaves, I imagine the air in those cars, the weight of what they don’t say. The color of their modesty. Lowered eyes. Little smiles. I see their own fierceness just beginning to emerge as they find they can keep their bodies to themselves and say when the time is fitting once again. I imagine her surprise at the husband’s meekness before her body that sets the rhythm of their lives, and how strength builds from within her.
But no, the older ones are different. They learn, and they have pain, and they learn again. Over time, their hips widen under the shimmering water, and their feet spread and flatten, grow into a determined place. The stretch marks accumulate and the curves change their shape. The lines come, the creases, the new pitch of the forehead. For some, pain ripens their faces and fills them, and gives them peace in the little things that make a mother’s life.
I see good things too. Which older ones still have their men waiting eagerly and not long since snoring. Which are soothed by routine and not smothered in it. It’s all in the eyes and the voice of their blessing that they say naked in the mikvah’s waters. The eyes show me if they have learned to see and not miss the small things that a woman must not miss.
But others wilt over time like balloons gone flat. The eyes go empty and the blessing bounces, meaningless. It happens slowly, bit after bit through the spread of monthly visits over years until their visit is another one of their endless chores after the grocery shopping. The medicine in the water is lost to them, the primping long since gone, the private words whispered behind open palms, the mirror’s secret smile, the sound of reaching in the blessing’s words, the reluctant lingering in the holy water - all gone. Some drift away, already drowning. When they have long since stopped seeing me, I stop seeing them and they are no more.
Of course, when a baby is coming and the bleeding stops, we do not have our monthly meetings. The mikvah waits. Through all the months, her bed is open to him. And Old Munya knows her customers. Each name, each date. I don’t miss. When her time of the month comes and she does not, I know, along with her man and perhaps her mother, of the new life that will come. I see her in the synagogue on the Sabbath and I catch an eye for one secret moment, and nod my blessing, and hope she can know with me her secret is safe. Let the growing belly speak its own news. Munya has learned her job well and knows it’s best done with a closed mouth. Not once has Munya ever spoken what she sees in the eyes or the hips or the feet or an absence. Munya takes care of her customers.
But this one came in differently, and I had not seen her before. Instead of entering like the others, she knocked on the door so unevenly that I thought it was a child playing a dare. I opened the lock and then the heavy, old door and she stepped into the entryway squinting in the light as if from sleep and said, “I..I am Jean. I want to use the mikvah,” a strange announcement that I somehow did not want the few women already in the waiting room to hear. “She wants but doesn’t need,” I thought, taking her mentally out of the group of waiting women. I looked at her: No man has touched her in a long time. Why is she here? I closed the door as if the moment with my back to her was good for both of us. It was still early. Behind me the sound of the pumps that filter the water by day, almost finished. American mikvahs. Mild smell of chlorine.
Her hair was very long and straight with the limpness of age, streaked with gray. It had an uneven part down the middle and hung down and over the sides of her large face like a parted curtain. Her brow had a single, deep crease like a knife’s cut. Her gray-brown eyes seemed to be losing their color. They darted and hopped about like a small, trapped creature.
The face and body were round and shapeless. She was quite tall, with a shelf of a bosom that strained a faded shirt. Over that she wore a man’s suit jacket, old and brown, with big, squared shoulders. And her hands. No rings. The nails were eaten away along with the skin around them, leaving yellow, rough skin, scabbed or dotted with still glistening bits of blood. She stood chewing for the moment on the inside of her cheek. The rest of her was pushed into gray brown pants the color of her eyes and scarred, man’s boots.
I know the look of women. Under this Jean’s layers of flesh and clothes and hair and boots in waning summer, with the cut of worry on her forehead, quivered a shy child who wanted to disappear. She eats herself.
It used to be that the women who came to me were all religious and had always been so. They knew the Laws. They prepared the right way - hot bath, nails cut and smooth, jewelry, makeup all off, the proper inspection made to rule out any trace of leftover blood. They came with respect and commitment, and my job was easy. Just see the hair goes under. Inspect the backs. Answer to the blessing. They learned from their mothers who learned from their mothers and didn’t talk to anyone else about such a private thing. Then my nights grew shorter. Fewer came. The daughters of the new country didn’t want; their daughters didn’t even know.
Now I am a very old woman, and my job has grown. The daughters who didn’t know - some feel robbed and want to know. Most of my customers still come because their mothers taught them, but some come here without keeping the other laws. Some drive on the Sabbath and eat at any of the restaurants, and come here with uncovered heads and tints on the hair that can bleed down their backs or in the water if I’m not careful. I find tan lines on some of the backs I inspect in the summer. And I must speak English to make them understand. Tell them, “You got to take all the polish off the toenails. Don’t you know to make inspections?” And sometimes I have had to ask questions I never asked before. “Are you Jewish?” “Are you married to him?” Munya does draw a line.
So I wasn’t surprised when this one came in pants and uncovered hair. But her eyes took me back. It was in the camp they took me to, me and Mama. You know in a camp that a friend may be only for a day or a week and then be gone, and you close your heart from them. But this girl taught me how to steal the bits of food that let us sleep at night. And she had Jean’s eyes. She slept in a different place off to the side that was full of older girls. Many mornings I saw she had not slept. One day she showed pain when she walked and she came with bruises on her face. Some said the officers went to them at night. But she had those same eyes. When Mama took sick, I was doubly afraid. Afraid to lose her. Afraid they would move me to that bunk and I would end up with the darting, hiding eyes of my friend.
I looked at this Jean, and thought, “She’s afraid, and still she came here.” Munya knows the strength you find only when the will goes deep. So I took her inside, away from the waiting room and the gossipy gazes to the mikvah pool itself, and closed the door behind her with a clang that made her jump. “So tell me why are you coming?” I said with my best English “w.”
She took a breath and let the air whistle out through the gap between her two front teeth. “I want to go to mikvah,” she repeated like a schoolchild reciting lines.
“You are married?” I said as nicely as possible.
“If you are maybe in a relationship with someone I can maybe give you a name of a rabbi who can marry you. This is a mitzvah for married people.”
For a long minute I made her look at me to see how this big rabbit had found her courage. The water stood still behind us.
Mama and I got out of the camps in 1945 when the Soviets came. We were put on a train and sent deep into Russia. That great lock snapped shut behind us when we passed over the border. We were given some sort of clothing and thick, black bread the texture of gum, rationed to the gram per person, and weak coffee, both of which, to our starved stomachs, were acceptable.
When the Sabbath approached and the Russian winter spread white around us as far as we could see we grew impatient for our unknown destination and leapt to the platform, past startled guards, and blended into the crowd. We held our breath until the train left without us, and then settled with our one pitiful bundle at the platform’s edge to wait out the Sabbath, fasting. Mama took out the prayer book she constructed in the camp from “organized” scraps of paper, that she had sewed together with thread from a torn dress. I must have fallen asleep and dreamed the urgent whisper that brushed my ear, “Vus macht a yid? Come with me, quickly!” Mama’s prayer book had betrayed us. We were new to Stalin’s country and had not yet learned its art of hiding, or suspicion. So we followed him.
That was my Sender, who used to watch the streams at the train station for lost Jews. He cautioned Mama not to show her book, and yet told us many times that to find a Jewish woman praying the Sabbath prayers in a train station while sitting under Stalin’s portrait had given his heart and feet a lift.
When I married him in a whispered ceremony the Soviets had not yet closed the local mikvah. Better to fill it with informers and put shadows in the streets to scare the Jews away from their stubborn ways. To go was to risk everything, and I went. I stood then on the night before my wedding just like this, with the water quiet and still behind me, ready to go down and come up a new woman prepared for marriage, washed of my past. I guessed this Jean wanted to shed her skin in the water and find herself waiting beneath. She was not the first to come wanting the mikvah to change them.
My Sender had more to hide than she. He grew a full, Jewish beard in spite of the danger of being labeled a fanatic, and wrapped his face in a scarf against the winter. When spring came, he replaced the scarf with bandages for a toothache when he went out, until he grew brave enough to reveal his beard. The Soviets were calling the few remaining observant Jews parasites because they would not work on the Sabbath. Many of our friends disappeared into the Soviet prison system, or stole from city to city under assumed names. I hid as well. I knew what it was to be scared like this one before me. I hopped from shadow to alley at night, and darted pink, tired eyes all around before the last dash into the mikvah building. But I never knocked.
I looked at this Jean and didn’t know what not to say. “You can’t be here now,” I said. “I can’t take you… now. You are not m’chuyav. You can’t even say the blessing since it can’t be fulfilled.” But then I did not want to take this away from her. This unwrapping and emerging, this immersing in ancient fresh water. Maybe she was friendless and alone. Maybe there was a smell from her past she wanted to erase. Maybe she would feel the holiness of the water better than those who were insensitive from habit or who thought only of the waiting bed.
She whispered her acceptance and turned to go with deep embarrassment on her face. I waited until I heard the thud of the old iron door. For a moment I nodded in confusion but then I found myself following her, thinking what am I here for? Master of the World! Even the religious ones ask questions now and need strength. And the others - must my job get harder the older I grow? When do I rest? But I don’t want rest. Not yet.
She was in her car at the curb. I am slow with my hip and thought she would leave, but before she drove away I tapped just to get her attention. Then I opened the door myself.
After the Jewish school was closed, I spent many afternoons learning to make the intricate lace pattern that was spread on our table, crocheted by my mother under her mother’s guiding eye as her mother had before her. Lacking string, I tore and re-sewed the same piece again and again. She ironed the sheets twice and folded them on the same lines each time. Then she layered them with squares of tissue paper and placed them in ordered stacks in the cabinet. The crystal shone on the table every night, and I learned to present myself with attention to every detail down to polished shoes and starched petticoats. When we ran to hide in the synagogue that evening we left the table set for dinner in spite of the little food we had left, every gleaming piece in its place on the handmade lace. I had been obliged to polish the silver that very afternoon in honor of the approaching Sabbath. Whoever came to claim our home found it free of dust. Seder iz kedusha, order is holiness, and to this day when I inspect the women’s backs and pick off loose hairs and make them go over their nails until they are perfectly smooth, and insist they clean again around the eyes to get each dot of makeup removed before they can immerse, I remember her. This is who we are.
When I looked in Jean’s car I bit my lip and looked down so she could see nothing in my eyes. Open empty orange juice cartons littered the floor as if she had drunk straight from the spout, jumbled with other empty food packages, trash, bottles, clothes, used tissues and papers, piled on the floor higher than the seat and overflowing onto it. The seats were covered with books, more papers and clothing, and other items I could not identify. She sat in her seat like an animal that had dug out a hole for a winter’s place to sleep. I wondered if the car was also her home. Aybeshter! Can she also be Yours?
“Is this where you live?” I asked. The bad taste in my mouth must have shown.
“No,” she said. “No.” Her face was red. “I have a…place.”
“You had a Jewish mother?” I asked. I could not believe it was possible.
“Yes,” she told me. “Her Jewish name was Yenta Bayla, but she never used it.”
I swallowed. Too much for an old lady. I wanted time and a reason for her. “Come back here on Thursday,” I said. “You can immerse before the Yom Kippur fast. The others will do that Friday in the day, but you come at dusk, before women are there for regular visits, so we will be alone. I will wait for you.”
When I left Russia, I was broken. Mama was gone. Sender was gone. The child I hoped for never came, not before Sender was killed operating faulty equipment in the factory where he was sent to work. Not before Mama died of illness for which we had no medicine. With nothing to stay for and nothing to lose, what did I care what they would do to me if I applied to go? Oh, but a little widow can be quite a threat, and they pushed me off for three years before I got out, and harassed me no end. School children spat at me.
Six months in Vienna waiting for entry to Israel, eating mostly potatoes. A plane flight with other refugees crying when they saw the sight of our land. And failure in that country within the year. Where does a woman go?
Sender’s sister and her daughter finally sent for me. They promised me work. I would not come and be a burden.
So I went to work in the mikvah. Yes, I had my resentments. There was Papa, and the mikvah that was supposed to bring blessings on my children and peace over a household. But the women who came, they were the same as I had been. I could give them my old hopes.
They were not this Jean. Thoughts of her plagued me over the next week before I found myself, that Thursday, nearly running to meet her, for once not afraid of falling. She was a different one. What did she have to defy to come here? What did she want to come of it?
Sender taught me what words could do when we weren’t allowed to touch, during the days before my immersion. I was a quiet one, but he, he was a talker. He touched me with words and eyes and pulled the poison out. As I turned the corner to meet Jean, I wished he could give me the words I wanted for her.
She was waiting when I got there. Her hair hung even further over the sides of her face, as if she was hiding. She wore the same jacket, pants and boots with a different shirt, this time a tee shirt with a faded word stretched over her bosom. SHINER, it said. She clutched a folded towel and a wrinkled piece of paper. Her voice shook when she wished me “good evening.” She fights herself.
I wanted, just for a moment, to be her, so I would know. I would not like for Old Munya to see my neglected body, to hold my gnawed hands in hers. Why does she do this to herself? For her sake I will not look.
I said nothing, but unlocked the door and held it for her. We walked in together.
“This is not a commandment for you,” I said once the old door shut behind us. “You are here because you want to be here, so I don’t have to inspect you so carefully. Prepare yourself and come when you are ready. There’s a door from the bathroom into the mikvah room. Come through wrapped in your towel and I will meet you there.” I tried to catch her eye, smile to her, but her gaze seemed to be snatched away from me and fixed on the wall. Behind us the gurgling sounds of the pumps stopped for the evening, for the women. We were alone in the quiet.
When Jean came in to the tiled room the rasp of her worn slippers echoed. She was again holding the wrinkled paper. She spoke so quietly that my old ears strained. “I…have written…a prayer. I would like to… to read it.”
“I am sorry I am here,” I said. “This is for you and for God. If you want me to step out...” Creator! I am a stranger -- it will hurt her for me to look. My old, hard heart was aching. There was pain in her face.
“No”, she said. “I would like for …someone… to hear.”
I did not know where to put myself or my hands or my eyes. The hands found each other behind my back.
She cleared her throat as if she was about to make a speech. “Today,” she began, and stopped. “Today…,” she said. Then... a howl like an animal cry. It was the same as those people in the camps who allowed one fatal crack in themselves to open up; the pain only had to get in once to snap the minds of the sensitive ones. The others hated that animal sound. Some of the prisoners would beat into silence anyone that cried like that.
Jean’s voice filled the mikvah room and magnified, surrounding us both. Her one free hand flew to her eyes to cover them. “I threw up on him,” she said. “And he called me a dirty... little... shit.” Her voice had changed. She was a child.
Master of the World! I have been chased, threatened, held in a camp, and starved. I have watched murder and cruelty. But I always had Mama’s warmth. And Papa. I have never imagined a loneliness like I saw before me now.
A dirty little shit, he called her. When I helped Mama, Papa said I had “Goldene hentelach.” When he said it, my hands became quicker and more sure. They could dust and polish and write my lessons and make Mama’s lace. “How old were you?” I heard my voice in a whisper. I felt myself the child that she was.
“I was five when he…my father’s brother... I’ve never told.”
A Jewish man! She wiped her eyes and raised the paper. “Dear God,” she said. “I will allow myself to be a woman…”
I held the towel high as she went in. “Jump high to go down low,” I said. “Hands in front, not to the side. Good. Again. Good.”
When she finished she stayed in the water a long time. I held the towel up until my shoulder began to ache. She said no blessing, but I begged God to ease her. I looked away when she came out.
She stepped into her house shoes at the pool’s edge and slid back into the bathroom. When she came out dressed again and this time with her wet hair combed away from her face, she still could not look at me, and I knew she may not be able to look at me ever again without remembering how deep her nakedness was before me this night.
“We have a hair dryer there,” I said. “You could take chill with the wet head.”
“Oh no, no,” she said, and pointed to her long hair. “I couldn’t take so much of your time.”
I walked her in silence to the outside door. When I opened it for her, she grabbed my hand into hers and I let the door slam to give her my other one, trying to feel what she had found. I wanted to think that she had found something. But she let go, embarrassed, and I opened the old door for her again. She whispered something that I could not hear and then she skittered away from the light like a startled moth in the night.
Copyright © Leah Lax 2010
Leah Lax holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Her fiction includes “Berkeh’s Story,” winner of a national short story contest for Moment Magazine. In collaboration with artist/photographer Janice Rubin, she created The Mikvah Project, which has toured twenty-three U.S. cities as well as cities in Austria and Germany, garnering feature articles in many newspapers and national periodicals. In 2007, Leah wrote “The Refuge,” the libretto for a commissioned work for the Houston Grand Opera, reviewed with acclaim by the New York Times and broadcast nationally on NPR. Among her work-in-progress: Not From Here: New Americans and Their Journeys, and Uncovered, a memoir of her thirty years among the Lubavitcher Hassidim as a closeted lesbian. Leah is represented by Brandt and Hochman Literary Agency.