The mikvah on Hamatzor Street in Katamon was crowded on a recent Monday night. Nearly every plastic chair lining the walls of the ritual bath’s dingy waiting room was taken, as women quietly awaited their turn in the warren of small, mostly clean bathrooms.
The mikvah ladies, or balaniot as they’re known in Hebrew, are fairly relaxed in this particular mikvah. There’s minimal checking of fingernails and hair, and if a woman arrives prepared, that is, already bathed and combed at home and ready for her dunk in the water, the attendants don’t usually request further cleansing and move on to the next stage in the process.
As Jerusalem ritual baths go, this cramped Katamon space is considered one of the best, but it has nothing on some of its counterparts in Boston and New York, profiled for their luxe standards and spiritual programs. It’s why the state of Jerusalem’s ritual baths has become a rallying cry for councilwoman Rachel Azaria, as she heads into the final days of the Yerushalmim party’s campaign ahead of October 22’s municipal elections.
Azaria, who has pushed for better playgrounds, more preschools, different kinds of kosher certification and other lifestyle and education-oriented improvements during her time in office, said she began looking at the state of Jerusalem’s ritual baths more than five years ago, when the mikvah ladies didn’t receive their salaries for a period of time.
She helped solve what was essentially a cash flow issue, then began taking a closer look at the city’s overall mikvah framework. Budgets, she said, were fairly generous for this particular line of the religious affairs budget, but the ritual baths themselves were rundown and poorly kept. She discovered that new ritual baths were being built in neighborhoods where they weren’t needed, primarily secular areas such as Beit Hakerem and Ramat Denya, where only Jerusalemites from outside the neighborhood would be using them.
“They’re building it there because it’s a way of scaring the secular Jerusalemites away,” said Azaria, referring to ultra-Orthodox members of the city council and municipality. “They want to change the way the neighborhood is. They build the mikvah so that the secular residents would wonder what will be happening there in a few years.”
But while new ritual baths were being built, there were no renovations being done on the existing decrepit ones, and Azaria received little response to her demands for a larger budget for renovations.
“I just didn’t get it,” she said. “Why isn’t it like setting up shade in the playgrounds?” — referring to another pet project of hers. She figured it was because those who planned the parks weren’t those who used them, and likewise for the ritual baths.
“They don’t think of renovating because they don’t realize how it feels to use a place like that,” she said. “They come to visit during the day when there’s no line and no water on the floor” — factors that make for an unpleasant visit.
There have been some renovations on ritual baths in recent years, including one in the neighborhood of Rehavia and several others, paid for primarily with money raised by local residents.
What Azaria concluded was that women — the primary consumers in any ritual bath — needed to become part of the mikvah decision-making process. But no one wanted to talk about it.
“It’s always ‘ssh, ssh, ssh, nu, nu, nu,’” she said, describing the response she received.
When she brought up the ritual bath issue at a city council meeting several months ago and asked Mayor Nir Barkat to consider placing women on the committee, she received a firm brush-off.
“He said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, the mikvah ladies are the ones who run the ritual baths,’” Azaria recalled. “I said, ‘They don’t decide everything; they’re the last part of the chain.’”
The lack of a knowledgeable female presence in the local mikvah decision-making process is a miscarriage of spiritual freedom, agreed Dr. Naomi Marmon-Grumet, who interviewed thousands of women for her doctoral research on ritual baths and is now the director of the Eden Center, a local organization that aims to create ritual baths that respect women and their authority.
“How is it that women aren’t involved? What do the the ritual baths say about the status of women at large, that the men could care less and are not willing to invest in us?” asked Marmon-Grumet. “The community has to understand that the mikvah reflects what we feel and if women’s status has changed, we need to invest in the mikvahs.”
Marmon-Grumet was one of five people at that now-famous meeting in city hall, when Azaria was shushed by Barkat. Her center has also signed Azaria’s Atzuma petition to include women in the mikvah decision-making process. Eden Center has long wanted to professionalize the tasks of the mikvah ladies, creating courses for the ritual bath attendants, as well as involving women in the design and management of the ritual baths, and making them a place for learning about healthy marital intimacy and relationships.
“There’s been a real awakening about these sentiments, particularly in social media, where there’s now a forum for people to put up their gripes,” noted Marmon-Grumet, pointing to “Halachic Feminists”, a closed Hebrew-speaking Facebook group and “I’m a religious feminist and I don’t have a sense of humor,” with currently more than 4,800 members. “People are able to voice opinions now, and mikvah has become a topic that people are sharing online. And that didn’t happen before, it was extremely private.”
There has to be a “rainbow of possibilities” in the ritual baths, added Naama Plesser, who heads Tovlot, founded by the Yerushalmim party and representing the women who use ritual baths and calls for women to be the decision-makers.
“It seems so obvious — I’m weak when I go to the ritual bath, I have no power,” said Plesser, “and it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a lot we have to battle but we don’t want it only to be a Jewish feminist battle, and at the same time, it can’t only be through talking. There’s a lot of politics here, and we’re trying to do it wisely.”
Plesser said she wants the mikvah experience to be one that is relevant and holistic, less technical and more spiritual. And yet, on a very practical level, the mikvah near her house, on HaAri Street in Rehavia, has been closed for years.
“It’s a shame,” she said.
It was those kinds of frustrations that drove Haviva Ner-David crazy during her 13 years of living in Jerusalem, when she pushed for renovations in the Baka mivkah near her house. She’s now living with her family in Kibbutz Hanaton, up in the Jezreel Valley, where she runs the community’s ritual bath, but during that time, it was the general attitude of the ritual bath attendants, the focus on traces of nail polish or someone’s leftover stitches, rather than the deed that was being done, that pushed her interest in the subject.
“The way I see mikvah is that it’s supposed to be something for people who want to use it, and that’s a radical idea,” she said. “The idea of access, how people get treated when they go, who makes the decision about who gets to immerse and who doesn’t, who decides how much they have to be checked and how much autonomy they have.”
To Ner-David, an ordained rabbi and writer, it seemed clear that everything could be solved if it wasn’t the rabbinate running the mikvah, but rather a local council or community. That’s what she now has at Hanaton, a pluralistic kibbutz where the mikvah is associated with the government, but receives much less daily supervision from the local authority.
It’s presumed that a community-run mikvah can’t happen in Jerusalem, where the rabbinate has a much tighter hold on everyday religious life, although Marmon-Grumet commented that she’d be happy to run a community-based mikvah, something that Ner-David also toyed with during her Jerusalem years.
For Azaria, however, that’s not necessarily the solution.
“I think these issues may take a while, but I do think the changes will happen,” she said, pointing out the community-run ritual baths in Efrat and Maale Adumim. “Jerusalem is a little more complicated, but we have had two large successes, in paying the ritual bath attendants properly and now renovating some of the ritual baths. Now I want women to be around the table and I think it will happen over the coming term.”