Mysterious mikveh fish helps educate kids about ritual bath
New children’s book harnesses childish curiosity and wonderment to expose very young readers to the deeper aspects of the Jewish purification ritual
Many grownups go to the mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, in search of ritual or spiritual purification.
But preschooler Yonah is on a different quest: She’s going primarily to find out if there really are fish living in the water.
That’s the premise of “Yonah and the Mikveh Fish,” a new children’s book whose American authors say it is the first in that category about the Jewish immersion experience.
The putative mikveh fish is meant to engage a very young readership with the practice, according to coauthors Rabbi Haviva Ner-David and Rachel Stock Spilker, who published their book with Bedazzled Ink Publishing in California.
“The mikveh has deep spiritual significance in Judaism. But we can’t say too much about that in a children’s book, which needs to be short. That’s where the elusive fish comes in,” Ner-David, a New York-born rabbi who was one of the first women to receive Orthodox rabbinical ordination, said at an online book launch Sunday. She now defines herself as a post-denominational rabbi and lives in northern Israel in Kibbutz Hanaton, where she runs a mikveh.
Yonah visits the mikveh out of curiosity. She dives into the clear and pleasant water three times to look for the fish, thus following many mikveh-goers’ practice of a triple total submersion.
The book also positions the mikveh as a transitional ceremony, an act meant to mark the turning of a new leaf, in Yonah’s own life: Her parents take her there on a Sunday for the first time to mark her entry into kindergarten. Yonah’s dip, guided by a mikveh guide named Miriam as her parents watch poolside, includes Yonah saying, with Miriam’s help, the Shehecheyanu blessing upon doing something for the first time.
Rachel Stock Spilker, the book’s other coauthor, is a longtime cantor at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is the founder of Maayanot Community Mikveh and an active member of the Rising Tide Open Waters Network, a nonprofit committed to promoting ritual immersion across Jewish denominations.
The book’s soft, pastel-colored, dream-like drawings by Meira Ner-David, the rabbi’s daughter, show the thoughts that occur to Yonah as she explores every corner of the mikveh for the fabled fish.
The story stops short of throwing ichthyology, the zoological study of fish, into the mikveh mix, but Yonah doesn’t come out disappointed, either. She feels great, she says, and ready for the next exciting chapter in her life.