My first encounter with the mikvah was on the day of my official conversion, in 2009. After three years of courses and timid first forays into Jewish practice, I took the plunge, literally and figuratively.
When I emerged from the living waters of the mikvah, I was no longer a judeophile, a shiksa learning about Judaism and embracing its philosophy and traditions.
Naked and wet as the day I was born, I was now officially a Jew, not only in my own mind and heart, but in the eyes of the rest of the world, too.
From then on, my fate was tied to that of an unruly, free spirited people whose sense of humour was all at once outlandish and terrific, a people enamored with convoluted parables, a people for whom any conversation worth having was apparently worth having at extremely high volume.
From then on, I was no longer part of the comfortable majority (in Canada) of secular white people. I was now part of a minority with a long history of oppression and persecution. A minority still controversial in many circles, still puzzling to most, even in an open society which, thankfully, protects their rights as human beings.
Having gone through a Conservative Bet Din instead of an Orthodox one, I sometimes hear that I am somehow not Jewish enough, i.e., that I may not be considered Jewish by the Isreali rabbinate (and therefore that my children may not be either). My answer to them is the following:
“if those who hate us decide to round us up again, they won’t care about our respective affiliations. You and I will be on the same train. If I’m Jewish enough for antisemites, I should be Jewish enough for you.
The weight and potential consequences of the decision to convert is almost fully encompassed into Reb Arie’s first question to me, when I called him up and asked if he would be my teacher: “Why would you do such a thing to your children?”
But I saw it then as I see it now, more as a homecoming than a conversion, though transformative it certainly was. Beyond my personal leanings and intuitions,
I see the Jewish faith, its amazing history, its undying love of learning and quest for understanding, its resourcefulness in reconciling observance and the realities of our modern world, as a priceless gift to my children. What they do with it will be up to them.
And so, after answering the Bet Din’s questions about my intentions regarding observance and commitment to the Jewish people, hoping that my honesty would be appreciated rather than held against me, I was invited to enter the preparation room of the mikvah.
I stripped down, took the shower of all showers, scrubbed every inch of my body, filed and brushed my nails, brushed my teeth, patiently pulled every strand of loose hair that might come between me and the water.
I put on a robe, entered the mikvah chamber where the attendant very kindly explained the ritual, which I already knew. I wasn’t going to go into one of the most important days of my life unprepared! I dropped the robe, she quickly inspected my body for any remaining loose hair strand and invited me to step down into the water.
As I recall, it was rather cool, but not as cold as I expected, and slightly chlorinated. I immersed myself completely, making sure to lift my feet so the water could touch my soles. When I came up, standing shoulder deep in the water, I recited the blessings, loud enough for the Bet Din, standing out of sight in the hallway, to hear.
I immersed fully into the water two more times, and as I made my way back up the steps, I was Yael Behira, a Jew. Nervous and bewildered, but happy.