A Friday Special: Friends, Family and the Mikveh (A Hopeful Sign)
One of my favorite outlets for which to write is A Hopeful Sign. All of the stories on it are full of interesting ideas and thoughts, all carrying the same thread of positivity. In an increasingly negative world, its message is not just a breath of fresh air, but a full-on oxygen tank for navigating today’s confusing maze of a universe.
A few weeks ago I was privileged to be present at my friends’ daughters’ conversion at the Jewish Community of Japan. My take on it from the AHS site is HERE.
I would prefer you click on the link above to see the proper site, but here’s the text of the piece anyway. Enjoy
Running late, I hurried into the synagogue. The rabbi met me downstairs and started explaining the whole process as we walked toward the mikveh. We had a conversion to complete.
A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath and it has a number of uses. Women might immerse themselves in the mikveh monthly to purify themselves. Some men and women use it for purification before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. In Orthodox communities, some people will go to the mikveh every week before the Sabbath. Like most things in Judaism, there are very specific rules about the construction of the actual bath, including that a certain percentage of the water must be sourced from a flowing, natural base, such as rain water or a river. The most common use, especially here in Tokyo, is for purposes of conversion.
Judaism is a matrilineal religion – if your mother is a Jew, then you’re a Jew. When a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, the children have to be converted. In some communities, and in the Reform and Reconstructionist sects of Judaism in general, only one parent has to be Jewish in order for a child to be Jewish and have a bar mitzvah but problems can arise later if a child who has not been officially converted wants to either move to Israel or marry a very religious person. So by “dipping” a kid in the mikveh, parents who intend to raise their kids as Jews are covering all bases with very little downside.
Some people might argue that a mikveh “dip” should happen before the child has awareness – around age one or two. But there is another school of thought that says a child should be aware of what’s happening and have a little bit of say in the matter, so it should happen around age ten or eleven. There are definite pros and cons for both sides here, but in this particular case, the parents had waited.
We first met the K family in 2007 when we moved back to Tokyo after just two years in Washington DC. Our kids went to school together at the lovely Montessori school nearby; both of their daughters are a year younger than my children. In this case, the father is Jewish and the mother is not, but both parents are committed to raising their children as Jews. I admire my darling friend G, the mom, for this; whereas it’s easy for me to do things like clean for Passover, or make certain ritual foods, for her it’s harder because she didn’t grow up with it. To an outsider like me, it looks like she throws herself into it wholeheartedly, committed to her family as a unit, making it stronger in their united worship.
Our friendship, while often taking place in the synagogue or around Jewish holidays, expanded far beyond those events. The adults would go out for dinner; the kids would have play-dates and sleepovers. The dad is forever in my husband’s heart because he eats the same type of matzo ball as my husband does, which I make under protest every year just for the two of them. After the earthquake, the older daughter ran a bike drive to collect bicycles for those in northern Japan who lost them in the quake. I interviewed her for an article. The younger daughter once came up to me, threw her arms around me and said, “YOU are my trusted adult.” Clearly a lesson on safety had just happened at school, but regardless, I was honored to have that place in her life. Our lives have been intertwined for the past five years.
And indeed it was the older daughter who presented the idea of the mikveh to her parents. Just months away from her own bat mitzvah, she wanted to complete this ritual, and her sister wanted to join her. My husband and I offered to help and be witnesses. I was designated to be in the mikveh itself with the girls since I’m female and my husband would sign the certificate as a witness, based on my testimony.
So on that day, with their mom beside them and me kneeling next to the bath, first one daughter, then the other performed the ancient ritual of purity. The girls had to come to the mikveh the same as the day they were born, so they could not wear jewelry or nail polish or any other adornment. One at a time, they dunked completely under the water, every hair on their head, I said the blessing over them thanking God for the ritual, and they dunked two more times. I signaled to the rabbi and witnesses that it was done, and the girls dressed.
After the papers were signed, all of us together went upstairs to the sanctuary and we opened the ark so the girls could go before the Torah for blessings. The rabbi covered each girl’s head with his hands and murmured the traditional prayers. He wished them both a life of Torah and good deeds and to grow in strength with the Jewish people. The girls’ faces shone as they looked up at the rabbi who had been their teacher and their friend, and their parents who loved them. The reverence was tangible in the air as the tears flowed freely down my face and my husband took my hand.
These girls and their parents, as I watched, embraced something that I take for granted. They were able to reaffirm their commitment to Judaism and its faith and practice. I was born a Jew, as was my husband, but they, as a family, were making this choice. Likely, since they had already been living a Jewish life, their everyday existence would not be changed. But that day was not one I will forget, nor will the K family.
Because we’re Jews and food is what we do, a celebratory dinner followed with the kids thoroughly enjoying each other’s company and the adults having so much fun that we nearly lost track of time. The experiences we have shared as friends, as fellow expats in the Tokyo community, and as Jews will extend and expand over space and time. There are some experiences and some people who stay with you in your heart forever regardless of geography. Much love and thanks to the K family for sharing this experience, and your lives, with us. We love you.