The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh

The mikveh, a ritual bath for women the Orthodox Jewish faith, goes under the feminist microscope with liberating and limiting conclusions in Varda Polak-Sahm's The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh.

Varda Polak-Sahm first immersed herself in the mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, on the eve of her wedding—young, terrified, and secretly pregnant. For Orthodox Jewish women, the mikveh is an essential part of adult life that occurs before marriage and after each menstrual period before sex can resume. (Sex during a woman’s period or in the following seven days afterward is strictly forbidden.) Warned as a child that the mikveh would expose any bride who was not a virgin, Polak-Sahm was relieved to find that the water did not recoil from her in condemnation; instead, her first immersion was a joyful experience, with songs and celebration. Years later, she decided to re-examine the mikveh through a feminist lens. The mikveh, a word which doubles for both the ritual tub and the name of the place where these baths are taken, operates similarly to a bathhouse, and for many women, it is an opportunity to relax and socialize. But it also comes with accompanying practices: before immersion, a woman may be asked to insert a “witness,” a tampon-like cloth, to prove that she is not bleeding. That night, she cooks for her husband and they are required to have sex, often just in time for her ovulation. Polak-Sahm wonders if the mikveh is an outdated, misogynistic ritual designed to control every aspect of a women’s sexuality. Through interviews with various women, she finds that most consider immersing to be a rejuvenating experience that leaves them spiritually renewed and prevents their sex lives from getting boring. Whether or not you agree with the concept of a purity bath, you can find inspiration in the stories these women share about their experiences, both good and bad, in life and at the mikveh.