Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Journey to the Secret Mikveh

Last week I journeyed to Israel for my friend Scott’s wedding. Although my trip was short (a mere three days) I was, nonetheless, able to embark on an interesting and rather cool adventure. 

Scott and me during Color War, 2004 at Blue Rill Day Camp
Scott and I met at day camp, spent many years together in NFTY, and have continued our friendship to this day. From college onwards, Scott’s religious practices and beliefs shifted towards orthodoxy eventually leading him towards making aliyah (immigrated to Israel) and identifying as a modern Orthodox Jew. As such, prior to his wedding, Scott spent the day fasting and desired to immerse himself in a mikveh (ritual bath, in order to purify himself before getting married. So, early Tuesday morning, I met Scott at his Jerusalem apartment and we began the day of ritual preparations leading up to the ceremonies and party that evening. Since Scott was fasting, I took on the role of shomer (guard) to make sure he didn’t pass out and was able to make it to the wedding.

Through some of the people Scott studied with at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, he had heard about a special mikveh at the Western Wall (Kotel) that was reserved just for grooms on the day of their wedding. Our first stop that morning was the Kotel itself to pray shacharit, the morning service. After successfully joining a minyan we then asked around, inquiring as to the location of the mikveh chatanim (grooms’ mikveh). There was, however, a slight problem: no one seemed to know where it was, or even what we were talking about. The mikveh chatanim, as it turns out, is a secret mikveh

The first people that we asked sent us out of the Western Wall plaza, up the stairs back toward the Jewish Quarter and, with typical Israeli directions, told us to go straight, then make a right, then make another right, and it would be there. After following those rather dubious directions we found ourselves in the middle of the Jewish Quarter with no idea of where to go. We then asked a few of the shop keepers and passers by, one of whom was able to direct us to a mikveh, not the grooms mikveh (because no one knew what that was) but a mikveh nonetheless. With more definitive directions, we were able to locate that mikveh only to (thankfully) discover that it was closed for the day.

Now, rather desperate to find Scott a place to immerse himself before the wedding, we tried, once again, to find the grooms’ mikveh. This time, however, we turned to a source more knowledgeable than the men praying at the Kotel, the shop keepers, and the passers by. We turned to “Rav Google.” Scott pulled out his phone, googled “mikveh chatanim" and, wouldn’t you know it, we learned where it was. We had to re-enter the Western Wall plaza and find the offices of the Western Wall rabbi. 

Tunnel Corridor at the Kotel
This, too, proved challenging as there were no signs pointing us in the right direction. Finally, we were able to find a nice woman, originally from America, who was working as an information agent for the Western Wall tunnels. Not only did she know what we were talking about and not only was she able to direct us to the mikveh chatanim, she also asked us a surprising question in return; “Are you looking for the legal or the illegal mikveh?” Unbeknownst to us, archaeologists had discovered an ancient mikveh in the Western Wall tunnels that had naturally re-filled itself with water and many people had been using it illegally. (This woman graciously offered to show us this mikveh after Scott immersed himself in the legal mikveh, but she was no where to be seen when we were done.) 

Sign and Gate to
the Kotel Offices

Confirming that we were, indeed, looking for the legal mikveh, she sent us into a tunnel corridor, through a gate, and up the winding stairs to the offices of the Western Wall rabbi. 

Scott Retrieving the Key

After ascending the stairs, we entered one office where, without Scott even saying a word, all the men there wished him Mazel Tov, obviously knowing why he had entered what I would label as an otherwise exclusive inner sanctum. Scott went to the back of the office and retrieved the secret key. 

And so, key in hand, 

we ascended another flight of stairs, 

walked down another hallway, 

and turned to enter a very small bathroom. 

On the right hand wall of the bathroom, just as we entered, was a big, frosted-glass door 

and beyond the door, finally, was the mikveh chatanim. 

Scott was able immerse himself in the cold mikveh waters and our crazy, roundabout journey to the secret mikveh was complete.

Those who know my religious practices and viewpoints will know that immersing mikveh is not really my thing. Before my wedding, I never thought about going to the mikveh (I went for a massage instead). Also, I have very mixed feelings about the administration of the Kotel, as I am in full support of the efforts to bring equality and an egalitarian section to the Western Wall plaza. In fact, when we were making our way to the offices, I joked with Scott that we probably shouldn’t let them know that I was a Reform Rabbi and a supporter of Women of the Wall. 

Given those feelings, this experience was actually pretty amazing. I was able to venture into a part of the Old City that I would have never imagined and, likely, will not have occasion to visit again. I was able to be part of a relatively small group of people who not only know of, but also have seen, the secret mikveh chatanim

Most of all, this adventure was ever the more special because I was able to share it with one of my best friends, someone I have known for over twenty years, and someone who, because we are both only children, I consider a brother. Our journey to the secret mikveh is one that I will remember and cherish all of my life.

Mazel Tov Scott & Batya!

1 comment:

  1. Mazal tov, Scott! Great to see two old friends having such fun together. Wishing you both lots of happiness!