When women tell the truth about mikveh

Something unprecedented happened to a group of 60 Jewish women in Jerusalem last month – and it’s going to be happening again and again.

Co-producers Myra Guttman and Toby Klein Greenwald premiered an original 90-minute production of music and monologues about women’s experiences using the mikveh (ritual bath). While this may strike some as an odd or inappropriate topic for a theatrical production, actress Michele Thaler, who tells her story of being a mikveh-going woman in a wheelchair, disagrees.

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Thaler told In Jerusalem, “I think that women confuse tzniut (modesty) with hiding things under the rug. It’s good for women to know not everyone has a moving, spiritual experience when they go to the mikveh. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes you feel ill, sometimes you fight with your husband and don’t want to – but we go because that’s what women who observe the mitzvah do. But we should all know that all those experiences are valid and we are valid Jewish women having the range of experiences.”

Validating Jewish women’s experience with the mitzvah of mikveh in all its permutations was a primary goal for all those involved in the production.

MIKVA THE Musical: Music and Monologues from the Deep began as a Jewish riff off The Vagina Monologues, which was first performed off-off Broadway in 1996. It began as an idea of Gutterman’s.

Gutterman recounted, “I went to my friends and asked them to tell me their mikveh stories – and they did. I asked about the first time before they got married. I asked about if they ever went Erev Yom Kippur or if they ever went during their ninth month of pregnancy when there’s a segula [folk custom] to go.

“I also asked if they had any different, not run-of-the-mill, stories to tell about mikveh. I asked a woman who had converted for her story. I asked a woman who was in a wheelchair. I asked friends who had been balaniot (mikveh attendants) for any stories to tell.
“When I would mention the project I was working on, it amazed me how women would be eager to tell me stories. After all, this is supposed to be a private and quiet mitzvah. It was as if women were bursting at the seams to tell these stories.”

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After collecting many mikveh stories, Gutterman and two actresses did a read-through of what was then called "The Mikva Monologues." The read-through took hours and was packed with heavy content. That was 12 years ago; "The Mikva Monologues" was never produced.

This time around, Gutterman brought theater veteran Toby Klein Greenwald into the project. What emerged from their collaboration was a 90-minute musical renamed Mikva the Musical. Gutterman reflected, “Perhaps it was ahead of its time. I’m glad we waited. As a musical, it’s much lighter. The religious women’s world is ready for it now.”

Greenwald and Gutterman went through the original material, deciding which stories to include in the new production. They added some content, including parodies of popular songs, put together five actresses and a music director and began rehearsals.

“Many times rehearsals turned into serious discussions about the topic. Other times cast member told very funny stories about mikveh experiences. Immediately we knew that a discussion after the performance had to take place. Women would want, perhaps even need, a safe place to talk about issues,” Gutterman explained.

THE PREMIERE of Mikva the Musical, hosted in the home of Laya and Alan Lurie in Jerusalem, was by invitation only. Cast member Sarah Landman, who is professionally involved with the mitzvah of mikveh, led the concluding discussion between the cast and the audience.

Landman told IJ that she had worked “with The Eden Center, which has been responsible for a lot of healthy and important mikveh-related discussion over the past few years, and has brought attention to the unique way in which this area of Jewish women’s observance intersects with so many often-taboo topics, such as miscarriage, infertility and abuse.” The post-production discussion was a natural extension of her work.

Greenwald believes “every Jewish woman should see this show. We decided that we should perform only for women, who will feel they are in a totally safe place, not only to see the show, but to participate in the discussion and sharing afterwards, which is an important part of the show. Every woman will find something that speaks specifically to her.”

The production was performed as reader’s theater. Rather than memorize their lines, the cast read and sang from binders, using their verbal and musical skills to make the first-person stories come alive. The set consisted of five seats of varying heights for the actresses, who each wore black garments with a blue accent scarf.

Some of the magic of the production was felt by the cast members themselves. Trained at New York University, Adina Feldman came to Mikva the Musical from an already successful career as a performer in the US and Israel. She told IJ, “The monologues were all so raw and close to the heart. The songs were all fun parodies that gave comic relief to some of the painful monologues. I come from a different world and orientation religiously and was so moved by what I learned.”

Similarly, Malka Abrahams reflected on her role as a performer. “It was an honor to give voice to each exceptional woman’s story. The day following the premiere performance, I ended up at the seashore at sunset. The soothing sound of the waves brought me back to the actors’ stories. I felt revitalized and very appreciative of the experience.”

Riva Schertzman was not only the music director for the production, but one of her stories, about bringing her mother and her mother-in-law to the mikveh, was also brought to life in the production. “Whenever my story is told, I have to hold back my tears as I sit by my keyboard; it brings back memories of my loving mother. I’m so busy playing the background music and the songs, the performers don’t realize what I am going through. It’s such a wonderful and healing experience to perform with these truly talented and sweet women.”
Producer-director Greenwald recounted, “This began as a small private enterprise, and we are grateful that Raise Your Spirits Theater took us in under their non-profit aegis, with their warm blessings. Indeed, half of our cast and crew members have worked, in one capacity or another, with Raise Your Spirits.

“Our donors, so far, are a group of women from the Five Towns of New York, who recognized the importance and the international reach of our show, and who would love to bring us to their area.”

Greenwald continued, “I’ve done theater on current issues before, but this is the first time I’ve worked on material that was so intimate and sensitive. Theater, if it’s done right, often speaks to us as metaphor. If it’s well done, we will identify or project our personal lives into our understanding of the material. In Mikva the Musical, we are showcasing the heroism and issues of women among us.”

Cast member Thaler’s wheelchair and her continued use of the mikveh after becoming disabled as an adult is an important part of the show.

“One of the revelations in this production is the extent to which women will go to perform the mitzvah of mikveh, even when they’re disabled, or have a fear of water, or are nervous about the preparations, or are on vacation and their only option is the cold ocean. This is phenomenal. It shows how deeply this mitzvah is in their souls,” Greenwald explained.

“I’d like those who see it to ask themselves, ‘What is it about mikveh that creates such dedication and sometimes sacrifice among Jewish women?’ I’d like to see conversations opened about some of the difficult issues we raise in the show, and I’d love to see women who are not Orthodox also use the mikveh. I know there is a trend in this direction, and perhaps we can help strengthen it.”
Cast member Yael Valier further reflected on the distinctiveness of Mikva the Musical.

“This production provides a frank examination of difficult, painful and controversial issues. At the same time, it does not set out to attack the mitzvah of mikveh for the sake of being avant-garde. It’s difficult to find pieces that are supportive of religious practice without being cloying, naïve, or overly moralizing. This piece achieves a rare balance.

“The subject matter, performance style and post-performance discussion create an intimacy with the audience that results in a transformational experience on both sides. There is an unspoken contract with the audience: ‘We are going to get up here to speak and sing about something intimate that we all share. Though we may not have written the monologues we read, they describe our lived experience too, and we expose ourselves to you through them because we know that you will understand and accept our offering.’”

FEEDBACK SOLICITED from the audience after the premiere was overwhelmingly positive. A typical response came from audience member Ilana Dreyer, who wrote, “Mikva the Musical brought to the stage the richness, messiness and humanity of every aspect of being a woman… and the amazing support that can potentially come from the mitzvah of mikveh.”

Bar-Ilan University professor of English Susan Handelman wrote, “Something extraordinary happened at the premiere performance of Mikva the Musical. Something entirely new for Jewish women and Jewish life was born into the world.

“The material is explosive. The format also leads to a special intimacy and openness of women sharing from a very deep place and allowing themselves to be vulnerable – both the audience and the actresses.

“So much depended on tone, on the way it was acted, produced and directed. The performance was a tour-de-force, a delicate walk on a tightrope. On many Internet forums where young women talk about mikveh, the tone is often angry. The show displays the full complexity of emotions, the range of experiences of all kinds of women with gentleness, sensitivity, humor, wisdom and love. You related to and conveyed the material in a deeply spiritual way that encompassed all its raw honesty, pain and passion.”

Gutterman sees potential for the show to be used as a fund-raiser to build accessible mikvaot, to educate mikveh attendants and female Jewish law advisers.

“Every woman who marries in Israel must go to the mikveh. Every convert must go to the mikveh. Mikveh is a common bond, whether the woman is haredi, dati-leumi, traditional or secular. In other words, every woman should see this show. It’s both entertaining as well as educational, maybe even enlightening. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s personal.”

There are plans to stage another performance in Jerusalem during the week of Sukkot as well as in Efrat and Hashmonaim. Gutterman concluded, “We are all willing to take this show wherever it can go. We also plan to translate it to Hebrew so that it can reach a wider audience.”

More information is available at mikvathemusical.

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