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Nobody Knows: Exposing the Best-Kept Secret in Jewish Marriage

by Nina Badzin

My husband and I were married for five years, together for seven, when I suggested we learn about the laws of family purity.

“The laws of what?” he said.

I told him that we wouldn't touch for a certain number of days each month until I went to the mikvah. Baffled, he wondered if I might consider changing the dishes during Passover before I started worrying about “something like that.”

See, I'd upset the balance of Judaism in our relationship. Bryan was the religious one, the one who'd been a member of a Conservative synagogue all his life, a camper and counselor at Ramah, the one who could read Torah on short notice. On Shabbat mornings he brought our son to the same synagogue where his grandfather and father had been board presidents. He was the one who encouraged me to register for two sets of dishes, the one who eagerly awaited a Shabbat feast on the meat ones every Friday night. Now I, the one who covertly turned on my cell phone during his and our son's Saturday afternoon nap, their Shabbos menuchah, was saying that it was hands off for 12 days each month, that he couldn't so much as pass me one of our meat or dairy plates.

He thought I'd lost my mind. While Bryan's background in the Conservative movement gave him a deep yearning for a Jewish home, he didn't know that laws existed guiding the physical relationship between a husband and wife.

Our wedding was the perfect example of our confusing Jewish beginning as a couple. We were married in Chicago by the same Reform rabbi who had married my parents and officiated at my bat mitzvah. And although this rabbi supported our plans to hold tisches (traditionally when men gather around the table, and in this case a similar gathering of women) he didn't suggest I visit the mikvah in anticipation of our wedding. The idea hadn't occurred to Bryan either. It seemed that the only rituals we knew about were the ones we'd seen at the wedding of a traditional friend. Our non- Jewish wedding planner was the one who taught us about yichud (the brief seclusion of the bride and groom after the ceremony), and we included that custom, too.

Then five years later, seemingly out of nowhere, I came home with my big pronouncement about family purity without telling him the real source of my inspiration - a nonaffiliated friend who casually mentioned abstaining from any contact with her husband for about two weeks and then visiting the mikvah. “Are you kidding?” I'd asked her, unable to understand why she of all people would do something “so Orthodox.” It wasn't that I'd never heard of a mikvah, I'd just never heard of someone like me going to one. “It does wonders for your sex life,” she said without blushing. I was intrigued. Did I mention that my husband and I had been together for seven years?

Coincidentally, soon after hearing about the steamy benefits of family purity, I was invited to a fundraiser for Minneapolis' new mikvah, an event that attracted women from every denomination. All of us smiled as the speaker, an exuberant rebbetzin from Borough Park, used the metaphor of cooking to inspire the audience. The most exotic, most delicious stews, she insisted, were enjoyed only by those who let the pot simmer for . . . something like 12 days. She made an evening at the mikvah sound like a luxurious, spiritual spa retreat. And she used plenty of other food euphemisms to give us an idea of the spicy situation that would follow at home.

I was shocked, but I seemed to be in the minority. The Orthodox women in the audience had been nodding knowingly the entire time, along with the wives of the Conservative rabbis. “I didn't realize that non-Orthodox couples do this,” I said quietly to the rabbis' wives I knew from our synagogue. They explained that the private nature of the laws of family purity is one of the most beautiful aspects of the mitzvah. “Nobody has to know but you and your husband.” But that was the problem, I thought. Nobody knows.

My intrigue turned into frustration at the idea that I'd never encountered this information before. I realized quickly, however, that I wasn't being fair. After all, Bryan and I weren't married by a Conservative rabbi, and because we'd moved to Minneapolis in the middle of our engagement, we'd missed the window for the marriage classes at Beth El. Maybe the benefits of family purity weren't being treated as a secret, maybe they were only a secret to Bryan and me.

I took an informal poll of my friends around the country who were married by Conservative rabbis over the past 10 years. As it turned out, several had visited the mikvah before their weddings, but they knew little about family purity. Those who knew something about it didn't consider it an option. “Isn't it degrading to women?” I heard. Who are “they” to tell us that we're not clean? Why would anyone want to be naked in front of some strange woman? Why would anyone want to take a dip in some strange pool? (By the way, I agree that these are valid questions. They're just not my questions, and I do not feel able to answer them.)

By the time I found a study partner who could help me answer my questions for myself, I already was pregnant with our second child. That afforded me plenty of time to study the laws. (A woman doesn't visit the mikvah unless she has menstruated.) I examined the how and the when and the why of both the days of separation between spouses and the actual evening at the mikvah. We also spent time discussing the aspects that some people saw as an insult to women, looking at the text, reading commentaries, and reading commentaries on the commentaries of the text. Devora encouraged me to try it and make my own choice. “If it doesn't feel right,” she said, “you won't do it again. What's the harm?”

Four years later I'm something of an unofficial public relations person for our mikvah - evidence enough that participating in the tradition does not feel like a contradiction of my identity as a strong, independent Jewish woman. But I wouldn't expect anyone to take my word for it. The only way to form fair conclusions is to learn about the laws and talk to people who observe them. I hope that in time we'll see more opportunities for open conversation because if our grandmothers and mothers and friends don't observe taharat hamishpachah, or if they have preconceived notions about the practice, then how will a new generation discover the potential benefits?

The benefits, of course, run deeper than the lure of an “exotic stew.” Yes, my interest in family purity began with a promise of a magically improved connection with my husband. But I've continued observing the laws for other, unexpected connections, including to God and to my heritage. Every time I submerge myself in the water of the mikvah I perceive an intangible lifeline between the past and the future. And I sense my secure place in that line, even if I'm still addicted to my cellphone seven days a week and my Passover kitchen isn't exactly up to snuff. I'm working on those aspects of my observance too. I just wish I could find a way to make it as much fun as adding spicy new ingredients to a familiar old dish.

Nina Badzin is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author whose short stories have been published in Literary Mama, Sleet, Scribblers on the Roof, and Talking Stick. She and her family are active members of Beth El Synagogue in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota. Find her on Twitter @NinaBadzin.

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