Jan 4, 2010

Swallowed Up in the Mikvah

I just stepped out of the bathtub, after watching steam rise from my legs and feet, the air much colder than the water and the now-temperature of my body. I sat in the tub, candles oozing light, music crooning, and I tried to imagine myself back at the mikvah, standing in that warm pool of water, after taking the literal steps into a Torah-binding agreement with HaShem. I couldn’t. The experience, a true one-time experience, is best left to the memory in its warm and welcoming embrace of the wings of the shechinah. But I want to do my best to share some of it with you. It’s just who I am to tell a story.

The entire thing happened suddenly, in a swirl of phone calls, organizing, and haste. I’d anticipated at least the weekend to consider names, to call friends to be there, to let everyone know. And then, in a quick whish of winter wind, the plans were made and I was set to be at the mikvah on Friday, not today as originally planned (which, by the way, was quite surprising and sudden as it was). To describe it as a whirlwind experience would be understating the actual whirlwindedness of those 25 hours.

You see, I met with my beth din, for the second time, at 10 a.m. on Thursday. By the next day, at 11 a.m., I was sitting on a couch in the very nice waiting room of a very nice mikvah on the Upper West Side. I didn’t sleep Wednesday night, and I surely didn’t sleep Thursday night. I was tossing around names, scenarios of what we’d do if the weather got bad as it had been Thursday morning (every route into NYC was closed for a time, and by the grace of G-d all the rabbis made it in). But everything, miraculously, went like clockwork.

On Friday, I arrived at the mikvah, I spoke with the mikvah lady, I prepared, I went into the mikvah, I accepted a variety of covenantal and binding sentiments and laws upon myself, I dipped, I said a b’racha, I dipped again, I said another b’racha, and I dipped again. I ascended those literal stairs, I entered my dressing room, and I cried. I cried with a smile that I cannot even put into words. I can feel the feeling right now, the confusing smiling, laughing, crying, crying more, and smiling feeling. I stared at myself, drenched in mikvah waters, in the mirror and I could see the change. I stand firmly by the idea that my entire life I have carried within me the Jewish neshama that has shined so brightly these past six or seven years. But standing there, looking into that mirror and later listening to the rabbi bestow upon me my name as a Jewess, I felt different. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

In the mikvah (if you want more details about the procedure, feel free to email me, but this is just for those going through the process who might want to know what to expect), the water was warm, at a temperature that I can’t even describe. “Warm” doesn’t do it justice. Similarly, it didn’t really feel like water. It grazed my skin like a thick liquid, holding me firmly in place, pressing the heat against my chest, like I was being cradled tightly with the kind of pressure that is welcoming. I’m not a very touchy-feely kind of person. I shy away from hugs, and as a child my father couldn’t cradle me, he had to cross his legs and place me there in order for me to stop crying. But the warmth and pressure of the mikvah waters were the most comforting I’d ever felt – those waters, they cannot be replicated. I could see the rabbis reflection in the water beside me, and as he spoke I answered confidently with tears in my eyes “I Accept” with every statement he issued. And as each statement came, I shook more and more. Like tons of little shivers up and down my arms, I was shaking, almost shivering in the warm water. I was anxious, nervous, excited, and my body was processing the emotion in any way it could.

At last, I was told to dip. I grabbed my breath, and dropped into the water, floating freely, fingers apart, toes apart, my body a mess of limbs in the warmth. Through the echo of the water I heard a muffled “KOSHER!” being yelled by the rabbis as they departed the room. And the funny thing? I couldn’t find my footing afterward, I floated, my short little limbs unable to find the ground. After all, the water reached up just at my shoulders, and that was with me on my tip-toes. I was swallowed up by the water, and it was beautiful. At last I found the floor, and the mikvah lady assured me I just need to be down for a second. I guess for her, it’s nothing new. For me? I could have floated freely without air, mindlessly twisting and turning, wrestling with the shechinah in that water for eternity. I dipped two more times, after saying the b’rachot clearly, and heard the mikvah lady shout “KOSHER!” (I have to tell you, this was one of my favorite things – hearing that KOSHER! being yelled really loudly; it was empowering and affirming!)

I came out after having dressed, and cried, and laughed, and was greeted by mazel tovs from friends and the rabbis. The rabbi read a document aloud for everyone to hear, proclaiming me Chaviva Elianah bat Avraham v’Sarah, and I cried again. Chaviva is the name I chose at my Reform conversion in April 2006, it holding the same meaning as my given name, Amanda: “beloved.” Elianah I chose because I wanted something that included and named HaShem. I had very, very little time to officially decide, and I chose Elianah, meaning “G-d has answered,” because I felt as though my neshama was officially, finally, being recognized as having been at Sinai as my deep visions and memories have shown me. Thus, Chaviva Elianah bat Avraham v’Sarah was born on the 15th of Tevet 5770.

And then? Well, we’re back to where I left off.

My first thought, after everything, was this: No one, NO ONE, can deny me anything as a Jew anymore. Period. No one. I immediately thought back to my having applied to Aish HaTorah’s birthright program and being turned down, told harshly and degradingly that I wasn’t a Jew, and issued materials on conversion programs. I thought to myself, “Now, now they can’t do that to me. NO one can treat me like that!” Everyone is quick to assure me that they’ve always thought of me as a member of the tribe, and I’ve always thought of me as a member of the tribe, too. But this one thing makes it different: No one has to feel it anymore, because it’s so. It’s halakicly so! It’s so empowering, I can’t stress this enough.

After the mikvah, an outing for bagels, and wishing farewell to friends heading off on a cruise (oh, and seeing Alec Baldwin!), we headed out to prepare for Shabbos. After a flurry of calls to family and friends, and the realization that my voice was going – fast – I stopped, let my arms fall to my side, and told Tuvia that I was exhausted. I’d been running on adrenaline the past two days, not to mention the past two years, and I was ready to stop. My neshama looked at me and said, Chaviva Elianah, it’s done, it’s really done, and we need to rest now. And so I slept all of Shabbos, save for mealtime (of course). I really can’t put into words that feeling, that exhaustion that I felt (and still feel a little bit) after such an arduous journey.

And that, I suppose, is the rest of the story. I feel like I’m leaving so much out, but the memory, well, it’s so much my own. I want there to be some mystery, some mystique, some feeling that is just between me and that mikvah and HaShem.

As an aside: I’ve received emails, calls, Twitter replies, Facebook messages and comments, and so much more, from dozens and dozens of friends and strangers alike, wishing me mazel tov on my conversion. Save for one individual, the response has been nothing but welcoming and positive. This weekend, there are meals in honor of my simcha. Something else I fail to put into words is how I personally am reacting to everything, that being the mazels and the welcoming and the kind words. It is, in a word, overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, it’s overwhelming in the most positive way, but I’m the kind of person who shies away from praise, I always have been. To put it simply, I honestly don’t know how to take a compliment. So, over the past few days, I’ve been overwhelmed by the kind things people have said to me, and I almost feel as though I am not serving people right in my responses. I say thank you, I say thank you again, I feel awkward, and I say thank you again.

Am I alone in this? This is such a big thing, and I know that I’ll experience this again when I get engaged (if?) and married and have kids and all of the other major simchas. Will I ever learn how to be properly responsive? I feel as though others think I’m being ungrateful, but the volume is hard to respond to. I love my friends, my blog friends, my Twitter friends, my Facebook friends. I think I am the most blessed and lucky person in the world right now. I’m quite good at writing, especially when it comes to experiences and emotions, but this is just something for which I can’t figure out how not to be awkward. Sigh. Just know, I love you guys. You and this blog and everything that surrounds my efforts to really light a fire under every neshama out there, those are the things that keep me going, that keep my hopes high and my fingers tapping.

27 comments:

avulpineheart said...

would love to be the first to wish you mazal tov and yasher koach [on your blog, at least!]!

welcome, chaviva eliana.

hadassahsabo said...

Chavi - firstly, again, you moved me to tears with your description of your much anticipated dip.

secondly. there is a tradition that when someone wishes you mazal tov you say back "baruch tihyeh" "ברוך תהיה"to a man, "bruchah tihyee" "ברוכה תהיי" - may you [also] be blessed.

love ya girlie!!

hadassahsabo said...

ok the second one, "bruchah tihyee" is to a woman....(pressed submit too soon!)

Slave to my Bulldog said...

Beautiful description of a wonderful moment. Welcome & Mazal Tov!

Mottel said...

beautiful post!

Anonymous said...

Didn't mean to offend you. I am just amazed to hear of an Orthodox conversion that was a positive experience. I had an extremely sweet rabbi who was a raised-Jewish convert and just the sweetest person you would ever meet who it's impossible to picture having any negative feelings ever about anything, and he said that he was bitter for at least 5 years after his conversion process, which was only a few weeks from start to finish. He said bitterness was an understandable response to conversion.

I have another friend who was told after a 4 year process to miss her best friend's wedding as the last proof that she was devoted to Judaism, and if she did not agree to miss the wedding, the beit din would not convert her and would not allow another beit din to convert her. And another friend who got into the mikvah and was quizzed for 90 minutes as she stood in the mikvah, shivering and naked, and then told to get out of the mikvah because the beit din didn't like the friends she brought with her. She said she felt raped by the experience.

Conversion is a horrible process with lots of abuse of power, and you're very lucky to have had a reasonably positive experience with it. I'm sorry you interpret this as criticism. I'm just amazed.

Anonymous said...

And, yes, I'm completely jealous. I had to suspend my life for two years in order to convert, lost income and opportunities, and more importantly fully and completely lost my baalat tshuva enthusiasm and excitement. I started the process learning for hours every day and davening 3 times a day, and I ended it never learning, davening just the minimal ~60 seconds a day, and crying three times a day. It took me longer to recover my mental health than it did to actually convert.

shavuatov said...

Mazal tov once more! I totally understand what you mean about not being quite sure how to handle the multitude of mazal tovs and accompanying compliments and attention. It's totally overwhelming! I must say, I'm still pnching myself - my mikvah was on the same day and my simcha in shul only two days later - a total whirlwind... Enjoy the memories!

Anonymous said...

Chaviva, wow. This just feels RIGHT. So, so, right. Perhaps it is a taste of how it will feel when Moshiach comes, that we've been living in something that yearns so much for truth but isn't completely there, and then the mikvah comes and makes it all completely, completely RIGHT and locked into place?

Baruch Hashem!
love,

Meg

Benji Lovitt said...

Mazal tov, Chaviva-very exciting!

Benji

A Simple Jew said...

I enjoyed reading every word of your beautiful writing!

davidfcooper said...

Mazal tov! Welcome to the tribe!

TMC said...

Congratulations, Chavi!! I'm proud of you. :)

ilanadavita said...

Mazel tov Chaviva Elianah!

Izgad said...

Congratulations

Here is an old post of mine that I wrote for another friend when she converted.

(http://izgad.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-universality-of-judaism-or-how-many.html)

veredroyz said...

BS”D

Thank you Chaviva Elianah for sharing this experience with us all! I just found your blog some days ago and you are a very good writer! I wish you hatzlachos, simchos and brachos in the future!

Lesholom!
Nadja

Dunking Rachel said...

The combination of the willful abandonment of the past and empowered action of the present that is the act of choosing to enter the mikvah for the metaphoric and yet vey real spiritual re-birth is something that can defy words…your sincere and heartfelt words are your very own song of prayer. Thank you for trying to put what I believe is not a cognitive experience into a cognitive form….
For those of us who have found our home through the ritual of mikvah we know that it is a memory that is irreplaceable. Yet now almost 2 years out for me, there have been many more lovely and wonderful moments, each binding me closer to the people and faith I have chosen…It is my wish that you too have many more such transformative experiences!.....joy is here and now!...all we have to do is experience it…….

Shades of Grey said...

Mazal Tov - this is such a heart-warming post.

KosherAcademic said...

Chavi,
You write so beautifully and we can really feel your emotion and participate in the experience with you. Thank you for that.

Do not worry about it--saying "Thank you" is enough. You should not need to worry about how to respond--these people are not worried about that, either, they just want to share in your simcha with you. And they are :)

I think I know what you mean about people always considering you Jewish b4--once I heard you did it, I was so excited, but also confused that I was so excited. To me, you had always been Jewish, but there was something different about it...(you can ask my DH, I talked with him about it before you wrote this post!). So now I guess I know what the difference is, now I it doesn't matter that I know it, it just is.

Love you!

Vicki said...

Bracha haba'a :) Even reading your post made me feel tense with anticipation. What a great accomplishment. Welcome home.

Izgad said...

So Chaviva

When can we look forward to you becoming an old timer, smug self-righteous and lecturing everyone else who lacks your very frum background about all the trouble creating by the great evil Other out there?

TexasBubbe said...

Mazel tov!

Chaviva said...

I want to respond to you all individually, but it might take me all day. But who cares, I'm doing it anyway!

@avulpineheart Thank you!!

@hadassah Thank you for the constant support and love. Without you, this wouldn't have been so smooth.

@Slave Todah rabah!

@Mottel Thanks. I take that as a huge compliment coming from a wonderful writer himself :)

@Anonymous Of course I know who you are, and all I can say is that I understand where your anger/frustration/confusion is coming from. At the same time, I think you have to choose how you address and approach situations very carefully. To come into a situation like this and be nothing but negative is counterproductive. The stories you're sharing sound horrifying, but the long and short of it is they sound fantastical. I'm not saying they're not true, but I can't imagine being quizzed IN the mikvah for 90 minutes, and the water is warm! But, of course, I trust your word. My advice to you is to say this: These stories are horrible. If they are true, then they should be REPORTED. You can do this anonymously quite easily. If you and your friends never report them, then how can the rabbis be held accountable? I had a mini-horror story of myself, which I won't share here, but I know I have the option to report the rabbi for the inappropriate and unjust behavior. The process, however, is different for everyone. I know not everyone can spend 7 weeks becoming fluent in Hebrew, but I did that. I've been rocking this process since 2003, so my Hebrew and knowledge and everything were picked up and grown along the way. My absolute and complete devotion to learning allowed me to advance *very* quickly in the process. Ultimately it is what the rabbis see in the potential ger -- and I was lucky enough that my neshama shone brightly enough to not make me wait three years in the Orthodox process itself.

@Rachel THANK YOU!

@Meg Todah rabbah. This year will be truly amazing, I can feel it in my bones.

@Benji Thanks bub :)

@A Simple Jew Todah. I look forward to your future return to blogging!

@David This tribe is AWESOME.

@TMC It means so much to have you proud of me!

@Ilana Todah!

@Izgad That post was a good read :) Thanks for sharing it!

@Nadja Hopefully you stick around and read more. Curious how you found me :) Todah!

@Dunking Rachel I can only imagine the moments that are in my future that will capture and embrace me as the mikvah has. I also look forward to making the mikvah a regular ritual. I just hope that it *always* will be as meaningful and warm as it was this time.

@ShadesofGrey Thank you!

@KosherAcademic It definitely just *is.* Baruch haShem, sof-sof! I miss you so much, and I hope you and I can share in each other's simchas more in the future. The U.S. misses you!

@Vicki Todah rabah! I love that you wrote "welcome home." That, for me, is perfect.

@Izgad I'll get around to it. It's on the list of "to dos" for right after I get married :P

@TexasBubbe Todah!

Yerachmiel Lopin said...

Mazal Tov,

I hope our people bring many blessings to you and you to us.

Shabbat Shalom

Jennifer Willis said...

Thanks for sharing your experience! I'm coming to the end of my own journey of conversion, and my date with the mikvah is fast approaching.

Rivki said...

So beautiful! Your description brought tears to my eyes. Mazel Tov, and may your life as an undisputed Jewess get better and better each day! I need a tissue...

Chaviva said...

@Rivki Thank you so much :) *hands over virtual tissue*

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