The ritual bath was housed in the back of my parents' Orthodox synagogue, with a separate entrance to ensure privacy. Inside, there was a bathroom with a shower and tub, and in an adjacent room, the small pool — a mikvah — with enough space for one person to stand with her arms outstretched. Above was a large round opening in the wall through which the attendant could watch and ensure that every part of the woman was fully under the water.
"Are you excited? Are you nervous?" my mother asked me as we walked in, a few nights before my wedding.
"Both," I admitted.
As a bride, I was required to immerse myself in order to be sexually permissible to my husband. As a wife, I would be required to do this every month.
In preparation, I'd soaked in a tub, cut my nails, scrubbed my calluses. I forced a comb through my thick hair. The comb ripped out so many strands, but I wanted to follow the laws precisely.
In the months prior, I'd been studying the religious laws that would now apply to me, sitting around the dining-room table of a rabbi's wife.
"This is beautiful," she told me and the dozen other engaged young women, about the rules of Jewish family purity. When we had our periods and for the seven days following, we were in a state of impurity: We couldn't touch our husbands — no sex, not a hug, not a handshake. Once our periods had ceased, we were to check ourselves for any remaining smudges or stains. When we believed ourselves to be clean, we were to leave the cloths inside ourselves for 30 minutes, just to be sure, and then start counting seven clean days. Only at the end of these could we immerse in the mikvah and once again be permissible.
In high school, equally strict rules of modesty had touched down on my body: safety pins were kept in the office to fasten shut a low-cut blouse or a skirt with an offending slit. Mothers were called if a new skirt needed to be procured; a spare skirt was kept in the office for those times when a mother wasn't reachable. Our knees, elbows, and hair were discussed in black-scripted rabbinic texts, featured prominently in the school rules, in notes sent home reporting infractions. We were always subject to inspection, our bodies divided and measured. The rules were written across my body, mapped onto my skin, my hair, my thighs. Now that I was getting married, they were poised to enter my body as well.
You don't have to feel that way, I chided myself whenever I felt a slow burn of resistance. Contrary to how it might appear, this was not an invasion of the most private sphere of my body. This was not an issue of a woman being deemed impure. Shape it and twist it, change it and smooth it — some sort of machine inside my head, skilled at reprocessing and reconfiguring any torn bits into a smooth whole in whose billowing folds I could still seek comfort. Quibble, if necessary, with some of the details, parse the interpretations, summon various rabbinic figures for support — anything to prevent my body from whispering a small silent no.
I called the mikvah attendant so she could check me for any dangling cuticles or stray hairs that would constitute a separation between my body and the waters.
"I'm ready," I told her.
I descended the steps. Here was the portal to adult life.
I went to the mikvah every month of my marriage.