Getting your feet (ritually) wet: An American-Israeli’s mikvah story

Perhaps, for a taharat-mishpacha-keeping American-Israeli olah (female American immigrant to Israel who keeps laws of family purity), nothing else can quite epitomize the cultural differences of here and there better than… the mikvah.

Because I got married in Israel, my mikva knowledge and experiences have been molded here. The closest I got in the States before emigrating was a very swanky, fancy Sephardic mikvah in Brooklyn, that my high school class was taken to on a school trip while learning the halachot (laws) in our senior year. A gorgeous facility, including pre- and post- manicure, robes, blow driers, and made-up balaniyot.

The idea to me seemed, pretty clearly, to make the practice more attractive.

Fast forward to 2006, when I became engaged in the monthly ritual in an old, very ‘Jerusalem’ mikva facility tucked into a shoddy building behind a meat market in Katamonim.

Out of any of the mikvot I’ve been to, I came to love it the most.

I hated going, but I loved coming out. I loved the sound of Kaaaaasherrrr rolling off the tongue of the elderly Mizrachi balanit. Deep, warm, the rrrrrr is what made me really feel purified. I loved that she wished me the best of luck, speedy pregnancies, a million children, a good life. I loved believing her, that it would all come true this month, even though the next set of birth control pills were somewhere in the depths of my handbag.

To contrast that, there were the few times I’ve gone in New York during visits. It was my hometown mikva, a place I had passed a billion times during childhood, the heavy red door shut tight during the day. I had known what it was, but I had never been inside.

It was classy enough, comfortable, even kind of PC.

And it was home. Imagine my delight when the first time I lifted my head out of the water, the middle-aged New Yawka balanit was shrilly calling, KOH-shuuuh!

I’ve even been to the mikvah in Melbourne, Australia. This was by far the most comfortable, beautiful facility I’ve dunked in yet. Everything was provided; everything was just right.

Later, when I moved to Tzur Hadassah, I experimented before settling on a permanent mikvah. I tried what seemed like a tiny pre-1967 free-standing stone room in Bar Giora. I visited Efrat, where I felt I had entered an alternative universe (we spoke in English of course). I’ve been to the small but equipped mikvah in Nes Harim.

But where I’ve mostly settled, and returned to every month, are the mega-mikvot in Beitar Illit.

Israeli mikvah: Beitar Illit

These are free-standing buildings with their own identities; secret entrances shield visitors from publicity. A reception desk greets you. Corridors of prep rooms are available. Two mikvot are rotated inside, available depending on your tradition.

And the pre-check questions, oh, the questions.

It’s a personal challenge. I don’t love it like I was able to come to love my elderly Sephardi balanit in Jerusalem. I’ve had to make the experience completely separate and personal so as not to claw at the kisui rosh of an unassuming ‘just doing my charedi job’ Beitar Illit balanit, who to her credit, as she checks the length of my too-long nails, never fails to ask,

‘So, are you from around here?’


P.S. I have it on good faith that I’ll be able to report on the ever-in progress Tzur Hadassah mikvah very soon. It’s been completed and waiting for electricity, so they say. Stay tuned…



Bebe Does America.

In short, it was a time of reflection for Bebe.

Considering the murky waters of the Staten Island beach.

Considering her first NYC subway ride.

Considering the thousands of names at the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero.

Considering the shortest flight she’s ever taken.

Considering the very different waters of the marina in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Considering the cold waters of the pool she was petrified to get into.

Coming home. Nothing to consider.

Lizrael Update: Insane mom you hate on flights edition.

Bulletin:  I’m leaving tonight to New York, with both my kids, alone.

That’s one adult to two kids. Or, one adult to an infant and a terrible two.

So if you’re on my flight, sucks for you. Sucks worse for me.

Like I told my mom, who I’m sure is containing all the giddy-with-pleasure as best she can until we’re settled in and over the flight:

It’s going to be hard and I always come off cursing but this is the kind of life I chose so here goes…

Welcome to eretz.

Monday, the day I left New York, I met a friend in the city to hang for a bit; he just moved to New York from Tel Aviv so his perspective is still fresh.

The conversation came to the usual point, of how impersonal New York is and how in-your-face Israel is. I forget that every time I get to New York. It’s always a culture shock for me.

The same goes for coming home. I forget the in-your-face that is my culture here.

And that culture never fails to remind me as soon as I land. As soon as I start putting my hand through the border control I.D. scan and some middle age Israeli guy comes from behind me and starts telling me what to do, even as my receipt prints out. And then wishes me well, saying in broken English, “Welcome to eretz.”

Frappuccino desperation.

When I was back in New York in May, I perchance walked into a Starbucks with some friends and noticed a new drink on their menu: this mint chocolate iced frappuccino thing. I’m all about trying new ice blend chocolate coffee things, so I did.

…And I’ve been dreaming about it ever since. Actually, salivating. I’d been wanting it since I got to New York. Since I knew I was coming to New York. But for the first two weeks of my trip, I was building up the craving… Holding out and waiting to reward myself for something.

I finally broke down today and went to the Starbucks down the block from my New York office, and I wait on line; it’s taking forever before I realized I’m on the wrong line. Then I scan the menu for the name of the drink so I can order it when it is finally my turn, but I don’t see it advertised anywhere and I start freaking out.

So I left in a huff and walked all the way… down the block, to the second Starbucks that bookends my office. For no logical reason, really, since they are all franchises. But it felt right.

I wait impatiently on line, close to breaking down, and get to the girl at the counter. She asks what I want but I cut her off and I’m like, “Do you still have that mint chocolate iced frappuccino thing?”

And I guess I  must have looked pretty desperate… I kinda dumped my hopeful order there on the counter next to the register and the fancy granola cookies.

She smiled like a caffeinated angel and said, “Yes, we do! What size?”

And I was like, letting out a sigh of relief. A real physical one. You could see the sigh of relief, like in a cartoon.

It was so gross.

But the drink was damn good and exactly what I was looking for. There’s nothing like pleasing a long distant craving.

Lucky number 13.

Here’s a subtle cultural difference you don’t think about that often as a dual New York-Israel citizen.

In Israel – as in Judaism in general – 13 is a great number. It’s the number when a boy becomes a man, at least mitzvot-wise.

In Anglo culture – or is it Christian culture? European culture?  – the number 13 is not a reference to the Bar Mitzvah, but an unlucky number that must be avoided. For my American side, the number 13 conjures up thoughts of black cats and witches; pretty much Halloween.

I have heard of very old-school high-rise buildings in New York that were built to ‘skip’ the 13th level; who would want to live or work on such an unlucky floor?

That includes the office building where I work while I’m here in New York. Here’s the solution:

A little American ignorance never hurt anyone, eh?

To be fair, Israelis (and Jews) are plenty superstitious. It’s just not concerning the number 13.

The New York questions.

When Israeliborns ask where I’m from ‘b’makor’ there are usually a few follow up questions that I get after I answer I’m from New York. Por example:

  1. Ahhh, so you lived/you have been to Brooklyn?!
  2. Are there a lot of Arabs there?
  3. Have you been to Harlem? Is it really scary?

I wonder if you could analyze that and decide what the undertones mean.