Queering Jewish Traditions

Though I’ve become far less spiritual in the past several years, my Jewish cultural identity is still a huge part of my life. I treasure all of the holidays- for the food, the family, and the inevitable craziness that comes with all of the above. However, I have struggled to find my place in the Jewish community as a queer individual. My family and the Jewish community I surround myself with are extremely supportive of me, but the “laws” don’t always agree. In fact, the synagogue that I attended all throughout my childhood (I even had my bat mitzvah there) does not perform same-sex marriage. It’s hard to suddenly find yourself as an outlier in a very traditional community. There have been several awkward moments – particularly the struggle of whether or not my transgender partner should wear a yarmulke at my family’s events. But that’s another story.

Mikveh photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Needless to say, I was thrilled when my mom passed along this article about queer mikveh immersions! For those of you who don’t know what a mikveh is, it’s essentially a large pool of water that is used for ritual cleansing. A trip to the mikveh can mean lots of things, from an upcoming wedding to a post-menstrual cleanse. Gabriella Spitzer, the author of the blog post, discusses the need to queer the mikveh. According to Spitzer, the mikveh is by nature an accessible space for queers.

“The mikveh water is an interesting space because it embodies liminality. It is a tangible boundary point between not Jewish and Jewish, sexually off limits and sexually available, and pure and impure. It is also rich with symbolism and meaning, both to the individual and as part of two thousand-year-old traditions. It is these characteristics that make it so accessible to the queer community; there is a very deep connection between queerness and liminality. I found, through my research, that there is something special about the mikveh water that has allowed it to mark the intersection between so many Jewish and queer identities.”

I was particularly touched by Spitzer’s mention of a trans-man opting for a trip to the mikveh during his recovery from top surgery. Having gone through the surgery/recovery process with my own partner, I can only imagine that this particular mikveh visit was incredibly powerful. For another perspective on queering Jewish traditions, I decided to interview my mom, Mary Schwartz, who volunteers at Mayiym Hayyim. In fact, the article was from the Mayyim Hayyim blog!

Michaela: What first drew you to volunteer at Mayyim Hayyim?

Mary: My own experiences with the mikveh at my conversion and right before my wedding were so meaningful to me that when I saw that Mayyim Hayyim needed volunteers I responded right away.

Michaela: In the article, Spitzer identifies the mikveh as a very “liminal” space…do you agree?

Mary: Absolutely. Liminal means ‘threshold’ and that is a perfect description for the immersion experience. Some examples of life/spiritual thresholds are conversion, marriage, bat mitzvot/coming of age as a woman and unfortunately divorce and death of a loved one. These experiences, by their very nature, cause us to cross a threshold into a new phase of life – some positive and some negative – but all new beginnings. Other thresholds that may seem less obvious are things like healing after a trauma, loss or illness. In those cases, the mikveh serves as a physical expression of shedding of the old and commencing with the new.

Michaela: I agree! In my opinion, the mikveh is one of the safest spaces/traditions for queer-identified people in the Jewish faith. As someone with a queer daughter, do you find that this is true? Are there any other traditions that are equally as open and welcoming in nature as the mikveh? Not to say that all mikvehs are so open and welcoming in practice…

Mary: I believe that mikvot like Mayyim Hayyim that are liberal, welcoming and non-denominational are wonderful spaces for queer individuals to experience spirituality in a very safe and non-judgmental environment.  Unfortunately some mikvot are not as progressive so it is very important to understand the practices and attitudes of a mikveh before you visit. We live in a very liberal community on the east coast. By and large, and certainly without exception in Reform Judaism, queer congregants are eligible for the same rituals available to a heterosexual person.  You can have an aliya, read Torah, be a membership of the temples’s leadership board and (in most temples) get married.  I can’t think of any obvious exclusions Judaism dictates.

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Whether it be the mikveh or the entire Reform Judaism movement, the traditions and spaces continue to progress and open their arms to Jewish people from all kinds of backgrounds. I, for one, am happy to see it! For more info about Mayyim Hayyim, check out their website.

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About Michaela

Michaela

Michaela is a recent Seven Sisters graduate with a self-designed degree in Sexuality Studies. When she's not blogging, you'll find her teaching Health and Wellness and A Cappella to high school students, helping women find properly fitting bras, and working as an editor on a documentary. She hopes to continue her education one day with a PhD in Feminist Anthropology.