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Ask Shifra

Something Different... Answering questions and making curious observations (online) since 2005.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Getting Naked

Heh - got your attention with that one eh?

There has been a bit of banter in the comments of my "Supercuts" post about modesty.
Unfortunately there was also bit of really ugly name calling involved so I couldn't post them all (sorry I have my standards.)

While I feel that what goes on at the mikvah is a very private matter and one I'm reticent to discuss in such a public forum I'd like to set the record straight about what goes on a woman's mivka (ritual bath) as it seems that many men (and perhaps some women as well) have some gross misconceptions about what goes on there.

1) There are no men ANYWHERE on site.
Zero. Ziltch. None. No Rabbis, no yeshiva boys at the windows, no spouses in the waiting room. I even get annoyed when I see husbands waiting in their cars at the back of the parking lot or down the block, but that's as close as they are ever going to get during women's mikva hours. EVER.

2) Women are treated with privacy and respect.
While women may have to wait in a communal waiting room for a bit when they first arrive this is the only time you will be together with other women. Each woman is given a turn in a private room to prepare herself. The doors lock. No one comes in unless YOU tell them to.
In fact, the mikvah attendant is very careful to only allow one women at a time in and out of the corridor to and from the mivkah so that women will not see each other passing by.
When it is a woman's turn to walk down the short corridor to the mikvah she is dressed in a long robe and slippers (usually provided by the mikva) she can even cover her hair with a towel if it makes her feel more at ease.

3) The mikvah attendant's review is quite limited and often optional.
I have been to about ten or mikvahs all around the country. Some were quite modern, while other were a bit decrepit. Some were in modern orthodox areas which others were Charedi owned and operated, some were in tiny jewish communities and others in large metropolitan areas. I do not claim to have attended every mikvah on earth but my experiences have been both diverse and random. While each has it's own set of customs and practices I have never been asked to remove my robe while standing in front of the Mikvah attendant. Her job is to help you, not search you. I've had much more degrading experiences being searched at the airport than I have at the mikvah and in fact at many mikvahs you can ask not to be checked at all (just try THAT at JFK!)
Generally the attendant will check your hands and feet (while you are fully robed) and perhaps ask you a few questions about your preparation. Sometimes she will offer to check the back of your neck (or upper back) for any hairs that may have come loose during brushing.
The woman will avert her eyes (often holding something up over her to block her view) as the woman enters the mikvah. When you tell her you are ready she looks down from above only to check that you have fully immersed in the water. It is pretty difficult to tell if every strand of hair has been submerged on your own, and frankly I don't think it's safe to walk barefoot down slippery marble stairs into a deep pool of water on your own with no one else around.
As you come out the woman will once again avert her eyes and allow you to put on your robe again before looking at you.
After that, you take the short (private) walk back to your dressing room and immerge fully dressed.

That's it.

Now I'm sure that even the process I just described may sound pretty harrowing to the uninitiated, but I assure you it's a heck of a lot better than what some of you have been thinking (and/or posting) about what goes on there.

If you have any additional questions about the mivkah feel free to email me privately at Shifraq@gmail.com. Comments on this post will be heavily monitored.


At 10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You must be going to state of the arts mikvahs. I am sorry but you can't just speak for every women. Not all mikvah ladies check ONLY your hands and feet. I feel like you are lying to young women out there who are about to get married, and they think no one will look at their front or back side.

If you are going to give your PLEASANT side of the story, perhaps you should give another side of the story that reveals how OTHER MIKVAHS and what they do at THOSE facilities

At 10:55 AM, Blogger StepIma said...


I just went back to your previous post and couldn't believe that it went there, and your first comment here also saddened me...

I'd like to back up your post's description 100%. I've been at mikvahs in many cities and had never had more than my hands, feet, and (especially when my hair was longer, but then frequently) my upper back checked by the attendant - always in a matter of seconds. The attendant may or may not avert her eyes completely as you are going into the pool, but they hold your robe up for privacy.

Going to the mikvah is not supposed to be an unpleasant experience, and if the first commenter lives in a place with more than one mikvah in driving distance, I hope she can find another one and see if it differs for her.

At 11:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

K... Being a single guy and not knowing what goes on in womens mikvas, that is a lil more than I expected. I thought women just checked themselves like men do when they go to the mikva. I guess it makes sense that they don't but I just never thought about it before...

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Krum as a bagel said...

I even get annoyed when I see husbands waiting in their cars at the back of the parking lot or down the block, but that's as close as they are ever going to get during women't mikva hours. EVER.

I hear you. I always feel like I am on some sex offender registry whenever I am asked to pick up my wife at the mikveh. So consider this an askshiffra question:

What is the appropriate way for a husband to wait for his wife at a mikveh? Waiting too close is just plain weird, requiring the husband to stare at his lap so as not to see who's leaving the mikveh. Of course doing this makes it hard for the wife to pick out the husband's SUV/minivan from all of the other identical SUV/minivans in the dark. Waiting far enough away so as not to see who is at the mikveh is usually would make the wife walk too far, which may be dangerous in certain neighborhoods. Any thoughts? I guess a two cellphone" approach is the only option, although cell phone reception is horrible inside most mikvehs. ANy thoughts?

At 7:22 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Krum - I will get to that EXCELLENT question next week.

Step Ima - Thank you. Well spoken as always.

Anon - Please email about your experiences, and where they took place I would very much like to investigate your allegations. Should I find corroborative evidence that the things you have been saying are indeed fact I will print up your side of the story in a follow up post.
In the meantime I will assure you that many of the mikvas I've been to were the exactly OPPOSITE of state of the art but my experiences were still the same there.

At 10:04 PM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

whew! i know i didn't google the swimsuit issue, but who knew what was coming up with your headline!

thanks for your g-rated post.

At 4:07 AM, Blogger mother in israel said...

My understanding is that the purpose of the mikva attendant is davka to check the woman's back for loose hairs, (and that her hair has been immersed as you mentioned) since she can't do that herself. I learned that if no attendant is available, the husband should come with her (talking about a private mikva or body of water here) to check her back just before she immerses.

At 6:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am backing up your post also - that's exactly what happened in all of the 5 or so mikvah's that I've attended AROUND THE WORLD. Good job, Shifra!

At 1:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will back up the post as well, and I don't even understand what a corridor that leads to the mikvah is. All the mikvah's I've been to have been completely private.

Anon, there certainly are mikvaot with overbearing mikvah ladies, but nobody is forced to use these. If this is your community standard and you must use one of these mikvaot, take issue with the community and not with the institution of mikvah.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger eem said...

anon 10:00, if the mikva lady is doing that much checking, she's out of bounds and it's not what she is supposed to be doing - many places will check hands, feet, and upper -if you check out halacha sefarim on the matter, you'll see that backed up. The mikva in my original neighborhood was one of the more run down ones in Jerusalem (where the standards for "fancy" aren't too high as it is), but the women there were certainly very sensitivebackChange mikvaos if you can, and maybe tell someone in charge at the mikva or your shul, if possible.
I think a great thing for girls to do before they get married is to check out the mikva in their area, before the go to use it. Many mikva ladies will be happy to set time to show a kallah around. In the high school that my sisters went to, the school takes the twelfth grade to visit the local mikva, but (unfortunately), this isn't something done yet in most BY type schools. Going to the mikva should be, at the very least, not traumatic; at best it is much much more than that. Don't miss the opportunity for what becomes a beautiful experience of a mitzva. Chaval.

At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you should go to a different mikva, if you aren't comfortable. Like eem, I live in an area where the mikvas are pretty, um, gross from what I've heard. But ever since I've been here, I've gone to other neighborhoods. I feel like its worth the trip, because this is a mitzvah that should make a woman feel good. It's her special mitzva. If she feels good coming out of a nice place, then that is what matters.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Pragmatician said...

and frankly I don't think it's safe to walk barefoot down slippery marble stairs into a deep pool of water on your own with no one else around.

Sadly a true story with a mortal ending proves that this is more than a good suggestion.
Mikvahs for men rarely have an attendant present, a young man tripped and there was no one around to help him and call hatzalah or an ambulance.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger nikki said...

the mikva i go to in israel is a bit more thorough than what you described and i live in a fairly mo community. and other mikvaot in israel that i've been to seem to be of the same standard. but they are cursory and tzanua --as soon as the "check" is over eyes are averted until you are in the water. i don't know anyone of my friends (that i would discuss this with) who's complained. having been a mikva attendant myself in my former american community i was taught to follow the standards you describe. it seems that maybe american women are more sensitive? body awareness is very different here (as seen by the behavior of israeli women here in the locker room of the gym compared to the gym i went to in the states...)

At 7:12 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Wow great comments - welcome to all the new commentors or thanks for delurking... New points of view are always welcome and appreciated.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

as a single who's never made it to the mikvah, I found this whole stream very interesting...personally, the idea of going, and even of being checked first, doesn't really mortify me. I think of it like a check-up at the physician's; they're not thinking about what your body looks like (they see hundreds) because they have a job to do in making sure that things are as they need to be. however, I think that mdmom is touching on an important point - the idea that women in america have extremely low self-image in terms of their bodies, being taught to hate imperfection. therefore something that has the potential to be so beautiful like going to the mikvah, could easily become, for the women of today's world, a terrifying and stressful experience. not to say that accusations of overbearing mikvah ladies are figments of their self-conscious imaginations, but i'm sure that there are women who are unnecessarily distressed by the mikvah.

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Tall Latte said...

Your explanation and experience - except for my twarted attempt to use a mikva in La Paz, Boliva -mirrors mine.

The whole "checking" thing takes seconds at most...except for when I'm sent back to use the pumice stone a bit more. Honestly, the checking is practically over before it starts.

And, at least at the mikva I frequent, aside from the big, fluffy towels and hotel-quality robes, there's a stack of washcloths available to cover our heads for saying the bracha.

My weirdness is knowing that I'm immersed, undressed but have a washcloth on my head.

As for the appropriate place for men folk? At home making sure the house is reasonably clean and there are no dishes in the sink. Seriously...how can I focus on a reunion if I'm stressing about the washing up?

At 9:46 PM, Blogger Karl said...

Intreresting post. Its something I'm begining to get to grips with but I didnt really have any other preconceptions other than what you described. I guess its all to do with the upbringing.

At 1:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe you are incorrectly describing the experience at many Brooklyn mikvas. I have had terrible experiences at the Ave S and Ave L mikvas. I have seen a website with many complaints about the Ave S mikva.

At 6:16 AM, Blogger Shifra said...

Anon - That is entirely possible, I have never been to that Mikvah.

I am very sorry to hear that you had such bad experiences there- have you been able to find a mikvah that is more to your liking in the area?

At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stopped going to the mikva because of this. My husband is not happy about that, but he puts up with it now.

At 11:29 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Only Because - please email me privately at shifraq@gmail.com
if you are still remotely interested in being able to go to the mikva perhaps I can help you to find one that will be better for you - or a Rav who can tell the mikvah ladies at your mikva to leave you alone.

Seriously - it would be my pleasure - it is not right for anyone to be made miserable while attempting to perform a mitzva and I will do whatever I can to help you.


At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your genuine concern, Shifra, but I may not remain anonymous if I email you. Please delete this comment after you read it. I moved to a different community recently and have tried one mikva there - it's much better. (It's not the reason we moved.) Also, I show up in pants and no headcovering so they think I'm not frum and may be more lenient.

At 2:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife came home from the mikvah last night crying. It was the worst experience of her life. We just moved to har nof and it was her first time using the mikvah there. When she got there she wasn’t sure which room to go to so she asked the lady at the front desk. The lady started to scream at her to go to a room. When she got to the room it was a tiny room with just a shower and a stool to sit on. She pushed the button for the light when she was ready but saw that the button was broken. After waiting for 15 min my wife opened the door to see if the mikvah lady was walking by after about another 15 min the mikvah lady realized that my wife was waiting to go so she came to the room. She made my wife shower again against her will and forced her to be checked. When my wife put on the robe it was sopping wet from the last 100 people that used it and the slippers were also gross. When my wife got to the mikvah the mikvah lady was standing opposite her on the other side of the mikvah. It was extremely uncomfortable for her to have to walk into the mikvah with some stranger staring at her naked front side. The water was terribly dirty also and my wife found out that some people complained about getting urinary tract infections after using the mikvah and then not being able to be with their husbands for the next few days. I guess my wife is used to the last mikvah that she went to were they ask if you wanted to be checked and were the mikvah lady turned around until you are covered by the water and were the mikvah was clean and courteous. So beware mikvah can be a horrible experience but hopefully if you do your research and find the right one it wont have to be so bad.

At 2:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


also the halacha is a mikvah lady only needs to make sure all your hair goes under the water and in theory if someone is bald or if the use a net to hold their hair down they wont need a mikvah lady at all(but ask your rav first)
The checking is just a minhag that some mikvahs have but by no means should be enforced if they will turn someone off


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