I had planned for this day for years. But the specifics of the day were only planned a week in advance. I was supposed to be off work at 5:30. I was supposed to get on BART’s 5:56 train and be home by 7:00. I was supposed to scrub the bathroom sparkly clean and then begin the checklist process of scrubbing from head to toe, with the new loofah and nail scrubbing brush I had purchased specifically for all future mikvah dunks.
But, Man plans and G-d laughs. I had to stay late at work. I didn’t get home until close to 9. When I got home, I was touched to see that my mom had cleaned the bathroom for me, so I could get straight into the cleaning process. I had found an OCD checklist (literally) for preparation and followed it to a T.
I bathe every day; my morning shower helps wake me up. I’ve been doing this for 20 something years on my own now. But this one just felt… SO different. It really does help put you in the right frame of mind, to set apart this bath from all others. I’d never really understood the appeal of bubble baths either, but this may have been the closest I got to understanding the ability to de-stress, to concentrate on just the physical, to relax, to reclaim. An hour later, I was ready for the mikvah.
I went to bed right away. The feeling of lying in bed that night reminded me of the night before school started as an elementary school student: a healthy bit of nerves, but mostly excitement at seeing your friends and learning some more and growing up. I fell asleep effortlessly and woke to my alarm.
I took a second quick shower and then pulled out the ironing board. I never iron my clothes, but after my mom had given me the “you’re wearing WHAT to the conversion court?” face that all moms seems to master, I promptly purchased “suitable” attire and did not want to risk another face for wrinkles. So I ironed.
We left by 9. I wanted to be in Berkeley, at the local Judaica store, when it opened at 10. I wanted to purchase my tallit—the one piece of Judaica that I had made myself wait to purchase until I was dunked—and then head to the beit din.
Man plans and G-d laughs. Again.
There was no traffic and we got there early. To kill time, we wandered around a really nice Mom and Pop grocery store right next door. I realized I had stupidly left my wallet in the car a little before 10 and it happened to be right under my cellphone. I had missed a call. It was from the rabbi’s secretary. Would I please return the call immediately? Would it be possible to be at the mikvah at 11, instead of noon? One of the rabbis needs to leave earlier than originally anticipated.
I freaked out. What if I hadn’t remembered that I forgot some items in the car? What if the message never got to me in time? (Drama ensues in moments of stress, what can I say.) My mom and I drove quickly over to the city. We found a parking spot pretty easily, after another lady yelled at us that we should know that she was trying to get to that spot … when her car was half way up the block with no signal on. My mom asked if I should let the elderly Russian-accented, obviously Jewish woman have the spot. “Nope.” “This won’t jinx you?” “Nope.”
When we turned the corner onto the street of the mikvah, I saw one of my classmates ringing the doorbell. I waited ten or fifteen minutes outside to allow her her time, then rang it myself. The mikvah lady answered and explained things were a bit rushed with the rabbi having to leave a bit early.
The waiting area was big enough for maybe four people. The first candidate’s family sat in the chairs. He was signing his conversion certificate and left quickly after. I didn’t really know him, he only came to class a few times, but he looked extremely happy, as did the woman I assume was his girlfriend/fiancé/wife.
I was told that the classmate before me was in the beit din at the moment and so I asked for a brief tour to show my mom what the building was all about. I set my belongings in the first prep room. The lady explained the paper slippers, the shampoo only, the inspection process. She walked us into the mikvah. I knew the water would be warm, but I did not expect it to warm the room to the degree it did—not the uncomfortable point of a sauna, but warm. Different.
The mikvah lady explained the process of how it was built, what kind of waters are used, and how it is inspected. She explained how the moving from the prep room to here would work. She asked me if I wanted my mom in the room, or outside. I said inside—what’s the point of bringing someone if they’re not going to see the action? Besides, she was at my first birth and might as well witness my second. The mikvah lady laughed.
It was then that I turned to the practical matters. I’m 5’9”. Not a giant by any means, but also a schmidge taller than most American women. How was I going to fit in a crouched fetal position, not touching any walls, in water that looked at most 3’6” deep? How do MEN, who are taller than me, do it? The mikvah lady explained two different techniques to me, but I was still worried I’d end up looking like a spazz. I think in an attempt to get me to laugh, she also mentioned that uh, certain female body parts were quite buoyant, and to not be worried. I think I could only muster a blink as a response before she went back to reassuring me that every convert she’s ever witnessed has made three kosher dunks.
We went back to the waiting room. The classmate had completed the beit din section and was now in her prep room. The rabbis came out of the office and apologized that this was going to seem haphazard. One asked if it was okay if he used some portions of my essay in sermons and that I should save this, so that my children and my grandchildren would know why they were Jewish (I’m pretty sure I turned bright red at the immense compliment).
They then proceeded to explain that I was going to start my beit din, but that when the buzzer rang, they would go observe the immersion of my classmate, and we would start again when they returned. The classmate took a much shorter time to prepare than had been anticipated, so they left before we could get started. My sponsoring rabbi was kind enough to give me my first question—where do I see myself going from here. I’m a decent enough writer, but I hate speaking on the spot. Having even some possible answers for the first question really helped ease me into the rest.
They left the office door open, and I could hear the declarations of “kasher!” from the mikvah lady saying her dunks were legit. After the third dunk, I whispered to my mom “now she’s a Jew!” as they broke into song.
They returned to the office and the questions continued. What were my hopes for my Jewish future? What did I mean in my essay about a G-d that rewards and punishes? How does my mention of predicate theology and the essay allow me to celebrate Shavuot? How did it allow me to relate to that week’s parsha? Why did I put the Traveler’s Prayer at the beginning of my essay? Do I think I will ever feel 100% a Jew, given what I wrote about in my essay? What is my relationship to the state of Israel? Do I have any questions for the beit din?
It seemed like an hour, but it was really only 25 to 30 minutes. After I responded that I had no additional questions, my sponsoring rabbi said, “Well, I do, of you.” He rose, which prompted the rest of us to do so.
“Do you choose to enter the eternal covenant between God and the people Israel?”
I smiled. Yes.
“Do you choose to become a Jew of your own free will?” I do.
“Do you accept Judaism to the exclusion of all other religious faiths and practices?” Absolutely.
“Do you pledge your loyalty to Judaism and to the Jewish people under all circumstances?” Completely.
“Do you promise to establish a Jewish home?” I will.
“Do you promise to participate actively in the synagogue and local Jewish communities?” Fully.
“Do you commit yourself to the pursuit of Torah and Jewish knowledge?” Totally.
“If you should be blessed with children, do you promise to raise them as Jews?” May I be worthy.
They asked me what my Hebrew name would be. I explained my choice, and my sponsoring rabbi said, “We will sign your certificate now and leave it with the mikvah lady. After it is signed, Rabbi Isaacson will leave, but Rabbi Philmus and I will stay to observe the immersion. We will probably be gone before you get out.”
I rinsed. I combed again. I inspected. I wrapped in the towel and rang the doorbell to be inspected. I was sent into the water, still wet from the shower so that the waters of my past would be added to the waters of the Jewish people, commingling my destiny with theirs. With ours.
The first toe in the water and it was so warm I think I ran down the seven steps and sank into its comfort. I hadn’t appreciated the warm room before that moment. I called for the mikvah lady and my mom. My mom later shared that Rabbi Philmus had assured her, “We are Jewish men. As soon as we turn the corner into the hallway (where the door would be open so we can hear if the dunks are proper), our noses will be against that wall!” He pointed to the wall opposite the door. They walked side-stepped down the hall until they were near the door. My mom laughed, and I think she finally understood that this ritual in no way has ever been about a peep show.
The mikvah lady and my mom entered, standing next to the open door, just enough to see me. She said to try my first immersion. I did, and came up to hear “kasher.” I had practiced the shecheyanu for weeks and nailed it. Every time I hear it, I think of that dunk. Of the leap of faith it requires to lift your feet off the ground, to bend completely in submission, and to believe you will be caught, and supported.
I dunked again. Kasher. I said the bracha for immersion. And I knew I was in love with this ritual. And I thought of all the future visits I hoped G-d would be willing to grant me. Before chagim. Before chuppah. After biology. After bris or naming.
I dunked again. Kasher. My voice cracked as I said the Sh’ma, I was so overcome with emotion. Finally, finally, finally. Every morning I say the Sh’ma, I think of that dunk. I think of the process of becoming a Jew and the process of being a Jew. I think of every Jew who has come before me, and every Jew who will come after me.
The rabbis broke out into song and the mikvah lady left me with my mom. She had teared up, which made me tear up. She said she was glad to have been able to witness this, that she was happy for me, that she was proud of my for sticking with this through all the ups and downs. She asked me what my name was. And then she left me in the waters.
All I could manage to think was “May I be worthy.”
Of the Jewish religion and its principles, practices, and ceremonies.
Of the Jewish people and its history, destiny, and fellowship.
Of the Jewish theology and its tenets, difficulties, and blessings.
Of the Jewish identity and its privileges, complications, and obligations.
Of the Yoke of the Commandments, of the lifestyle.
Of the G-d of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the people of Israel.