Wednesday night, many months of hard work came to a beautiful conclusion. Though it feels like I talk about it a lot (and scream it from the rooftops) many of my friends don’t quite understand what I do when I say I work at the mikvah.
I was hired in August of 2018 to aid in the creating of a storytelling event that would feature folks who had been profoundly impacted by the mikvah. These stories would be told in front of our entire community in celebration of the newest renovations that our pluralistic and egalitarian mikvah had just finished.
With a list of about 12 names, some already confirmed to perform, I set about working on finding people who would represent the mikvah for what it was: a beautiful site of transformation and healing. I went into this internship ecstatic at the chance to help hone these narratives into cohesive and powerful stories.
And it was hard. At times, it was really, really hard. Corralling our storytellers, navigating a relationship with a professional storytelling coach, and wrestling with our vision for this event with the practicalities of how we could do this often made me question why the hell we were even doing this.
But last night made it more than worth it. Listening to our four brilliant storytellers share their stories with the community was a gift. For months they worked on crafting their stories and then brought them to life in front of our eyes. Verklepmt.
I also got to share my story as well. I had not intended, originally, to participate as a storyteller, I volunteered to participate when we were unsure we would have enough other participants. This meant sharing my own story. Below is just my speech, but I highly recommend watching the entire
I want to give a huge thank you and shoutout to the other storytellers and participants who were the backbone of last night’s event. They truly represent the beauty and power of our mikvah. It was an honor to work with them.
And thank you to Naomi, my visionary boss, whose deep love of the mikvah has reached the DC community and beyond. She has more than inspired me and is the reason for my profound love of this work as well.
Hello, my name is Steph Black, I am the mikveh intern, and this is my story about witnessing.
There is something profoundly comforting in knowing that water will hold you when it feels like the world is falling apart. Water has this magnificent quality about it where it doesn’t need you to move a certain way or know something special for it to keep you afloat. And I’m sure there’s some scientific formula for calculating buoyancy, but the truth is, I don’t know it. All I know is that, if you let it, water will hold you. Water will keep you afloat. And in the world we live in, with the news we see and the headlines we hear, the weight of all of that will do its best to sink us. But, like water, there are those in our society who work tirelessly to keep others afloat. Like water, I too want to keep people afloat.
On the day of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to Congress, I was working here, at the Adas Israel Community Mikveh. For over a month, Ford’s name made headlines, filled social media feeds, and dominated conversations around the country. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone felt compelled to share that opinion. And, as someone who had been heavily involved in organizing in support of Ford, I consumed them all.
From the day Kavanaugh was announced as the nominee, to the day he was confirmed, I was there. I protested. I was arrested during the first day of his hearing. I spoke out and prayed to a thousand people in front of the Supreme Court., in the words of Rabbi Tamara Cohen, “Dear God, who opened Hagar’s eyes to the desert well, dear God who was with Hannah as she cried out her heart to the priest Eli, deafened by his position, authority
andjudgment, be with Christine Blasey Ford today as she opens her lips to share her painful truths in a seat of patriarchal power.”
For weeks, I read and listened to the stories of women who, like Ford, had buried their stories of assault and of abuse of power. Women from all walks of life shared once again Me Too. Women bared to the world the scars of their assaults and traumas that they had buried long ago. For me, listening to and honoring these testimonies felt like a mitzvah, like a sacred duty. But stories, especially those of trauma like Christine Ford’s, weigh on you. They sit with you. They cling to you the way that old smells do, every once in a while, getting a whiff of something unpleasant when you don’t expect it. But I would bear witness to her, I would try to keep her afloat from afar, I would keep her from sinking into a world of hatred from people who could not and would not understand her pain.
So, I went to work at the mikveh that Thursday morning already carrying the weight of this brave woman with me.
Now, our first immersion of the day was not exactly a bride or a conversion.
Insteadit was a set of china. Though we were just a little bit anxious about missing Ford’s testimony, our job is always to welcome and witness the moment of immersion. Aimee, the woman who brought the china was excited to usher it into her new home. She was honoring her grandmother, the original owner of the plates, by immersing them. To her, the simple task of tenderly unwrapping, dipping them, drying them, and rewrapping them, was like saying hello to her grandmother again.
The silence of the mikveh room and with the weight of her grandmother’s memory overcame her. Holding a single plate in both hands, she clutched it to her chest and told us how much she had loved her grandmother and how much she missed her. Through a lump in her throat, she espoused her wishes for the plates, that they had served her grandmother, her mother, and her well, and that one day, they might serve her own daughter well too. After saying the first prayers for immersing dishes with the plate from her hands, we set out to work, immersing and removing three boxes of
china, all of us still a little teary-eyed.
And like hundreds of thousands of others that morning, our hearts were on the Hill. We had each been listening to the testimony on our own before meeting at the mikvah. So, we agreed to continue listening together. I pulled up a
livestreamof the proceedings on my phone, slightly warbled by the acoustics of the tiled room. And there we were, three women, hunched over the humid waters of the mikveh and piles of pristine china, silently listening to an exhaustedly resilient woman sharing her pain.
As I sat there, covered in water droplets and tissue paper, I couldn’t help but wonder about the woman who originally owned this china. How different did the world look for women when this china was still in use? Could this woman, or any others of her generation, have been able to speak out then like Ford? Did the world really look that much better today than back then?
With these questions on my mind, I offered to recite that same prayer for Christine Blasey Ford: “May those who seek her harm be stilled, may those who quake with their own memories find support and comfort, may those who go to parties tonight and any night seeking joy, acceptance, release, adventure, never be pinned down, ridiculed, forced to yield the basic freedom to their bodies’ autonomy, to their souls’ intactness, to their future’s possibilities.”
Together the three of us listened to Ford’s heartbreaking testimony and questioning. Together, the three of us bore witness to a woman’s
private publicpain. Crouched by the mikveh, three women carefully immersed a set of china and held the memory of a loving grandmother long passed. Together, we tenderly kept each other afloat.