Friday, October 23rd, 2009 | 4 Cheshvan 5770
It’s a little after nine in the morning. Brian and I are driving out to the geographic heart of Jewish St. Louis, past Interstate 170, the asphalt curtain that divides the city and its inner suburbs from the territory to the west.
We arrive at the vast Millstone Campus. It has a recreational complex the size of a football stadium. A sign on the road screams Yoga! Pilates! There’s the Holocaust museum, auditoriums, apartments, and tucked away on a little island in a sea of parking spots, the mikvah.
We try the door. It opens. I put on my kippah as we enter.
We’re stepping across an imaginary border into the Orthodox world. Inside, it’s drab and official-looking. Kashrut alerts cover the wall, offering updates on which grocery store items are or are not kosher. There are voices but no one in sight. I poke my head into an office and find a bearded man in a kippah sitting at one of the desks. I tell him I have an appointment at the mikvah. He comes across as mildly put upon but shows me the door leading to the mikvah, then a fully functional bathroom that’s been made ready just for me.
I had forgotten that I had to bathe before going into the waters. Maggie arrives, all smiles. She asks me if I’m nervous. I tell her I am. She asks me why, and I tell her I have no good reason. I just am.
Maggie pulls aside a little curtain and we go into the room that contains the mikvah. It’s drab. Low ceilings, buzzing fluorescent lights. Slate tile around the mikvah, which goes six or seven feet into the ground. That surprises me. I had expected a glorified jacuzzi. Instead, there’s a flight of stairs leading to the bottom, then a full turn around to the deepest point. We see the little drop-laden window into the tank holding the rainwater that must go into the mikvah in rabbinically dictated measure.
Maggie and I go over the blessings. Go under once, say the blessing for immersion. Go under a second time, say the sh’ma. Go under one last time, say shehecheyanu. When you immerse, bring your feet up off the floor. Don’t touch the sides. The idea? Part of the birth metaphor, to have nothing but water surrounding you.
Rabbi Randy arrives, and we sit in a little room across from the bathroom. Brian and I are both jittery. It’s all so unfamiliar. Randy and Maggie are the calm, warming presence in the room, having seen the inside of it several times each year for a decade or so.
We talk about how this is both a big step and a small step given how much of myself I’ve been putting into the process. Randy and Maggie both say how wonderful it has been to have both of us as active in the community as we have been, how much our presence says about our commitment to each other, how much Brian’s presence says about his commitment to me.
Randy asks Brian about his thoughts and feelings, and Brian touches me deeply. He tells them how much a blessing it has been to be on this journey with me, even through all the sometimes tense negotiations about observance. We let them in on the ‘quickie kiddush,’ how we light candles and say the blessings for Shabbat on a TV tray in under 60 seconds.
Just as we join hands and prepare to say shehecheyanu, the prayer of thanks for sacred moments, in walks Leslie in a Christmas-colored sweatshirt that reads Oy to the World. Our wisecracking, potty-mouthed soprano. Hearing Leslie sing Avinu Malkeinu, now more than three years ago, was one of those moments without which this journey might never have taken off.
Leslie has come to give me a blessing of her own. She takes a sheet of paper out of a manilla envelope and hands it right to Maggie because she knows she won’t be able to read it without crying.
Leslie’s blessing begins with the tale of when she was first asked to write a blessing for someone. She learned that we can do so simply by telling them what we have learned from them that helps us make our world a better place.
Leslie reminds me of the first time we really met, in the kitchen before our big congregational Passover seder, how we instantly fell into step with each other. I became her sous chef, a bit of calm in the storm.
And she tells me, For reminding me that no matter how old you are, new and extraordinary friends can still enter your life, I bless you. For teaching me that courage is jumping in and helping, even though you have the most minimal of instructions, I bless you.
By the end, we’re both crying. Maggie reads the last words, and I stand up. On your feet, I tell her, and we hug.
All five of us join hands and sing shehecheyanu. Then it’s time.
They Think of Everything
I have pictured this day dozens of times in my mind, but I have never imagined a fully loaded bathroom being a part of it. Right down to the suburban shower curtain and the fluffy robes.
There’s a little bell for me to ring when I’m done, and I have my own door leading into the mikvah.
Maggie comes in with me and closes the door. Don’t worry, she tells me, she’s not going to watch me shower.
She holds my hands, looks in to my eyes, and asks me if I’m ready.
Yes, I tell her. I gently squeeze her hands and I say again, now a whisper. Yes, yes, yes.
We hug, and then I’m alone. On the wall is a checklist, and I realize I have forgotten that I’m wearing contacts, the kind you can wear for days on end. What should I do? Oh look, there’s a bottle of saline solution and little paper cups. They think of everything. There’s even a little styrofoam mannequin head. Perfect for wigs, but a good place to put my kippah too.
Cut your nails, the checklist says. I haven’t done that either, so I take a few minutes. Brush and floss your teeth. Okay. Why not.
Then into the shower, the kind with an adjustable nozzle and ten times the water pressure we have at home.
By the time I get out of the shower, Brian and Maggie are starting to wonder what’s taking so long. Just as Brian comes to check on me, I ring my little bell.
I come through the door in one of the white terrycloth bathrobes they provide. Randy is there. Maggie, Leslie, and Brian are standing behind a little hospital-style curtain. I can see their feet, they can see mine.
I walk over to the mikvah. Randy keeps a respectful distance as I take off the robe and step into the water.
Diving and Bobbing
The water feels warm, hot almost, but as I step in, I understand it’s set at body temperature. It feels light, like silk, like it’s not even there.
I walk to the bottom of the stairs. There’s a small, cold stream of water at the bottom — the rainwater. I turn. I’m walled in on three sides by greenish, no-nonsense slate tile. I’m crouching, the water at my shoulders.
Randy is leaning over a ledge behind me. “Whenever you’re ready,” he says. His voice is so gentle.
I will myself to go under the water, but nothing happens.
It’s like jumping off a diving board at the pool. It’s what you came for, you know you’re going to do it, but still, it’s your first time. And it’s a long way down.
I stay that way for what seems like a long time, but I don’t feel rushed or panicked. I hear Randy’s voice, calm and warm, telling me to take my time.
My body moves. My feet come up from the floor.
I sink, then I surface again like an apple. Did that count? I’m not sure, so I start blowing air out through my nose, sputtering and splashing until I lose enough to sink.
I stay under a moment, my eyes closed, then I surface. I wipe the warm water off my face, and Randy prompts me for the blessing. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al … I trail off, blanking for a moment on the word for immersion. T’vilah, Randy says. Al t’vilah, I say.
Then it’s time to go under again. And again, I bob back up, then sputter down as I exhale.
I come out the second time. I wipe the water from my face.
It’s time to say the sh’ma, but I can’t.
I can’t because I’m trembling. I’m crying. My hands are covering my face, shaking.
This is it. Hineini. So much has been leading to this moment. I haven’t known what to expect or what I would feel, and I’ve tried to keep my mind from playing the game of expectation.
But here I am. I am naked. I am in a green pool in some place in West County I’ve never been before.
And I am shaking like a leaf. I am sobbing.
I am suddenly and shockingly awake to the presence of G-d.
I hear Randy’s voice but not his words. All they say is gentle, gentle.
I begin the sh’ma. My voice gives out after the first syllable. I cry, I whisper the rest of the way. Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Hear, Israel. Our G-d is One.
I stay above the water. I am still crying. My breath is coming to me in fits. Our G-d Is One.
I don’t remember deciding to go under the last time. I remember exhaling first and gently sinking. I remember floating free in the water. I remember resting on the bottom, silence all around me.
I come up. And I’m still crying. I cry for a good long while before I start sobbing the last words. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.
I have been brought to this moment. And there, sobbing, I bless the G-d in whose presence I am trembling.
I come out of the water a Jew.
I come out of the water as Shimon, son of Abraham and Sarah.
The Rest Is Mostly a Dream
I think I remember Randy hugging me after I climbed the steps and put my robe back on. I think I was still shaking like a leaf.
I know I was still shaking when I was back in my little bathroom, trying to get my clothes on and my contacts in. Brian came in. I kissed him and told him I loved him. He told me he loved me, too, and was very proud of me.
I came out of the bathroom. More hugs and more crying.
Then paperwork. A certificate of my conversion to be filed in an archive in Cincinatti. A bigger, bilingual form, English on the left, Hebrew on the right, a space on both for me to enter my birth name and my new Hebrew name. I practice writing Shimon on a piece of paper — shin-mem-ayin-vav-nun. With Maggie’s help, I even fill out my full birth name in Hebrew letters.
Randy, Maggie, and Leslie enter themselves as witnesses. By this time, we’re joking around, and Leslie is cracking everyone up as usual. I ask for a self-timed picture that reduces poor Maggie to a piece of forehead. We laugh, pose again. It’s perfect.
I am in a daze. We make our way out to the parking lot. It’s cold and windy outside, but my Jewish limbs are languid, warm and fluid like the water. I am laughing, grinning from ear to ear.
A man in a kippah and long coat arrives. He casts a disapproving glance, a farbissene punim Leslie calls it, at our cackling, mixed-gender band as we head to our cars.
I get into the driver’s seat, and Brian sits next to me. Then it occurs to us maybe he should drive, since I’m in some kind of blessed trance.
We switch places, find the highway, and head back into our world.