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“Do you feel any different?”: My Mikveh Day Report

So Thursday I became a Jew. The capstone rituals to my months-long conversion journey took about an hour. I described what those “mikveh day” rituals would be in detail a few weeks ago (see How We Make a Jew.) But even after running mikveh day through my head for weeks in anticipation, the actual experience was still an amazing, humbling, unexpected shock.

I also tried to find detailed first-person blog posts about mikveh day during my conversion studies to help give me an idea of what to expect, but there aren’t many out there. (Two really great Reform-inspired accounts I did find are here and here.) So I’m adding to the record with my own. Here’s what happened on the day that I became officially Jewish–in long-form, epic-post format. For detailed descriptions of the process and rituals I talk about below, as well as links to authoritative Jewish websites on the topic, browse through my How We Make a Jew post, linked above.

“Today’s the last day I’ll wake up as a gentile.”
After weeks of day-dreaming and an almost sleepless night of anticipation, at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday (May 12, 2011), I decided caffeine was the only breakfast my nerves would let me ingest. I left Ryan in bed, got dressed at warp speed, then spent the next 90 minutes trying (and failing) to down a single cup of coffee. When he finally awoke, Ryan tried to make conversation with me, but all I was able to get out was one or another version of, “Oh, my God, today’s the last day I’ll wake up as a gentile–I’m never going to wake up again as a non-Jew.” It hit me hard that from the moment I got up that day, the rest of the day–and of my life–would be Judaism-related. Being a ger, a stranger, had already come to an end–and I had slept through it.

I put on easy-off clothing–jeans, a short-sleeved shirt, and sneakers–donned the blue-and-white crocheted kippah with a Magen David on it that fellow blogger Chaviva Galatz got for me in Israel, Facebooked and tweeted that my mikveh trip was underway, and headed for the car with Ryan. We had already made two dry runs to the Reform-friendly Community Mikvah of the Conservative Movement at Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah in north-suburban Wilmette to make sure we knew how to get there.

The 17-mile rush-hour trip up the Kennedy and Edens expressways from the Loop took 45 minutes. We had just enough extra time for me to not drink a second cup of coffee from a service station convenience store near Old Orchard. While Ryan went inside to get the coffee, I sat in the car and tried not to cry. Then I checked Facebook, saw a stream of warm welcomes and “Mazel Tovs!” from synagogue and secular friends, and began to lose it. I figured that tearing up in a parking lot was better than tearing up in front of my beit din.

“Nobody likes a show-off…”
Most of my beit din was already at the synagogue when we arrived–our rabbi and cantor, Rabbi Michael Zedek and Cantor Shelly Drucker Friedman, from our home synagogue, Emanuel Congregation. (“Our” because Ryan is a member along with me, as a family unit.) Also there was our good friend David, a longtime temple Brotherhood officer whom I had invited for already-Jewish moral support.

While we waited for the third member of the beit din (and much to my anxiety, my mohel) to arrive–Cantor Larry Elsberg–Rabbi Zedek got a head start in filling out my conversion certificate. “What’s the Hebrew date today?” he asked Cantor Friedman. Before she could answer, I whipped out my Android phone and displayed my Hebrew calendar widget. “The eighth of Iyyar,” I answered.

“Oh, look at you,” Cantor Friedman joked. “Well, nobody likes a show off. But listen, there’s something I ask everyone. I’m always curious to know, does it feel any different the moment after mikveh.” I told her I bet it would. Little did I know I’d have two more answers for her before day’s end.

“Why don’t you tell us how you got to this moment.”
Shortly after, Cantor Elsberg showed up and my now-completed beit din bid a temporary goodbye to Ryan and David and led me to a private meeting room. With my fate as a future Jew now in the hands of these three people, I took the sun streaming through the room’s skylight as a good sign. Not to mention the ironic small puddle of water accidentally pooled in the middle of the big, wooden table by the cleaning staff. I sat on one side, the members of my beit din on the other, and the conversation began to determine my readiness to join the Jewish people.

No one’s rabbi convenes their beit din without knowing that they’re already ready, but I didn’t expect the following moments. “Don’t be nervous, this isn’t a test,” Rabbi Zedek said–or as Cantor Friedman had told me a few weeks earlier after noting how Jewish I seemed to be already, “it’s a mere formality.” He asked her if she wanted to start. She just smiled at me and said she had no questions.

So Rabbi Zedek asked me to tell the story of how I had gotten to this point. I told them that I never inherited my family’s Christianity, how as a small child I never accepted church doctrine. I told them about growing up with substance-abusive siblings, and how that led me to an emotional recovery program as an adult. I told them about spending most of my adult life with a private sense of God, and eventually finding spiritual shelter in Buddhism.

I also told them about the day last year when, thanks to my recovery program, my sense of God became so strong, the bottom fell out. Buddhism gave me no avenue to have a relationship with God. I couldn’t share my 12-step fellowship with members outside of the rooms. I couldn’t go back to a faith I never accepted in the first place. I told them about the afternoon I felt so spiritually homeless that I sat on my couch and sobbed for an hour.

Then I told them about the ride on the Brown Line. That same week, I asked God to guide me, finally, to where I belonged, then got on the Brown Line with my laptop to blog from a Lincoln Square cafe. On the way, and by way of a last-ditch effort, I searched Wikipedia for world religions. I spent most of the thirty-minute ride reading about Judaism. And in the end, I did break down in front of my beit din when I tried to describe the sense of walking down the stairs from the Western Brown Line station knowing that half an hour after asking for guidance, I knew I had found my home. As I wrote in my conversion essay, Judaism describes the innermost parts of me so exactly that this has been a journey without a doubt.

Once I pulled myself together, Cantor Elsberg asked me about aspects of Jewish life that I found meaningful. (Shabbat observance, the continuous ritual of brachot–or food blessings, Jewish holidays.) Rabbi Zedek asked me why join a people so many other people hate. (Because the same people who want to kill me for being gay would want to kill me for being Jewish, so it’s a wash.)

Then Rabbi Zedek threw me a curve ball. He said I was already one of the most faithful participants in synagogue life and asked me how I make that jibe with knowing that many other members–and many other Reform Jews–rarely participate in the life of their religious community at all. I learned the answer during my conversion journey from personal experience–there is a prophetic aspect to being a Jewish convert. We converts are hard-wired to take Judaism with joy and sincerity and totally in earnest because it’s so new to us, and because of that we often serve as an inspiration to born Jews who may have lost their sense of wonder about their native religious tradition. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.

Finally, Rabbi Zedek asked the six ritual questions all conversion candidates must answer. Essentially, of your own free will are you joining the Jewish people, giving up all other religions, and willing to defend Judaism and the Jewish people, live Jewishly, keep a Jewish home, and raise your children as Jews? Absolutely.

“Thank you, Michael, would you please wait outside?”

“You take a deep breath, then a quick leap.”
Two minutes after I rejoined Ryan and David, the beit din emerged and congratulated me, at which point I was sure everyone could see the cartoon thought bubble hovering above my head, “Oh, my God, this is it. I’m about to become a Jew.” We retrieved Carol, the mikveh attendant, and headed outside to come back in through the separate mikveh door. It was a smaller facility than I expected, essentially a loop of rooms beginning with a long, narrow waiting room leading to a preparation room with two lockable doors, one of which led on into the mikveh room, which paralleled the waiting room on the other side of a shared wall.

We all squeezed into the waiting room, then Carol explained that anyone Jewish is welcome to use the mikveh to mark a religious or special occasion, but that conversion is the only use of a mikveh governed by Jewish law. Then she laid out what was about to happen: I would enter the preparation room with Cantor Elsberg where he would perform hatafat dam brit, or a ritual circumcision (i.e. the ritual for when someone is already circumcised.) Then I would remove everything from my person, brush my teeth, floss, and shower to ensure nothing would come between me and the mikveh waters, and signal my readiness to enter the water.

Privately Carol showed me how to immerse. “We’re too buoyant to immerse on our own. So you hold your hands in front of you pointing down, you take a deep breath, then a quick leap up. The force of coming down immerses you under the water. Then lift your legs up so that you don’t touch the bottom to ensure that for an instant, you’re floating free.” This was instantly more work than I thought it would be.

“Pull down your pants and pull up your shirt.”
A couple of minutes later, I was back in the preparation room with Cantor Elsberg while he explained what he was going to do. I am absolutely certain some readers (ahem, male ones) will arrive at this post solely for this section. Cantor Elsberg assured me hatafat dam brit would be painless. I had my doubts.

He told me he would sit (in this cramped prep room, on the closed toilet!) and I would stand in front of him with my pants down and my shirt pulled up. Then with what eventually turned out to be a teeny, tiny lancet, he would draw a drop of blood from along the side of you-know-where, collect it with a cotton swab, and show it to the rest of the beit din for them to witness evidence of my entrance into the covenant of Abraham.

“You’ll feel a little cold at first, because I have to apply alcohol to make the site sterile,” he said, getting down to business. “The only thing to remember is don’t move around. Are you ready? That’s it. I’m done.”

Clap your hands. The length of the sound your hands just made is about how long the lancing took. It felt like a slight scratching for a split-second, wasn’t painful at all, and in fact was so innocuous, all the worrying I had done in advance of the procedure left me feeling ridiculous. As did the fact that my penis sat for the next two minutes in someone else’s hand.

“Breathe, don’t stop breathing. We have to get blood to the site, so just keep breathing.” Why? Is it on life-support?

“You’re doing fine. There was only one person who almost passed out on me, and he had just had coffee for breakfast.” Are. You. Kidding?

“We’re almost there.” Really? Because I could stand here for another couple of-

“There, all done! See?” I didn’t, the drop was that small, as I had been warned it would be. It made no sense to raise my pants as Cantor Elsberg left the room with the evidence, but I did, only to drop them again and start my final preparations. I didn’t think I took very long, either, until I heard Rabbi Zedek call from behind the door, “Michael, cleanliness is next to Godliness, but come on!”

“Okay, Michael, whenever you’re ready.”
I signaled my readiness, entered the mikvah room alone, hung up my towel, and stood, naked, in front of the mikveh pool. It was deeper than I had anticipated. I held the railing and stepped down the seven steps–each one representing a day in the Creation story, into the most buoyant pool of water I’ve ever experienced. The warmth of the water–approximately body temperature–and, I suppose, the chemicals necessary to keep it clean use after use gave it the feeling of olive oil (the way many people describe the feel of the Dead Sea.) It made it impossible to move quickly, and hard to keep my feet on the bottom. I was also surprised to find the water coming up to just below my shoulders.

Everyone but Rabbi Zedek would only hear what came next from behind a privacy screen between the waiting room and the mikveh pool. Rabbi Zedek would be my shamas, or witness, to ensure my immersion was kosher, or halachically (legally) acceptable. I thought I would cry my way through the three immersions in the mikveh that would make me Jewish. As it turned out, I found myself concentrating so hard on doing it right and not forgetting anything that the experience was mostly keva (prescribed prayer and ritual) instead of kavanah (heartfelt intention.)

But keva is enough to get the job done. I took a deep breath, took the biggest leap of faith of my life, and jumped up and down into the water. It was easier to do than I thought. As I tucked my legs up I could hear Rabbi Zedek call out, “Kasher!” from under the water. I came up, put on the kippah at the side of the pool, and said the blessing for immersion.

Then I leapt up and in a second time, and again heard, “Kasher!” from underwater. I came up and said a silent prayer. I asked God to make me a good Jew. I asked God for Hebrew skills. Then in Hebrew I recited the Shema, Judaism’s central statement (“Hear, o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”), holding the final word, Echad (“One”), for as long as I could.

And then it was time. The third immersion, after which, the moment I emerged from the water, I would be a Jew. For a few seconds, I thought I would cry, but the struggle to stay on my feet brought me back to my senses, as did Rabbi Zedek. “Okay, Michael,” he said, “whenever you’re ready.”

“Rabbi Zedek,” I said, “I’ve been ready for forty years.” And then I dunked, heard “Kasher!”, came up and was Jewish. But before I could celebrate, there was the final blessing to get through. It was like the moment at the end of Star Trek: Voyager when they finally made it home to the Alpha Quadrant but still had to shoot their way out of a Borg Cube, first. Wade over to kippah. Put on kippah. Say the Shehecheyanu.

And then it was over. I was a Jew. There was a group “Mazel tov!” as Rabbi Zedek left the mikveh room, followed by Cantor Friedman leading a rousing round of “Siman Tov”, the familiar good-luck song from Jewish weddings. As I stepped up out of the mikveh, I should have felt elated. But in an effort to make sure my third immersion would be kosher, I had leapt a little too high with my left arm a little too crooked and ended up pulling my back as I went down. The only thing I thought as I emerged from the mikveh and for several minutes after was, “Ouch!”

On the other hand, I pulled my back in the mikveh?! Oy, how Jewish am I?

“Do you feel any different?”
After I got dressed, I got kissed and hugged by Rabbi Zedek and Cantor Friedman, paid my mikveh and mohel fees (not enormous by any means), and headed off with Ryan to Walker Bros. Original Pancake House to celebrate. Before leaving, I told Cantor Friedman that, in fact, I didn’t feel different after mikveh. Maybe it was because I was in pain. Maybe it was because I already felt Jewish. I just didn’t.

And then…

When the coffee came at Walker Bros., I raised the cup in my right hand and began to say a bracha…and realized I was a Jew saying his first bracha. I finished the bracha, sipped the coffee, and understood. I reached up to feel my kippah on my head, which it is my custom to wear at all times, and knew I was no longer a conversion candidate wondering if he was wearing his kippah correctly. I was, simply, a Jew wearing his kippah.

The realization made me almost leap out of my seat. It was such a subtle change, I hadn’t felt it at the mikveh. But it was profound. It was like being a little kid on a bicycle who looks down and realizes his training wheels are gone, that he didn’t notice when they fell away but he’s still riding just fine. The realization grew for the rest of the day. On the bus. At 7-Eleven. At the Lincoln Park Zoo. Alone with Ryan. I wanted to look at my hands to see what a Jew looked like. I wanted to pinch myself. I was no longer converting. I would never be converting again. I was Jewish.

It was and is a feeling of exultant liberation. Of self-determination and, finally and at long last, ownership of my own Judaism. A conversion is a beginning, not an endpoint. There’s a lifetime of Jewish knowledge yet to learn. But from here on out, I learn it as a Jew. Forever a Jew. Writing those words, if my laptop were not on my lap, I’d likely levitate out of my chair from the joy of it all. And from the gratitude for finally finding my soul’s native adjective.

Not long after I sipped my coffee at the pancake house, Emanuel’s famous rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Herman Schaalman, and his wife, Lotte, walked in and sat nearby. It was an amazing coincidence. (Truthfully, I know full well it was HaShem.) Before leaving, while Ryan paid the check, I went over to say hello. It turned out to be an auspicious day for the Schaalmans, as well. “We’re beginning our anniversary celebrations,” Rabbi Schaalman told me. “We’ve been married now for seventy years.”

“I’m celebrating too,” I said, beaming ear to ear. “I’ve been Jewish for an hour.”

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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29 replies

  1. Michael, I just stumbled onto your blog last night and have spent HOURS reading it. I should be working, but noooo, I am stuck here! This entry was particularly phenomenal and I hope you are still as gung ho about it as you recount here. Mazal Tov! a few years late, but still, I am glad you are a bona fide Jew, although you always were, you just had to formalize it.

  2. Thank you so very much for writing about your conversion in such detail. (Kind of an unexpected place to find this essay but…yay Google!) I’m getting ready to convene my beit din and visit the Wilmette mikveh and the process of “jumping through hoops” has, I’m afraid, gotten me a bit down. But now I’m excited again. Though I’m female (so not all of your experience applies to me), the idea of putting on my kippah and saying my first bracha as a Jew just fills me with goosebumps. Wow. Mazel tov, a little late!

  3. What a beautiful story – I am currently studying options in the US and Israel – scary and touching all in one. I pray for guidance every night (and during the day) – trusting that
    the gates will open at the right time.

  4. Mazel tov! That was a great post, and as a Trekker myself, I loved the Voyager analogy. Heh.

    Also, your description of how the rest of your day felt was really similar to how I felt immediately following my conversion; you did a much better job of putting it into words than I did. I’ll admit to having wanted to run through the streets telling random people, “Hey! Guess what? I’m Jewish now!”

    In any event, congrats again. It’s a great feeling, isn’t it?

  5. So tonight I went ahead and asked Carol at the mikvah in Wilmette about the water. Here’s the scoop: after consulting with mikvah specialists they put Bromine in the water which acts similar to Chlorine but is supposed to be gentler to the skin. That’s it—nothing else besides a mixture of tap water and melted ice. The mikvah was designed to properly collect and use rainwater, but something the workmen put on the roof caused the water to become dirtied with black sludge when they first tried the system. So ice that was made in a certain way from spring water (no mechanical pumping of the water, I assume) is used as the “mayim hayim” source.

    Sandra, do you have a severe fear of putting your whole body under the water? If you are anxious about immersing, the Wilmette mikveh with Carol is one of the best places to have someone guide you in a reassuring way, assuming you are in the Chicago area or would travel there for the purpose. I have also heard great things about “Mayyim Hayyim”, an “open-minded” and non-Orthodox mikvah in the Boston area. Or do you need to be “brave” about conversion? I would understand that hesitation since I waited more than 20 years to convert after starting to attend synagogue regularly and knowing that I would convert eventually.

  6. Cried through almost the whole thing. Paid close attention to Debbie’s comments, too. Maybe someday I’ll get to come there. I’ve never been to a mikveh and would like to experience it someday. Maybe I’d be brave enough with Carol.

  7. Since you had been so sure that you knew exactly what your conversion experience would be like and had already written about your future experience it in great detail, if wondered if you would find the actual event anti-climatic. I’m glad that it seems that it was still quite special. In fact, not to detract from your experience, but I think that in your excitement you had a bit of altered kinesthesia. So I would like to clarify some facts about the water of the mikvah, so that potential future users of the Community Mikvah of the Conservative Movement will not be a little wary of the water based on your description.

    I have used that same mikveh many times and have spoken extensively about technical details of the mikveh’s construction, use, and maintenance with Carol, the wonderful “shomeret” (“mikvah lady”). I can assure you that the water does not feel any different from clean tap water. I don’t think there are special minerals added to it. The one time that I tried opening my eyes upon immersion, my eyes stung a bit like from swimming pool water, so it may be lightly chlorinated (although all municipal water is chlorinated to some degree, so I don’t know maybe that’s all it was).. The water is cleaned by running it through filters, just like how swimming pool water is cleaned. However, that mechanical agitation renders the water unfit for mikvah use. To make it useable again, the water in the immersion pool is put in contact with the ritually pure water in another holding tank. If you were the first person to immerse after the water had been filtered, you would have been asked to remove a small rubber plug underwater near the top of the steps into the immersion pool and keep the hole open for 5 seconds before replacing the stopper.

    The water in the immersion pool is no more buoyant than the water in a swimming pool. I think the fact that you felt buoyant was due to the lightness of spirit you felt. I know I certainly felt “lighter” upon conversion—as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul. The mikveh also seemed “deeper” when I first used it for conversion. I’m only 5’3″ so when the water is a bit higher than average, I have to stand on tiptoe to keep my head above the water. But in my memory of my conversion immersions, I remember rising to the surface as coming up from some depth. My hair was waist-length and I felt like I had to part my way through my hair as I came back up. Since my first use of the mikveh, I have tended to worry that the pool is too shallow to get my whole body under even while lifting my feet from the floor of the pool. But it is plenty deep enough, of course.

    Unlike your rabbi, Carol always waits until my head breaks the surface to say “kasher” (if it is) to make sure that I can hear it. Some information I would also like to note for women who might use the mikveh in Wilmette: Carol believes that a woman’s modesty should be protected even from another woman. At some Orthodox mikvaot, the mikvah ladies are very intrusive in their examinations of the women who use the mikveh including those personal areas “below the belt”. In contrast, Carol expects that women will examine all areas of their bodies that they can see directly or in the mirror of the preparation room, so she doesn’t check the breast area, for example. She also does not check that fingernails are “short enough” or clean under the nails, which I believe is typical at Orthodox mikvaot. Carol carefully checks areas around the neck and back for stray hairs or other “chatzitzah” (barrier). Then she holds the towel in front of her to obscure her view while the woman is entering the water, or pulling the plug, and when she lowers it the woman is in the water facing away. After the immersions, she holds the towel in front of her face while the woman exits the water. When she speaks to me directly after immersion even if I am wrapped up in the towel, she looks down rather than at me.

    Note: I am not criticizing practices at Orthodox mikvaot, which truthfully I have only heard about given that I don’t think any of them would allow me, as a Conservative convert, to use them. I merely want to assure women who might use the mikveh in Wilmette that they will be treated very sensitively, so it is one thing they should not have to worry about. Carol is a wonderful gentle and very spiritual person. She tries hard to make every mikveh experience positive. When she was off mikveh duty for medical leave, the substitutes tried hard to attend to women in the same way, but it wasn’t the same—Carol is very special. The woman who attended me said apologetically that she wasn’t as “calm and spiritual” as Carol—and she was right although it wasn’t her fault, it is just that few women are as well-suited to the task as Carol.

    Another aspect of the mikveh that I didn’t learn about until I had made several visits: there are in fact two prep rooms with showers. The one at the end of the long hall seems to be the primary prep room and is a little bigger than the other room. I suspect that for converts or brides that Carol always books only one at a time except for the case of multiple members of a family who are converting together. That way the very special time of conversion or immersion before marriage is not rushed and does not feel like you are being “processed” impersonally. But is efficient for women who come for THM to be able to have two women prep same time.

    Anyway, Mazel Tov, Mike. I’m glad you had a good experience at the mikveh.

    1. Again, late to this conversation, but as a liberal Jew who keeps taharat hamishpacha, I’ve been to orthodox mikvaot in plenty of cities. I wish we had a liberal one close, but we don’t. I have never had one of those bad experiences – never anything more than a brief look to make sure nothing stuck to the bottom of my feet and no hangnails. Hopefully, these stories are overrated, or get inordinate press. Maybe it’s more of an issue in bigger Jewish cities, but I’ve never been treated anything but kindly.

  8. Thank you all so much for the kind words. I didn’t realize how much of a story there was in my mikveh day until I had that “a-ha” moment at Walker Bros. Then I realized the whole day was the story. I think I’m with Cantor Friedman now. I wonder in what ways mikveh day makes other Jews-by-choice feel changed. Without her asking the question, I might not have noticed–at least not in the way that I did.

    My first Shabbat as a Jew was our shul’s monthly family Share Shabbat service and dinner. I didn’t make it all the way through the Shema without choking up. God help me at our regular service this Friday! Once the cantor begins to sing Ritzei, I’m a goner.

  9. So heartfelt and genuine. It was an honor to share your day just by reading this. Thanks, Michael!

  10. Hi Michael, first, a huge mazal tov!! This was such an incredibly beautiful and moving piece, and I had the biggest smile while reading it! Reminds me of my own conversion experience!! Welcome to the tribe! Hope your first Shabbat as a Jew was fantastic.

  11. Thank you! I just emailed your post to my parents and my partner, to help give them start to get their heads around what they will be witnessing in a few months-time… particularly the emotional part the day, which you articulated so well! I particularly loved

    “I’m celebrating too,” I said, beaming ear to ear. “I’ve been Jewish for an hour.”

    Rock on!!

  12. So wonderful! I’m reading this and smiling. I hope, this time next year, I’ll be a Jew too–and with a bat mitzvah. I’ve just started learning Hebrew so I can have one.

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