by Pamela Jay Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)
I am no longer surprised when people– upon hearing that I don’t drive or answer the telephone on the Sabbath– ask me if I am Orthodox. The labels of denominations, and the assumptions about their adherents’ religious practices, are so ingrained that people momentarily forget that Orthodox women cannot be ordained as rabbis. Personally, I enjoy defying the labels, finding the places where it is possible to be “just Jewish” and observe the mitzvot, commandments.
The week that we relocated to Atlanta I needed to go to the mikvah, ritual bath. I found a listing in a local Jewish directory and called to inquire about summer hours. From the recorded message I learned that a woman must make an appointment 72 hours in advance and is given 20 minutes in the schedule to prepare and immerse. In my old neighborhood all you had to do was show up, and with half a dozen preparation rooms there was hardly ever a wait. Despite my last-minute call, I was able to secure 20 minutes that evening.
In New York, the mikvah attendant provided her clientele relative anonymity and freedom from small talk. It’s not that she didn’t care who was patronizing the mikvah, it’s just that in what is arguably the most Jewish city in the world the mikvah attendant couldn’t possibly know everyone. She lived in the house attached to the mikvah and treated the women who visited there as guests in her home. She was a noble and modest hostess– never judgmental, always unobtrusive. It was customary to give her a little extra, a gratuity, for her devotion to avodat kodesh, holy work.
That evening I was greeted by the attendant warmly with the requisite question: “Are you new in town or just visiting?”
“New in town,” I replied. “We just moved here from New York.”
“Welcome! That’s great. We love it here.” The mikvah attendant had immigrated from South Africa many years earlier.
She followed up then, asking about why we had moved, whether we had family in town and where we were living. She seemed surprised to learn that we were living within walking distance to a Conservative synagogue. So I admitted that I was employed there, but omitted the detail that I was serving as a rabbi in the congregation. I didn’t want to burden her with explanations about non-Orthodox women visiting the mikvah or walking to synagogue on the Sabbath. I assumed that such a combination of ritual practices would be alien to her.
Finally, the small talk was over and she showed me to the back room, where I prepared for immersion. Later, when I paid her, she followed me out to my car. Giving me back a few dollars she said, “It’s only 12 bucks.”
I mumbled something about it being customary in New York to tip the attendant.
“We’re volunteers here, so that isn’t necessary.”
As I turned to go, she said quietly, “tizki b’mitzvos,” which translates “be strengthened by [your observance of the] commandments. Clearly, I had misjudged her as judging me. She recognized that any Jewish woman could be devoted to the mikvah–nowhere else are the fluid boundaries of Judaism’s denominations so apparent. Thanks to a dedicated cadre of volunteers, the mikvah remains functional, and the observance of its ritual viable. I promised myself to be a noble and modest guest in her home.
In time I grew accustomed to visiting the mikvah in Atlanta. I still have to remember to call 72 hours in advance, but the woman who coordinates appointments is kind to me when I forget. I have met most of the volunteer attendants and I’ve stripped myself, so to speak, of any disguises; now many of these women know that I am a Conservative rabbi. In this community of women, I am happiest floating between the denominations, resisting labels and observing the mitzvot to the best of my ability.
Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist, and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom. A New York City native and graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gottfried teaches students of all ages in churches, colleges, community centers, schools, and synagogues. She strives for balance in her life by spending as much time writing at the computer as she does working at the pottery wheel.
An excerpt of this essay originally appeared in Sacred Days: A Weekly Planner for the Jewish Year, 2004-2005, published by CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of CLAL and the author.