New kind of mikveh washes off ritual’s negative image

“I’m pretty much your classic disaffected Gen-X kind of gal. I have too many shoes, I work too hard, I’m cynical, I’m broke. So when it came time for me to immerse before my wedding, I figured I’d bring some friends, we’d hang out, I’d get wet, we’d go eat, and that would be the end of it.”

That’s hardly the end of it for “the bride,” a character in “The Mikveh Monologues,” a play about the experience of immersing in the Jewish ritual bath that will be performed Dec. 17 at the Wadsworth Theatre as a fundraiser for the establishment of a new, nondenominational mikveh in Los Angeles.

The bride, along with the bat mitzvah girl, the convert, the father and son and the recovering cancer patient, among others, all tell their stories on stage in a show that follows the format created by Eve Ensler for her play “The Vagina Monologues.” But this time, instead of rhapsodizing about a once-shameful and hidden part of women’s bodies, they enthuse about an experience little-known among most Jews today, save the very observant — the mikveh.

For the last two centuries the ritual bath has been used most commonly by women for purification, so they can resume marital relations following their menstrual flow. A mikveh, which requires a body of natural water that often has been channeled into a man-made structure to serve a religious community, is also used by brides, for conversion rituals and, occasionally, by men before major holidays. But it is the association with women’s menstrual cycle and the perceived antiquated laws of niddah (marital purity) that have given the mikveh a bad rap in modern times.

“For a lot of people, the mikveh’s been associated with a lot of negatives — the second-class status of women, the denigration of women’s bodies,” says the play’s co-author, Anita Diamant. Premiering in 2005, the play was created as a means of fundraising for Mayyim Hayyim, a state-of-the-art nondenominational mikveh opened in 2004 in the largely Jewish community of Newton, Mass., near Boston. Diamant, best known as the author of “The Red Tent,” founded that mikveh, which has spawned a movement for alternative ritual baths nationwide, including one that is planned to open in 2010 in Los Angeles.

Not to mention that many mikvehs, which are generally supported by small communities and private donations, tend to be small, dingy places with dank reception rooms and stern supervisors (known as “the mikveh lady”) who oversee the correctness of the immersion and proclaim it kosher. In other words, the entire experience can be somewhat unpleasant — especially for converts, for whom this is a mandatory part of their entry into Judaism.

In the last decade, however, the notion of what a mikveh might represent has begun to change. Along with many other ritual practices that involve strict rulings on women’s participation — such as reading from the Torah or the megillah — many feminist-minded people have been rethinking how they might reclaim their practice in new ways. This includes a wide swath of non-Orthodox Jews who have begun to observe the laws of ritual purity and many others who are using immersion for non-traditional uses: to mark personal transitions, much like the myriad characters in “The Mikveh Monologues.”

The play tells the stories of real-life people, some of the 3,800 who have immersed at Mayyim Hayyim.

With the renaissance of interest in the mikveh, it was only a matter of time before someone would want to rethink the physical structure of the bath itself. And like many revolutions, this one started with one dreamer: Diamant, whose best-selling novel about Jacob’s daughter, Dina, popularized the genre of Jewish historical fiction.

While Diamant was writing her novel, she was also working on “Choosing a Jewish Life,” a book about converting to Judaism. In the process, she went to the only mikveh in the Boston area open to non-Orthodox Jews — and which was only available to them on Mondays from 9-11 a.m.

“It was not built to welcome people to Judaism,” Diamant said. “I felt increasingly that we were not performing the warm welcome we owed people coming to Judaism.”

She imagined a mikveh that would be warm and welcoming and open to the entire community for different uses.

“I want a mikveh. Not my own, personal mikveh in the backyard, but a community mikveh that I can call my own,” Diamant wrote in “Living Waters,” a column that was later reprinted in her book, “Pitching My Tent”:

“I want a mikveh where converts will linger at the mirror, before and after the blessings of immersions that symbolically transform them from not-Jewish to Jewish. In my mikveh, there will be gracious room for song and blessings, for hugs and champagne, for gifts of books and candles. My mikveh will provide liberal time and space for savoring beginnings. Brides and grooms (gay and straight) will come, separately, in preparation for marriage. Setting aside the lists, and plans, and the rush, each will read a poem or a psalm …”

She describes a holy place for use on holidays and celebrations, to mark sad times and transitions, where women could “find new ways to celebrate all the unheralded passages of their bodies as they see fit,” and men could also make use of it. An educator would replace the mikveh lady, and tours would be given to b’nai mitzvah students and prospective converts and delegations from around the world. “

I want a mikveh that is as nourishing as the rain, inspiring as the ocean, sweet as childhood swims in the pond…. And when you surface, the one word on your wet lips is Ahh. Or perhaps Ahh-men.”

The mikveh she describes was eventually realized in the Mayyim Hayyim facility she set in motion. To get it built, though, Diamant talked about her idea to anyone who would listen, and Barry Schrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, essentially told her, “You’re going to have it to it yourself,” Diamant recalled.

All Hebrew, All the Time


Morah Safi Netter turns up the volume on her cellphone speaker. Twenty-two kindergartners stifle giggles and bounce expectantly on their knees as a distinctive foreign-sounding ringtone fills the room at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy in Los Angeles.

Netter’s father, Moshe, answers the phone in Rechovot, Israel. With good humor he obliges his daughter’s request for a weather report. He tells of the cold plaguing Israel and listens as the kids describe sunny but cool Los Angeles.

What is so unique about this transatlantic news exchange is that these all-American kids are conducting the entire conversation in Hebrew.

For up to three hours a day, these children will not hear an adult utter a single word in English — not even at recess or bathroom time or when a child needs disciplining.

Pressman is at the vanguard of a nationwide movement looking to preschools and kindergartens to confront a widely acknowledged problem in Jewish education: Kids spend more than 12 years in day school or Hebrew school and, with a few exceptions, are unable to carry on a fluent conversation in modern Hebrew.

That is already changing for the kids in Netter’s class. After the phone call to Israel they don warm hats and scarves and trek across the yard to a mock Israeli Mount Hermon, where they continue their unit on cold weather. Not one of them seems lost as they listen to instructions in Hebrew about the day’s projects involving ice cubes, powdered sugar and Styrofoam balls. They answer questions in well-pronounced, Hebrew-accented sentences.

These children are part of a groundbreaking Hebrew-immersion program. The idea behind immersion is that children and adults best learn a second language the same way they learned their first — by hearing it spoken without any translations, by using context or multisensory clues to decipher new words, and by using the language to function in everyday activities.

“The difference is before they only got vocabulary, and now they are getting the whole language,” said Tova Baichman-Kass, who has taught kindergarten at Pressman for 10 years and began immersion teaching this year. “We want them to think in Hebrew. We want them to know that aryeh is an aryeh, not a lion or anything else.”

When kids know that a teacher will translate what she has just said, the kids tune out the Hebrew and listen only for the English, noted Sigal Abukrat, who teaches first and second grade at Pressman.

Immersion in different languages has moved into the preschool arena in the last five years, and it seems to be a natural fit. Parents and academics have long observed that young children acquire language with great ease. Recent research indicates that very young kids learn a second language in the same network in the brain that holds the primary language, while older children or adults must develop a whole new network, a less efficient process.

The hope is that these American children will become as fluent as native speakers of Hebrew — a concept that could revolutionize Jewish education.

“To me, fluency with Hebrew language is the cornerstone for building Jewish learning and participation in Jewish life and a relationship with Israel,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman Academy. “It raises the level of everything that goes on in school when you have a really strong foundation in Hebrew.”

Changing the Old Models

Malkus and principals at other schools are looking to bring the latest in research and teaching techniques, including immersion, to an educational arena that is thousands of years old. Many schools have bought more interesting and more educationally solid texts and curricula. They have brought more noise into the classroom, with music and group conversations replacing teacher talk, workbooks and spelling tests.

Schools are sending their teachers to language-acquisition training institutes or hiring Hebrew-language specialists. And there is a late-in-coming realization that being Israeli is not enough to qualify for the job of Hebrew teacher.

While these changes have been trickling up through the day school movement over the last 10 to 15 years, the success of Hebrew-language immersion in preschools is especially attracting attention.

“I have been teaching Hebrew for many years, but I have never seen instant results like this — and I can really call it instant,” said Miri Avraham, a preschool teacher at Pressman, who often hosts observers from other schools in her class. “When you talk to the children in the target language the whole time, they understand it better and they learn it better — and it’s fun for them when they realize they can understand.”

So far, parents are thrilled with the results.

“My oldest in seventh grade is coming to my little one to ask her for words,” said Sheryl Katchen, who has 6-year-old twins in immersion classes at Pressman.

Using Immersion

Language immersion, which began with a Spanish program in a Culver City School in 1971, has grown nationwide to almost 300 schools. Language learning in general, even in elementary grades, has been coming back into vogue in North American schools, which have historically postponed language classes until middle school and high school.

Immersion is only superficially related to traditional bilingual education, which has fallen out of favor in California. The goal of bilingual education was to use a foreign language, usually Spanish, to teach academic subjects to students who had only a limited command of English. These students were supposed to transition gradually to English. In immersion programs, the goal, by contrast, is fluency in a foreign language.

Many Jewish schools for decades have used the old European model of ivrit b’ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew), where Judaic content is taught in Hebrew.

While immersion teaching is also content based, it utilizes a more systematic, consistent approach to language acquisition.

The advantage for preschoolers may go beyond merely learning a foreign language. European researchers reported in a 2004 Nature article that bilingual brains have denser gray matter than monolingual brains, and the earlier the language was learned the denser the gray matter.

Gray matter makes up the bulk of nerve cells in the brain and is associated with intellect. Research has also pointed to easier acquisition of additional languages, more creativity, problem-solving ability and even higher SAT scores among children who were bilingual at an earlier age.

Buttressed by such research and frustrated with the imperfect Hebrew of educated American Jews, Frieda Robins, a doctoral student in Jewish education at the New York City-based Jewish Theological Seminary, developed Maalah (Hebrew for benefit, merit and upward). The program, which was launched in 2003 — thanks to a two-year $150,000 seed grant from the New York-based Covenant Foundation and matching funds from the Jewish Theological Seminary — works with local Bureaus of Jewish Education to train early childhood teachers and help preschools develop immersion classrooms.

Maalah is a teaching technique (not a curriculum with texts) that combines methods used to teach young children with those used to teach languages. These involve constant repetition, body language and tasks that require students to get up and do something. Maalah structures thematic units around works of Israeli children’s literature, and the program adapts methods from special education, relying on more than one modality to reach students who might have trouble with visual or audio cues.

“We know that the vocabulary a child comes with into first grade will determine not only his or her reading comprehension at the end of first grade, but also at the end of 12th grade,” Robins said.

Difficult Transitions, Huge Payoff

Pressman is one of four schools locally and 13 nationwide participating in Maalah. Temple Judea West and Shomrei Torah Synagogue, both in West Hills, have preschool classes with 3- and 4-year-olds utilizing Maalah, as does the preschool at Valley Beth Shalom day school in Encino. Two other day schools, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, are signed on for next year.

Starting this summer, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angles, will take over local Maalah training and support.

Adopting Maalah has cost Pressman about $17,000, including paying for consultants, new materials and paying teachers extra for developing their own units. Pressman also received a $3,000 federal Title One grant, through which private schools can develop nonreligious programming.

To bring parents on board, schools have presented model lessons at orientation and provided vocabulary lists so parents can understand their children. They’ve even begun adult Hebrew classes.

“There are parents who are afraid of this, who think their kids will be lost or their English will not develop properly if they learn things in Hebrew,” said Aviva Kadosh, director of Hebrew language services for the Bureau of Jewish Education. “I collect articles that say it isn’t so.”

Kadosh explains that what children are learning in the early years is concepts, not words, so that they understand the idea of something being round whether it is called a circle or an igul. Kids function in English outside of those few hours a day, so they won’t fall behind in English.

Avraham, who has been teaching immersion for the last two of her nine years at Pressman, acknowledges that the transition is hard, but kids catch on within weeks. At this point in the year, the children not only understand but are comfortable expressing themselves in Hebrew.

On a recent morning in Avraham’s class, the 4-year-olds were near the end of a unit on plants and vegetables that coincided with the holiday of Tu B’Shevat. As they had been doing for several weeks, the children played games identifying pictures of cucumbers, models of plastic peppers or fragrant heads of garlic. They made and ate a salad, painted with broccoli at art tables lined with Hebrew newspapers and read a book about a neighborhood salad-making party.

Teachers encouraged the kids to speak in Hebrew even among themselves, and if a child got stuck, Avraham helped out with choices, so the kids always came up with the right word eventually. Body language, charade-type motions and pointing helped.

Parents who are worried about children losing out on grammar or writing skills should not be, according to experts. Immersion programs incorporate reading and writing in older grades, and the grammar comes with speaking in a safe environment where expression is encouraged and correction of mistakes is applied strategically.

When it comes to these programs, the students may have the easier part. An immersion program limits the pool of teachers to those fluent in Hebrew. Teachers have to redesign curricula and teaching styles.

“It has been tough for the teachers,” said Jessica Green, director of education at Shomrei Torah. “These are veteran teachers who are training to do this, and they told me it is as if they are brand new teachers and have to start from scratch.”

They also have to be willing, at least at first, to give up some content. Abstract concepts — such as Rosh Hashanah being a new year, or saying sorry on Yom Kippur — have to be saved for older grades, since the 3- and 4-year-olds might not yet have the vocabulary for it.

Moving Up Through the Grades

Pressman has brought immersion as far as second grade, and plans to add a grade per year until the entire school is speaking Hebrew. It will also adapt the program for religious school students, who only attend one or two days a week.

Shomrei Torah, too, plans to bring immersion gradually to the upper grades of Hebrew school.

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy hopes eventually to teach all Judaic studies in Hebrew, in addition to having Hebrew-immersion periods every day.

“We feel that if our children receive this at the age of 4 or 5, it will serve as a tremendous foundation for when we begin to teach them more formal Hebrew,” said Rabbi Baruch Sufrin, who heads the school.

For Ginni Rosenfeld’s family, the benefit already extends beyond the classroom.

“Just this week my daughter got into the car and spoke to me in flawless Hebrew, saying, ‘Ima, ani rotzah lachzor habaytah [Mom, I want to go home],'” said Rosenfeld, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Pressman. “It was seven o’clock at night. She was coming from a place where no one was speaking Hebrew, but this was just natural to her.”

Summer School for Hebrew Teachers

Kathryn Paul had put two kids through day school, and while their Hebrew was OK, she knew it could be better. And as the assistant director of the Language Resource Center at UCLA’s International Institute, she could do something about it.
And not just for her own children.
She wanted to create a summer program to teach day school Hebrew teachers how to be better teachers. She submitted a proposal to the Jewish Community Foundation, which awarded her program $50,000. UCLA put in another $15,000.
The program, offered in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education, has 10 slots for day school teachers in two six-week, for-credit classes in UCLA’s Applied Linguistics Department.
The courses cover the latest in theories and practice of foreign language teaching.
The program includes help at applying what’s being taught through observations of the day school teachers in their own classrooms.
“Our thinking is that these teachers will rise to the challenge,” Paul said. “They are very committed and love what they do, but they haven’t had the opportunity to take courses like this.”

The deadline for applications is April 1. To download a form or for more information go to or call (310) 825-2510. — JGF

Young Ambassadors in Israel Prepare for Return Home

There is unanimity on one point only: Two young Irvine women, who are midway through a 10-month subsidized stay in Israel, will return home next June speaking conversational Hebrew.

But little else is certain as both girls’ parents predict their offspring will return changed by the immersion in voluntary social service, language training and civics lessons.

Naomi Neustaedter, 23, and Elaina Deutsch, 24, left the United States for Israel in August along with 39 other recent college graduates from around the country on a program subsidized by United Jewish Communities (UJC), the parent organization of local federations. The program’s goal is creating informal ambassadors for Israel.

"They consider it a failure if the kids make aliyah," said Elaina’s mother, Margie Deutsch-Lash. "They don’t want them to stay."

"The chances the graduates come back to Orange County aren’t that great, but chances are they’ll be involved in Jewish life," said Ira Karem, a Federation representative in Israel.

Bunnie Mauldin, the Jewish Federation of Orange County’s executive director, said both girls demonstrated their seriousness about Judaism by participating locally in Jewish teen programs and serving as camp councilors.

About 100 young adults took advantage of the program annually in the last decade until 2002 when participation dropped to 12. Yet, the three-year long plague of suicide attacks of Israeli targets did not dissuade Neustaedter or Deutsch, their mothers said, because both women have made previous visits. Each contributed $2,700 toward airfare and daily food.

Named Otzma, Hebrew for strength, the UJC program includes an intensive induction in Ashkelon, a southern town and immigration center. Their days are spent learning Hebrew and civic topics like politics and immigration and serving as a volunteer corps painting houses, for example. The remaining six months the group separates and performs community service elsewhere in the country. Host families take in the visitors on weekends and holidays.

"I do know that the UJC has a motive for our project," Neustaedter said. "But I’ve actually been impressed with the education days they’ve been providing for us.

"I’m not so concerned about being manipulated or brainwashed or anything because I feel like I already have a broad perspective of Israeli culture," she said.

After spending a year attending Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Neustaedter graduated last June with a teaching credential from Cal State University Fullerton. "I’ve already had experiences with most types of Israelis including Zionists, seculars, settlers, anti-Zionists, haredis and Arabs," Neustaedter said.

Both girls, along with others in the group, recently volunteered in Sefaram. In the houses of elderly Arab-Israelis, they wiped grime, killed cockroaches and painted walls.

"I learned so much about these people we met and saw a whole other side of Israel that I have never seen before," Deutsch said in an e-mail note to her parents.

She and Neustaedter are to spend the next three months in another southern town, Qiryat Milakhi. Their duties will include English tutoring of high school students preparing for college entrance tests prior to their military service.

Lydia Neustaedter, a native of Tunisia, met her U.S.-born husband, Craig, in Jerusalem.

"Naomi feels so comfortably in Israel," she said. "I’m scared to go, but she’s not scared," said the mother, noting that so far the southern communities have escaped violence.

The mother of five supported the trip for another reason: it temporarily forestalls her daughter’s having to assume the responsibilities of adulthood.

"She takes a year to do what she wanted before her real life begins," Lydia Neustaedter said.

One of her daughter’s goals, though, was visiting a friend who recently immigrated and lives in a West Bank settlement, her mother said. Otzma officials, who forbid the group from using public transportation, refused.

But the group has not escaped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entirely. Part of the program includes field trips, such as participating in November in the UJC’s General Assembly in Jerusalem. Another outing in the city Sept. 9 included lunch at Cafe Hillel just hours before it was bombed.

Shaken, both girls called home even before their parents heard about the tragedy.

"It was very frightening, of course," Neustaedter said. "But unfortunately, I’ve been in Israel during the intifada before and I’ve had very similar experiences. The day after the bombings, I stayed home from ulpan [an intensive Hebrew course] because I wanted some time to myself and I knew everyone was just going to talk about it more and more. The truth is it frightens me the more we talk about it. I guess it’s easier just not to listen to the news and live your daily life here. That’s the easiest way for me."

Deutsch-Lash, whose daughter, Elaina, graduated last December from San Francisco State University after majoring in art, said, "I like to listen first and not tell kids what to do from a safety and protective point of view."

"As much as I’m concerned about her well-being, I’m also jealous. I’m proud of her that she feels secure enough to do this."

"I try not to think about the safety issues," said Deutsch-Lash. "If she wasn’t sounding good on the phone, I’d have more concerns. But she sounds like she’s experiencing things very positively."

Knowing other young adults who participated in previous year’s trips, Deutsch-Lash feels confidant her daughter’s experience will prove both life-changing as well as cement her Jewish identity.

"It’s a practical education learning about what happens in Israeli life and bringing it back to North America," she said.

Lovin’ the

For playwright Miriam Hoffman, Yiddish is hardly a dying language. “It just doesn’t want to die,” said Hoffman, who will teach Yiddish at the Dec. 14-20 intensive language/culture immersion courses at UCLA and the University of Judaism.

“Yiddish was always a problem since its birth,” said Hoffman, who writes children’s books on the subject, lectures at Columbia University and writes for the Yiddish-language newspaper, Forvertz. “It had to compete with the sacred language, which is Hebrew. Yiddish carried [Zionism] on its back for 1,000 years.”

The California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language (CIYCL) is sponsoring, “The Art of Yiddish 2003 — Entering the Heart of a Culture Through Its Beat,” with four levels of language courses, klezmer music and lectures on Yiddish literature. A finale performance will feature renowned actor and Yiddish true-believer Theodore Bikel.

Miriam Koral, CIYCL’s director, expects several hundred people to float in and out of the various events and classes, but there also will be a core of about 30 people attending all the language courses, many returning for their fourth Yiddish winter seminar.

“They have been inspired to learn Yiddish in other venues,” Koral said. “Our intention is to inspire people so that they have a real respect for this language, this heritage and language to go out and really sink their teeth into.”

Bikel publicly has complained that many Jews feel a need to support Israel by emphasizing Hebrew over Yiddish. But Yiddish thrives among throngs of Chasidic and other Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District and, in larger numbers, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park neighborhoods and upstate New York’s New Square and Kiryas Yoel communities.

Hoffman told The Journal that when she leaves her Bronx home to visit those enclaves, “it’s like going into Yiddishland. The children play in Yiddish in the streets, the restaurants are in Yiddish and there is the publishing of books in Yiddish for children. It’s exciting because it all starts with the little ones.”

“The Art of Yiddish 2003 — Entering the Heart of a
Culture Through Its Beat: An Immersion in the Living Language, Literature, Song
and Dance.” Dec. 14-20, Royce Hall, UCLA Campus and The University of Judaism.
For more information, visit