On the morning before Yom Kippur, I immersed myself for the last time as a married woman. Unlike all of the previous immersions where I was alone with G-d and the mikveh lady, this one was during the day, and in the company of G-d and all of my closest woman friends. Unlike all previous times at the local mikveh, this time it was at a beautiful lake. And most importantly, unlike the times when I rose from the mikveh thinking that now he had permission to hit and rape me, this last time I rose to feel freer and cleaner and happier than I ever had before. And this time I said so aloud, to myself, to my dear friends, and to G-d.
Throughout my marriage, I read books about family purity and even showed my husband the books that the rebbitzin loaned me. I wanted these laws to help our marriage, to bring us closer to each other during both phases of the month. But the nature of our marriage never allowed for that. Our marriage was based on control and fear, and even the most beautiful rituals of Judaism couldn’t change that to a focus of love and mutual respect.
The books I read all talked about how a couple gets closer when they live part of each month as man and wife and the other part of the month as brother and sister. Much as I tried, this never happened in our marriage. Instead, he just controlled me or abused me differently during the two phases of each month. When I was in niddah he constantly reminded me how difficult it was for him to go so long without sex. He woke me during the night to tell me he couldn’t sleep and couldn’t work because he was so horny. When I offered to sleep in a different room, he said that it wouldn’t help because it was about sex and not about me. (It tool me years to understand that statement.) During niddah he controlled my telephone access, my money, and friendships. But he never hurt me physically. At least not until the last few months of the marriage.
The other phase of the month was the physical phase, the time when I did not have permission to say no to sex, especially since it was my “fault” that we didn’t have relations during my niddah. It was a time of physical intimidation, and often of physical attack. It had only a bit of the physical closeness I had been hoping for. It’s hard to make love to someone you fear, hard to sort loving touch from painful touch when it’s the same hands providing both, sometimes at the same time.
When I separated from my husband with the intent to divorce, I asked my rabbi when I could stop attending mikveh, when I could stop counting days and keeping different sets of panties for different times of the month. He told me he would find out, and that I should continue my usual practice in the meantime. This lasted about a very long month, but as I neared my mikveh date in the second month of separation, I decided to plan my last immersion, and to use it as a time to mark for myself the end of my marriage long before the civil divorce or the get were even in sight. When I told the rabbi of my plans, he agreed that this could be my last mikveh.
And so, on the Sunday morning before Yom Kippur I brought a minyan of women with me to the banks of a nearby lake. The ten of us sat under trees and read poetry, and some of our own reflections on the mitzvoth of shalom bayit, family purity, and pikuach nefesh. A dear friend sang, “I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair.” We cried and we laughed and then I removed my hat and dress and went into the water in a bathing suit. I removed the suit under water and immersed in the traditional manner, using the traditional blessing. Even though I was immersing for new reason --- I wanted the continuity, I wanted it to have some of the same elements of all my previous immersions.
When I came out of the water it was with the intention that no one would ever have permission to abuse my body again. I finished dressing, but did not put my hat back on my head. Then my friends joined me in saying shehechiyanu for the beginning of my new life without my husband. We ate chocolates, we hugged, and then went back to my old home and to the place where I’d been staying for five weeks, and we began to move my belongings into my new apartment. Kol Nidre was that evening and I have never before felt so prepared for the day of atonement. I was beginning to make teshuvah to myself and I felt that I was at one with the world and with my G-d. I began the process of making tshuvah with my own body and with the traditions of Jewish marriage.