Friday was the great Puddle Jump at Bates College, and that night in the cafeteria things were rowdy and ecstatic.
I watched the students, their hair still wet from jumping into the hole that maintenance jackhammered into the frozen Maine pond—the ice over a foot thick.
Some wore full-body giraffe or bunny costumes, many had been seriously drinking, maybe illegally, but they all had that elated, leonine roll to their walk—young superheroes whose bodies could do anything.
When I was 22, I puddle jumped too. I was already out of college; in fact I was on my honeymoon.
I jumped for God. And for sex.
Observant Jewish women cannot have sex when they are menstruating—can’t have sex when they are bleeding at all for any reason, like, say, just having given up your virginity on your wedding night, and can’t have sex for seven days thereafter.
That brought me to the eighth day of my marriage, and we were in London.
It was Friday and we were due to spend Shabbos at Oxford University with my oldest friend who was “taking a letter” with William Wordsworth’s great great great something grandson.
We were planning to stop by the London mikveh, or ritual bath, on the way to Oxford, so I could dunk, say the blessing, and be happily, carnally consecrated to my husband that very night.
I still remember the roundabout that we rounded and rounded and rounded in our rented black Mercedes, trying to find the damned mikveh as the sun got ever lower in the sky.
I was out of my mind. If I couldn’t get to the mikveh, I couldn’t have sex, and we were leaving already on Sunday, and I would be the only bride in the entire universe who did not have sex on her honeymoon.
I also still remember the decision we made that we would try one more round—mikvehs are supposed to be discreetly located—and if we couldn’t find it we would just go to Oxford. And we didn’t find it.
It was inconceivable (ha!) that my new husband would have unkosher sex. I think now about how important the mikveh was in our marriage, and how important it was to my newly married friends.
We new brides would meet sometimes regularly on Saturday nights at the Forest Hills mikveh—our Pill schedules in synch. The mikveh lady there was so holy—a very young and beautiful Lubavitcher woman who would piously check my toenails for polish and carefully, prayerfully, pull off a stray eyelash that had fallen onto my scrubbed shoulders. There could be no barrier between my body and the waters.
I loved the way she would say “Ka-SHER!” as I emerged from the second dunk, the one you do after saying the blessing that was hanging, laminated, over the beautifully modern tile bath, as I modestly covered my breasts, walked up the stairs, and accepted the fluffy white robe she held high so as not to see me naked.
She didn’t have any children of her own for the longest time and I always wondered who her mikveh lady was. Later, many years later, I went back to visit her and found her with six children. All girls. Oh well.
When I lived in Scarsdale I was special friends with all the women who mikvehed. We laughed about it, we winked about it, but we loved being in the club. It was a godly club, the best kind of club that combined abstinence and discipline with… hoo-ha!
The mikveh lady there was also my son Aaron’s nursery school teacher. She was chatty and matter of fact—perfect for her after-school job. Sometimes we would hang out with her for a few minutes before heading home; she was a widow, and I guess we felt guilty knowing what we had waiting for us, and what she didn’t.
I have a different feeling about mikveh now, of course. Intellectually it feels like a woman’s natural, crucial functions are placed in a category less important, less seemly than a man’s. Emotionally, like a part of you must be hidden and despised for uncleanliness. And practically, it was a drag, going out in the cold, at night, getting wet, and (hey, this was Scarsdale!) timing your manicures and pedicures to get the most out of them.
But sex after the mikveh was hot. I have to admit that waiting two weeks (hey, we were young here!) made it more special, and you didn’t plan anything else for the night.
And this, my honeymoon, was supposed to be my first married mikveh.
My old friend took one look at my face when we got to Oxford and felt my pain. He and I grew up together, our birthdays one day apart and our parents used to come up to Camp Moshava on visiting day and sing “Happy Birthday Lisa and Doooooo-----ooooov” over our shared cake. I think they all secretly hoped we would marry but it was never like that between us.
Dov took us on a tour of the University. We sat where Churchill sat. We met an organist at one of the churches. We met the Hillel students at Balliol College and were invited to shaleshudes, the final Sabbath meal the next day. And then we passed the Cherwell River. The Crew team was out, and looking fine. The Cherwell River. A natural body of water. And any natural body of water can be—a mikveh.
Dov looked at me and I looked at Dov. I don’t remember my new husband even being part of the plot.
We had shaleshudes at Balliol and sang some songs while we waited for it to get dark. Sabbath over, we heated up the Mercedes and drove to the riverbank.
I had my bathing suit on under my clothes. The plan was for me to jump in the river, take off my bathing suit, throw it on the bank, dunk completely, say the blessing, put the bathing suit back on under the water and come out. Ka-SHER!
And I wouldn’t be naked in front of Dov.
But it was late October. The Cherwell flows 40 miles before it meets with the Thames at Oxford. Flowing rivers are cold. Very, very cold.
I jumped in the dark into that black river with all the courage and arrogance I have ever had, then and now.
And froze. My bones cramped up instantly; I couldn’t move. I gulped for air and came up shrieking silently, my mouth and nose full of water, my eyes bulging, my entire body shaking, shaking.
I was pulled out of the river. And then, ladies and gentlemen, I growled “NO!” and tore off my bathing suit. And jumped back into the river.
I said that blessing.
And when I was pulled out the second time, I didn’t give a damn if William Wordsworth himself saw me.
I had mikvehed. I was kosher. I was going to have sex.
I also had blisters from the cold running up and down my arms, like burns. The men wrapped me with yellow blankets they had taken from the dorms. They threw me into the back of the warm car.
We went out to dinner, the three of us, beaming. I remember a place with lots of plants. I was elated, a superhero who could do anything. And what a great story!
All this going through my mind as I watch the college students with their hair still wet.
A twenty-one year marriage that brought me to an age, when it was over, where I had been married as long as I hadn’t been married.
Where, in youthful impatience, I had placed importance on the wrong things and not enough on the right things like respect, friendship and actually being able to talk to each other.
Where maybe had I left my little world and gone to a different college, like this one, I would have learned the thing, whatever it was, that would have not made me need to marry so young, need to marry for sex.
Here I sit, in the cafeteria, my leonine days behind me.
Thinking about the many directions in which I could have, should have, jumped.