If you're a religious woman, you know all about going to the mikveh. Once a month or so, for much of your married life, it's just that - a fact of life.
Women who move to Israel sometimes expect the mikveh to be pretty much the same as what they’re used to.
And (pretty much), it is. But in a few important ways, it's different. Not necessarily worse, just different. Since I’m still in Canada, a friend back in Kiryat Shmuel helped put together this list of three things that may surprise you when you go to the mikveh in Israel.
1. Bring your own supplies.
Depending on where you are, mikvaot in North America can seem almost like a luxury spa(though they range and I've seen some dingy ones as well). In Israel, things are much more towards the VERY basic end of the spectrum. This earlier post about going to the mikveh in Israel has pictures of one of the higher-end mikvehs I’ve found in Israel.
In general, in Israel, you are expected to bring your own supplies (i.e. towel, shampoo, soap, q-tips, etc). Towels are available for a fee (I buy one AND bring one so I can leave the wetter one behind). They may have some supplies on hand to borrow, but you have to ask for them. Others may be missing entirely - like hand cream.
Bring your own slippers unless you want to share the rubbery flipflops that everyone else uses. (No disposables here.)
2. It's cheaper - usually a LOT cheaper.
The price to use the mikveh can range from 20-40 shekel, cash only, exact change appreciated. The last time I used a mikveh in North America, there was a "suggested donation" of about $18-20, making it 3-4 times more expensive than in Israel. But you'll have to pay extra to get a towel, and some mikvaot can be very, very basic in their décor and a less comfortable experience altogether.
3. Everybody speaks Hebrew - and we Ashkenazim are in the minority.
All the Hebrew isn't really a surprise, but it may make things more difficult, especially if - like me - you don't have much Hebrew your first time.
But what caught me most unprepared was the question the balanit (mikvah lady) asks when she comes to your preparation room: whether you make the bracha "inside or outside." I'd never heard this before, but apparently Sefardim - a majority in Israel - make the bracha outside of the mikveh room itself.
When I said, "inside" the first time, she asked me if my husband was Ashkenazi, just to clarify. This also helped me understand that I'd given the right answer.
If the balanit asks something you don't understand, don't be afraid to ask her to repeat herself, or try it in English. Most Israelis do speak a little English, they may just be shy to try it out on a native speaker.
Most mikvaot have a button to call the balanit, but in my limited experience, there's a good chance it won't work. Be prepared to stick your head out into the hallway and shout, "Hello?" It's Israel - she won't mind if you're a little pushy.
In some mivkehs, they'll check you in your preparation room, in others they will do it in the mikvah room. Some will do a more serious check than others.
Whatever they say, CHECKING IS NOT MANDATORY (whether inside or outside of Israel). Inspection is always optional: you can ask for her to check for you (for instance, areas like back and shoulders that you can't see yourself) or you can refuse a check completely.
Some women have a real problem with having their bodies inspected or stared at – that shouldn’t stop anyone from going to the mikveh.
She will ask you in rapid-fire Hebrew if you checked your ears, eyes, brushed teeth, combed hair, etc. If you've followed your regular checklist, you're probably okay in this department.
Some women feel that there is less privacy here, but that can depend on the mikveh and the individual mikveh lady. Women are absolutely more open about going to the mikveh; there's little of the slinking around and avoiding eye contact in the waiting room, which can take on a distinctively party atmosphere if it's busy. This is definitely something to be prepared for, just in case.
It's always a good idea to call a day beforehand to make sure you know the opening hours, which vary from season to season. And just like in North America, you should ALWAYS call before planning a Friday night trip to be sure of the exact time to come and so they know to be open.
I'd love to hear your own thoughts on how going to the mikveh in Israel was different from other places you've experienced.
To find your nearest mikveh, in Israel or beyond (there are 2 in Thailand and 4 in Sweden!), visit http://mikvah.org/directory
[mikveh image © Daniel Ventura via Wikimedia]