The mikveh is perhaps the most vulnerable and mystical time in the experience of a convert. A visit to the ritual bath marks the end of the long process of converting to Judaism. In that moment, you become something new. You are reborn as a Jew, complete with a Jewish soul. You are changed on a deep and personal level. And, just as when you were born the first time, you are, on both a metaphorical and literal level, naked.
Being naked in front of a stranger is intimidating to even the most well-adjusted among us. You are quite plainly exposed and that’s a daunting prospect. For those of us carrying trauma related to our bodies, for those of us existing in nonbinary bodies, or both — like me — it can seem impossible.
If someone has never been to a mikveh, it may be difficult to imagine it. I assumed it was like a swimming pool where a stranger would watch me disrobe and immerse, judging every move, deciding on each immersion — to the last hair — whether it was kosher. My expectations and the reality couldn’t have been more disparate.
There wasn’t a nonbinary attendant available for my ceremony, but I was able to talk to the woman who would attend my mikveh ahead of time. She affirmed my identity and used my proper pronouns. She never made it seem like a burden or even out of the ordinary that I am called they and them. I told her about my trauma and she responded by assuring me the mikveh was on my time and at my pace. “We may even make you a mikveh addict,” she joked, assuring me it’s possible to retain the mystical aspects of the mikveh and what it accomplishes while being entirely clear on what will physically happen and how.
I was still anxious, but less than I had been.
When I entered the room with the mikveh, it was so different from my imagination. It was dim and candlelit. There was the smell of light sandalwood incense. It felt more like a spa than a pool. The mikveh itself was surrounded by a curtain that would stand between me and the attendant. As she explained, she would only ever see me while I was immersed and only to see that my hair had been completely submerged.
She left the room and disrobing became less intimidating. I was able to take my time and be at peace and let her know when I was ready to commence. She respected my space and my privacy. I never felt exposed. I never felt retraumatized. I felt comfortable as I descended each step, led in a meditation on each one until I reached the bottom.
As we recited the blessings, I heard myself referred to correctly, naturally and without an awkward pause. As I immersed myself each time, I took time to resurface, holding the feeling of womb-like comfort that surrounded me. Re-emerging, I breathed in as I heard “kasher” each time. On the final immersion, I took my deepest breath, my last breath as a gentile and submerged, holding it the longest, saying goodbye to my former self and even to some of my trauma.
Upon hearing the final “kasher,” I cried. I cried because I was so at peace. I cried because I was seen, metaphorically, as who I am, and not seen at all, physically, in ways that made me uncomfortable.
I cried because I had, my whole self, become a Jew.
While I was so relieved that my experience was so overwhelmingly positive, I wish I hadn’t spent so much of the time leading up to it in fear. If you are a nonbinary convert or convert with a traumatic past nervous about your experience at the mikveh, these are some good questions to ask an attendant beforehand. I can’t guarantee your experience will be as positive as mine, I encourage you to talk to the person who will be observing the immersions ahead of time and be clear about any concerns.
Do I need to bathe on the premises or can I bathe beforehand at home? This isn’t always possible, but for me, being able to bathe in my own bathtub before arriving at the mikveh made it easier to grapple with. The first vulnerable moments were in my own home, in a place I knew and could deal with. I washed more mindfully than ever before in my life, concentrating on the space between each toe and the skin behind my ears as I contemplated what would come next.
Can I bring my own robe? Some mikvehs have robes and towels on site. Some don’t. But for me, being able to bring my own robe and towels was comforting. Like bathing at home, it was another familiar handhold rather than something wholly foreign.
Can you write down my pronouns as a reminder for the blessings? This was among the most helpful things I asked. Even though my attendant was completely supportive, Hebrew is a very binary language. It’s possible to work around it, but it requires intention. Most written material for the mikveh is binary.
These are, of course, only a beginning. But with them, I was able to have a ceremony that respected the trauma of my body while renewing my spirit. I was able to have a ceremony that affirmed my identity as an agender person while I took on my identity as a Jew.