Immersion in the mikveh—the ritual bath based on Jewish laws of purity—is the cornerstone of Orthodox family life. Jewish women are commanded by their religion to immerse in the mikveh before marriage, and to do so every month after their menstrual cycle before sexual relations with their husbands may resume.
Varda Polak-Sahm considers herself a secular person. She viewed the mikveh as an intrusion of the religious establishment into the private domain. Yet she respected the traditions of her Sephardic family, who passionately believed in the sanctity and importance of the immersion ceremony before one’s wedding. So on the eve of her second marriage, she reluctantly returned to the same mikveh she had entered as a young bride years before, only to be astonished by an immersion experience that felt hauntingly intimate and profound, like death and rebirth.
The revelatory nature of her experience, so at odds with her deep reservations about Judaism’s purity laws, spurred Polak-Sahm to pursue a searching and wide-ranging investigation into what the mikveh is all about. As she discovered, despite the strict Orthodox roots of the practice, many women from all streams of Judaism use the mikveh, often for personal reasons that have more to do with faith than religion. The resultant narrative provides a richly nuanced, uncensored look at an experience that is for some holy and for others coercive.
The House of Secrets gives voice to women from all branches of Judaism as they open up about what immersion means to them; how it fits in with their attitudes toward religion; its effect on their marriages and families as well as on their sexual, physical, and spiritual self-perception and on their relationship with God.
Already widely praised in Israel, this English translation provides a firsthand account of the power of ritual immersion for the growing numbers of women reclaiming this practice.