Sunday, September 17, 2006

Ritual of transformation

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By Jessie Milligan
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
September 16, 2006

A woman enters a back room of a synagogue. It could be anywhere. Fort Worth. Houston. New York City. The tradition is ancient, and it is practiced throughout the Jewish world. She is going into a "mikvah" -- a monthly ritual bath.

She will immerse herself in a pool 4 or 5 feet deep. If she follows age-old Jewish law, she will be taking the bath to spiritually cleanse herself after the end of her monthly menstrual cycle and at the end of seven days of abstinence. The spiritual purity of conception will be assured.

Janice Rubin, 51, and Leah Lax, 50, of Houston, set out to document this ritual of transformation, and when they did, both say they became transformed.

Rubin initially had rejected the monthly immersion baths as anti-feminist.

"I used to see it as stigmatizing women as unclean," says Rubin, a photographer whose work has been published in Rolling Stone and Newsweek.

Then in the late 1990s, Rubin renewed a friendship with Leah Lax, an Orthodox Jewish woman.

Lax had written a short story about a woman who used a mikvah after sexual abuse. Lax wanted no one to see the fictional story. She hid it under her mattress. She didn't want anyone to know that she was suggesting a nontraditional use of a tradition dating to Biblical times.

"Who would marry my children if I am seen as rebellious?" asked the mother of 10.

But Lax talked about her short story with Rubin.

"I started to see the mikvah as being about transformation from one state to another," Rubin says.

As Rubin started to accept the tradition, Lax started to feel comfortable about discussing modern uses for the mikvah.

Eventually Lax would take the short story out from under the mattress and use it as part of her application to the University of Houston creative-writing program. Meanwhile, Rubin's photos became "The Mikvah Project," a touring exhibit now on view in Fort Worth, Texas, that sheds light on why modern women continue the tradition.

Lax went along when Rubin went to photograph mikvahs in Houston, Austin and Fort Worth's Congregation Ahavath Sholom. Models were used in those photographs.

"The models were all at a place of transition in their lives," Rubin says. "There is an edge of something real in the photographs."

One model had just sent her last child to college. Another was going through a divorce. Yet another was recovering from a serious illness.

"It's this incredible moment in a frenzied life where you stop completely still," Lax says. "When a person is under the water in another dimension, it is not the present, it is not the past. It's complete silence. This is a way of accessing my deepest spirituality."

Women started talking to Rubin and Lax about the mikvah.

One woman said that she used her time in the mikvah to mourn her infertility. One saw it as a way to cleanse herself of an abusive marriage. Another told of how her conversion to Judaism was not complete until she could participate in the mikvah. Still others use it in the most traditional sense.

In addition to the photographs using models, Rubin and Lax decided to photograph actual mikvah participants.

Those photographs depict the women without revealing their faces. As it has for centuries, privacy still surrounds the mikvah.


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