Polak-Sahm, Varda

Polak-Sahm, Varda. The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009.


Reviewed by Katherine Romanow, Concordia University, Montreal



                  The mikveh[i] is an institution that plays a central role in the lives of many women within the Jewish community, while at the same time also remaining a thoroughly enigmatic place for many others. Due to the intimate and private nature of the rituals that take place within the mikveh, there is generally little discussion of their details. Thus, it is for these reasons that there is often a lack of knowledge and a certain amount of misunderstanding that surrounds its rituals and practices. With a limited amount of published material on the topic, The House of Secrets by Varda Polak-Sahm brings the world of the mikveh to the reader, and in doing so, allows them to gain a better understanding of this important Jewish institution.

                  Within this book, Polak-Sahm brings forward an extensive amount of information in order to provide readers with an in-depth picture of the way in which a mikveh functions, how women relate to this space, and the dynamics that arise therein. This is principally done through the use of anthropological methods and the author has based this book on ten years of fieldwork conducted at various mikvehs throughout Israel. Polak-Sahm situates the narrative of the book around the conversations she had with women from one mikveh in Israel that was central to her research, and supplements this with Halakhic and theoretical information. However, there is no mention of the information she gathered at the other mikvehs in Israel and I was left wondering how they corresponded and compared to the information she presented throughout the book. Such an addition would have served to strengthen and add another layer of insight to the text.

                  In the prologue, Polak-Sahm positions herself in relation to the subject matter and provides an account of her experiences related to the mikveh that began as a child and culminated with her own immersions as an adult. Polak-Sahm is forthright in sharing her unfavorable opinion about the mikveh when she explains that she believed it to be a symbol of religious coercion and the intrusion of the religious establishment into the private domain (xxii). Yet, an intensely emotional experience during the immersion prior to her second marriage provided the author with the desire to understand what had led to such an experience. Not only does this allow readers to understand the authors reasons for undertaking the research that led to this book but it also lays bare the biases she holds concerning this topic. This self-reflexivity is something that is maintained throughout the course of the book, despite bordering on the confessional at times.

                  Directed at those wishing to learn more about the mikveh, throughout its chapters, this book presents readers with the different issues that define this space. In chapter one, the author describes her initial trip to the mikveh in order to receive permission from the head balanit to carry out her research there. This visit is eye opening for the author because she is faced with elements and pieces of information that she did not expect to find at a mikveh. An explanation from the head balanit[ii] of the halakhic requirements that serve to define a mikveh, as well as encountering secular women going to immerse, provides the author with the beginnings of a new way of understanding the mikveh, the progression of which we see through the remainder of the book. Ultimately, the author shows readers that the mikveh is a multifaceted place that involves much more than the immersions of religious women and shows that for numerous women, The mikveh essentially places control over the fulfillment of one of Judaisms most important commandments in womens hands. (204).

                  The remaining chapters discuss various elements of the mikveh. Chapter two provides readers with a discussion concerning the balaniyot who work at the mikveh, showing that not only do these women see this as a profession but also view it as a calling from God and take their position very seriously. Readers are shown that more than simply immersing women, the balaniyot act as confidants, counselors, and halakhic authorities.

                  Chapter three demonstrates the importance the laws of family purity hold for people within the Jewish community. Chapter four consists of a discussion of the laws of niddah,[iii] and as with other discussions concerning issues of halakha within the narrative of the book, the author presents these ideas in a clear fashion, allowing even the reader who is not versed in Jewish law to understand. Although, the author includes some questionable theories with which to explain why these laws were imposed upon Jewish women, this chapter provides a good understanding of the laws of niddah. Going against the common opinion that these laws repress Jewish women, throughout the remainder of the book the author shows the ways in which Jewish women have adopted these laws in ways that imbue them with a great deal of meaning.

                  Chapter five informs readers about the way in which the religious community teaches women and men about sex prior to marriage by providing them with a set of detailed rules concerning sexual activity. Following on the discussion of niddah in the previous chapter, a discussion between women that immerse at this mikveh is also included to show the positive ways in which they perceive these laws.

                  One of the most interesting chapters in the book is chapter six in which the author shows, through the description of a particular immersion before a womans wedding, the way in which women have created additional rituals to surround this important event. Such rituals involve signing, dancing, food and blessings, and Polak-Sahm reveals their importance when she explains, This is an act of embroidery, the nonhalakhic additive, the feminine adornment that has become an important and integral part of the ritual (128).

                  The last chapters describe the way in which immersion can work to connect women to God and also empower them in their relationship with their husband. In the epilogue, Polak-Sahm ends the book with a discussion of two mikvehs, in Israel and the United States, that are reinventing what this institution can be. The two mikvehs under discussion are Ivria (Hebrew Israelite Woman) located in Givat Shmuel, opened by Shimrit Beinhorn Klein and Ester Hemli, and Mayyim Hayyim opened by Anita Diamant in Boston. These two mikvehs bring the function of this institution beyond what readers are shown in this book making this a fascinating discussion that merits further attention.

Polak-Sahm invites readers to think about the question of What will happen to the traditional mikveh? (221), an important issue that future scholars will certainly have to investigate. Furthermore, having provided a picture of the way in which the mikveh functions in Israeli society, I hope that this book spurs scholars to carry out similar research in North America.

                  Through the House of Secrets, Polak-Sahm has filled a void in an area of Judaism that had been left almost completely unexplored. This book provides an in depth look at an institution which is central to Judaism and to the lives of many Jewish women. Through its pages it manages to show readers the richly textured character of this womens environment, and does so in a way that makes it accessible to readers who are familiar with Jewish tradition as well as for those who may not be. I recommend it to anyone wishing to learn more about the mikveh in a way that goes beyond the theoretical and brings forward the voices of the women that occupy the mikveh.

[i] A public bath in which the Jewish ritual of immersion in water is performed. Pronounced Mikvah in Hebrew; plural form is Mikvot. Mikvehs are the plural form of this term as pronounced in Yiddish.

[ii] [Hebrew] A woman whose job it is to see that women who immerse in the mikveh follow the halachic requirements. Balaniyot is the Hebrew plural form.

[iii] Niddah (or nidah) is a Hebrew term for a menstruating woman, or a woman who has menstruated and not yet fulfilled the religious purification process of immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath).



Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Spring 2011 Volume 8 Number 1

ISSN 1209-9392

2011 Women in Judaism, Inc.


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