From Sisters Singing
When I was growing up, I believed that my parents had given me the wrong name. I didn’t know what my real name was; I only knew that the name my parents called me did not fit the free spirit inside. Harriet Muriel was much too old-fashioned a name for me. I wanted to sing and dance and laugh and do wild and crazy things. Instead, I was an obedient little girl who spent her days quietly sitting in the corner with her hands in her lap or reading a book. A still small voice kept urging me to shed my given name and free the wild person inside of me, but it took more than fifty years before I listened to that calling.
In Judaism it is traditional to give a newborn baby a Hebrew name at birth. Usually the child is named after a beloved relative who has died, and it is believed that the dead relative’s soul lives on in the body of the newborn. The Hebrew name my parents gave me was Chaya Mira, after my mother’s youngest brother Hymie, who died when he was thirteen. Chaya means “to life” and Mira is the diminutive of Miriam, the sister of the prophet Moses.
Miriam was always my hero. She was a prophetess, a seer, and a leader of women. In the biblical story, after the Jews were freed from slavery, the Egyptian Pharaoh’s army pursued them to the Red Sea. Miriam, holding her timbrel high in the air, led the women singing and dancing as they entered into the icy waters. When the sea parted all of the Jews were saved, safe and sound on the other shore, but the Pharaoh and his army were swallowed by the sea that engulfed them. Since I was a little girl I have dreamed of taking up my timbrel and dancing with the women, leading them to freedom.
As my sixtieth birthday approached, I found myself called to explore the deeper roots of my Jewish heritage. I wanted to embark upon a spiritual journey to learn Hebrew and to chant Torah. I decided to create a ceremony that would culminate in my taking a new spiritual name. Because I love the biblical Miriam so much, I decided that my new name would be Miriam. I didn’t know what my last name would be, but I have always admired the meaning of Chaya, “to life.” So I settled upon a lovely version of my original Hebrew name.
I said my new name over and over. Miriam Chaya. Miriam. Chaya. Miriam Chaya.
Most people who receive a Hebrew name use it only during holy ceremonies at the synagogue when they are called to say the blessings before reading Torah. But I decided to use my new name on a daily basis. This was a bold decision, a commitment to the new person I was becoming, and I felt its impact deep in my core.
As the time for my name change approached, I began to feel like a bride preparing for a spiritual wedding. The night before my ceremony, I decided to go to the mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath that is used by women to purity themselves before their wedding. The rules for cleanliness are very strict. I wanted to cleanse myself before taking my new name. I wanted to purify my body so that I could offer myself in a marriage between my worldly self and my spiritual self. I wanted Shekinah, the feminine face of God, to be present when I took my true name.
I had butterflies in my stomach as I knocked on the door of the ivy-covered cottage in Berkeley. My heart was beating fast when a beautiful young woman in a long flowing dress and sandals opened the door. She greeted me warmly.
“Welcome to the mikvah. We’ve been expecting you. Please follow me.”
She took a key off the hook as I followed her into the lush garden filled with red and white azaleas. It was twilight. The sun had just set, but a glimmer of light lingered on the trees. A slight breeze blew the branches and cast a mystical shadow on the simple wooden structure.
“This is the bathhouse,” she said, as she led me up four wooden steps, unlocked the door and walked into a darkened room. Silently she lit a candle and pointed to my shoes. I slipped them off and placed them on a low shelf. She took my hand and led me into the bathroom with a small sink, toilet, and bathtub with a clear plastic shower curtain. On the towel rack was a white thick bath towel. On the back of the door were two hooks to hang my clothes.
“Be sure to empty your bladder before entering the mikvah. There is kosher soap for you to wash your body, both inside and out. You will find a generic shampoo with no fragrance in the medicine chest. Be sure to rinse your hair thoroughly. You will also find manicure scissors to cut your fingernails and toenails. Please remove any extraneous hairs as well. When you are completely ready, knock on the door and the mikvah attendant will examine you thoroughly before allowing you to enter the holy water. Good luck.”
She turned to leave, but I grabbed her hand and squeezed it once, then looked deep into her eyes. “Don’t worry. You will be just fine,” she said. She hugged me and left the room.
Alone at last, I looked into the mirror and saw my wrinkled face and graying hair. “What are you doing here, Harriet? You are not a bride. You are not even an orthodox woman. You are an old woman of sixty years, well past menopause. Why are you here?” Ignoring the doubting questions, I took off my clothes and hung them on the hook on the back of the door. “I am here for a holy purpose,” I told the questioning eyes, “Do not judge me!”
I turned on the hot water in the shower and jumped in, soaping up my body and shampooing my hair. The hot water was comforting and I felt my tense body begin to relax as I meticulously followed the cleansing directions. When I finished, I grabbed the thick bath towel and vigorously rubbed my back, my breasts, my legs, and my hair. I paid special attention to my feet, making sure that no trace of dirt remained. When I was satisfied, I wrapped the bath towel around my body. Holding it closed in front of me, I knocked on the door and waited for the mikvah attendant.
Slowly the door opened and a young woman in a white terrycloth robe greeted me with a warm smile. She gestured to a chair, inviting me to drop my towel. Stark naked, I was embarrassed and shy to stand before this stranger whose job was to examine my body for any remnants of dirt or any other foreign substances before allowing me to enter the sacred waters. I was shivering and frightened as she carefully checked my body to make sure that nothing had escaped my rigorous cleansing. Suddenly it dawned on me, “What if I don’t pass the test? What if she does not allow me to enter these sacred waters? Does that mean that I am destined to be Harriet Muriel for the rest of my life?”
The mikvah lady cleared her throat and woke me from my reverie. I opened my eyes to see her standing in front of me with cotton swabs in her hand, ready to poke and probe, to examine each crevice and orifice of my body, to search for a trace of dirt that might be lodged in the hair I had shampooed briskly and dried with a rough towel. I put my hands behind my back, afraid that my fingernails and toenails, cut to the quick, and meticulously cleaned of any trace of nail polish or dirt, would betray me.
She began by gently separating the strands of hair on my head with a sharp comb to make sure that I had thoroughly rinsed out any remnants of soap. Satisfied that my hair was clean, she looked at my freshly scrubbed face, making sure there was no trace of cleansing oils or cream. Now she turned to my fingers and toes, which she carefully examined for any hangnails or raw cuticles. When she finished her extermination, she gently patted my hands as she turned them over.
“Perfect! Now it is time to go into the mikvah.”
The small room was dimly lit with candles. A square tub surrounded by four freshly scrubbed white walls dominated the room. She sat on the top step and gestured for me to join her. I sat next to her and put one toe in the water, smiling when I found that it was pleasantly warm. I put both of my feet into the water and wiggled my toes, listening carefully to her every word as she explained, “In order for you to have a kosher mikvah, you need to dip your body into the holy waters three times. Each time you dip, your entire body has to be completely immersed in the water and be free floating. No part of your body or your head can touch the side or the bottom of the pool in order for me to pronounce each dip kosher.”
I walked down
the three steps
to the pool and
into the living waters.
My body was shaking. I knew that I was going through a transformation, leaving my birth name behind me and embracing my spiritual name. I thought I was totally prepared to say good-bye to Harriet Muriel and hello to Miriam Chaya; but when I tried to immerse my whole body into the holy water, something held me back. A leg, a hand, or even my head kept popping out of the water. Something, or someone, seemed to be calling me. I heard a voice whispering in my ear. Suddenly it dawned on me that Harriet Muriel was calling me.
“Do not abandon me. We have known each other for sixty years. I am your history. I need you and you need me. Together we can be stronger. Please let me come with you.”
As I listened to her pleading voice, I knew what I needed to do. I reached out my arms and embraced the little girl who was me as a child. I held my imaginary Harriet in my arms and felt our bodies relax as we dipped together into the holy water.
“Kosher,” the mikvah lady pronounced in a loud and clear voice.
Holding the young woman Harriet, we dipped a second time. “Kosher,” I heard as my head emerged from the water. Now, for the third and last time, the adult Harriet and I dipped deeply into the waters. I felt her strength catapult us into the air, leaping upward in triumph.
“Kosher,” I heard for the third and last time, as Harriet Muriel and Miriam Chaya became one.