A Woman, a Girl and a Wet Nightgown – A Childhood Memory
"If you don't do what they say, they will take you from me and I will be deported…"
For years, this has been a dim memory that kept repeating itself anew. There were times when I thought that reality was confused with my imagination and pulling me in – to that place, the pictures, the experiences, the voices and the sights.
When I grew up, I got to know other women who had converted and been obligated to immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath). Many of them remembered it as a difficult experience. I realized that this was also my story, my experience, my fear. A fear that accompanied me during my childhood, of people dressed in black suits who will take my mother from me, and the knowledge ingrained in a six year old girl who has to do everything they say in order that we stay together.
My mother Julia, a young Christian Russian, fell in love with my father Michael, a young and charismatic Zionist activist. The thought police ruled their imagination and the secret police the streets. It was a turbulent period of persecution of young Jewish Zionists in the communist Soviet Union - arrests of Zionist activists who were accused of treason against the State, deportations to labor camps and to prison in Siberia were routine events. These were the years following the Six Day War, a period of great dreams of reaching the Promised Land. Julia and Michael were young, in love, fighters and dreamers. In May 1971 the dream was fulfilled. They were deported from Russia and ordered to leave within 24 hours… The first move was to Austria from where, with the help of the Jewish Agency in Vienna, we made aliyah (immigration to Israel) to Israel.
The reality on the way to Israel was complex too. My brother and I – then with our Russian names Sergei and Svetlana – were registered in my mother's travel certificate as children of the Tcherniak family. My father received a separate document in his name Michael Gililov. When we arrived, it turned out that in order for my mother to be able to remain in Israel, take her husband's name and live with us as one family, she must undergo an Orthodox conversion process together with us, the children.
At the beginning of the 1970's, the social reality was completely different from that during the large-scale immigration of the early 1990's. During that period, the olim (new-comers) arriving in Israel were almost all Jews, Zionists and idealists, who had been striving to immigrate to the Holy Land. My mother's case was very unusual as was her appearance.
Apart from the difficulties of adapting and becoming acclimatized to the development town in which we settled (Migdal Ha'emek), a new country, the labor market and the Hebrew language, my mother was obligated to undergo an Orthodox conversion process. The local rabbi – Rabbi Grossman and his wife - personally accompanied her throughout the process. It is difficult for me to find the words to describe these precious people, their pleasantness, patience and openness. It was one of the sole positive experiences that we encountered on the long and difficult path to the world of Judaism. My mother was forced to maneuver between her job and the Hebrew ulpan (Hebrew language school for new-comers), to shuttle between her Jewish studies and the home and taking care of two young children. She managed to successfully complete all the tasks that she took upon herself including the final conversion tests which she successfully passed, and she was subsequently summoned to the conversion ceremony and the tevilah (immersion) in the mikveh.
In order to complete the religious conversion process, I was also required, a six year old girl, to go and immerse in the mikveh in the presence of three rabbis who would constantly watch and examine you.
I was already opinionated and stubborn as a child and requested an explanation for everything. Both in prior conversations and on the way to the mikveh, my mother explained to me that we will be obligated to do everything they say otherwise she will not be allowed to remain in Israel and will be forced to return alone to Russia. My mother's words aroused both fear and anxiety in me. We arrived and the ceremony began. My mother was the first to immerse, with only a thin nightgown covering her body. She entered the mikveh and immersed until the water completely covered her head, and then repeated the procedure a number of times as instructed by the three rabbis who stood over her the whole time dressed in elegant black suits, watching her every movement and without ceasing to mumble words I couldn't understand. I watched this spectacle terrified… I stood ready… dressed in a nightgown and waited.
My mother signaled me that it was my turn to enter the water. I looked fearfully at the three men dressed in black, my mother's words repeatedly echoing in my mind "if you don't do as they say, they will take you from me and I will be deported." I stepped forward and down the steps, into the mikveh until the water covered my body and my nightgown began to rise up. I struggled with the nightgown because I didn't want the rabbis to see me naked and then they instructed me to immerse. I didn't understand want they wanted – I was already in the water, completely wet, next to my mother with only a nightgown covering her body. My mother told me to go under the water "like a fish, my whole head." I still didn't understand what she meant and hesitated. My mother pulled me in, deep under the water. I resisted, I couldn't understand why she was trying to drown me, but the ceremony wasn't over– we needed to repeat it again and again. The feeling of the hand pulling me into the water repeated itself, the inability to resist and the fear of the decision of the rabbis constantly standing above, examining, watching and incessantly mumbling. The ritual finished. I felt exhausted. My mother looked at me and soothed me that "everything is alright, now I can stay, they will not send me away."
Years have passed, I have grown up and as part of my public activity I served as an executive member of the Israel Women's Network. When I was elected to serve as a Member of Knesset, it was clear to me that I would be active in issues related to women and their status. Each time I became familiar with, or accompanied, a woman in the process of converting, the sights and memories flooded back. During my tenure, I dealt with hundreds of petitions from women regarding the issues of conversion, agunot (women 'chained' to marriage due to husbands' refusal to grant a divorce, or missing and not proved dead), divorce and other issues interwoven in the fabric connecting the relations between women, religion and State. My realization regarding the complexity and intricacy of the overlapping points between them, clarified for me why many people simply tend to refrain from confronting them.
It is important to understand that the threat of deportation from Israel hovers, even today, over the heads of those women who have chosen to link their fate with a Jewish partner, the Jewish People and the State of Israel.
The attempt to study, analyze and understand the practice whereby it is necessary for men to be present at a woman's tevilah in the mikveh as part of the conversion process, led to the answer and insight that women are ineligible to serve as witnesses or as dayanot (Woman rabbinic judges) and consequently, only a panel of three men serving as a Beit Din (Rabbinic Conversion Court) may constitute the source of religious authority in accepting a convert. At one of the more turbulent discussions in the Knesset, when I dared to raise the issue, a response was hurled at me: "Why do you women act hypocritically? Who does it bother? Don’t you go to the beach naked?" Others even expanded on this by saying that "your conversion should be checked again to verify its authenticity."
Needless to say, my mother did not attend the celebration of my tevilah in the mikveh that my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law organized on the eve of my wedding…
(Former) Member of Knesset Orit Zuaretz served in the 18th Knesset as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Committee on the Status of Women, and as the Chairwoman of the Sub-Committee for The Struggle against Human Trafficking. She is currently a doctoral student in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Haifa University.