Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Korean Mikvah

I've been procrastinating writing this post. It has been mulling around in my head for the past two and half months, but still I have been struggling to put the proverbial pen to paper.  Maybe because there is an element of sacrilege to it.

I guess I'll start with the basics.  What is a mikvah?  If you want to learn a lot about it, you can check out this website: http://www.mikvah.org/what_is_mikvah 
or you can just go to dictionary.com to read it described as a ritual bath to which Orthodox Jews are traditionally required to go on certain occassions, as before the sabbath and after each menstrual period, to cleanse and purify themselves.

Basically a deep pool like this one:



I think most modern Americans associate water and purity ceremonies with baptism, not Judaism, but here it is, the most observant among us go not once to 'join the club', but rather WEEKLY, before EVERY Shabbat to ensure purity of mind, body and soul.

Sure, I could have the time to do that myself, but then my kids would likely not have Shabbat dinner. :)

Still there is something about water and ritual and silence and meditation that appeals to me.  Maybe not weekly, but certainly this ever elusive me-time would be welcomed monthly? Seasonally?  And then there is reality-I manage to eek out one afternoon a year for this.  Usually the last week of December when things have calmed down at work, but it is not an affiliated mikvah I head to; rather a Korean spa called King Sauna in Palisades Park.

When you arrive, you are given a locker key and a set of utilitarian, almost communist-like uniform.  You head directly to the locker room, take a deep breath and get completely naked to walk into the women's spa, pictured below:



Yes. I wrote completely naked.  But so is everyone else.  And you can just check your ego in that locker along with the rest of your belongings, because there will be women who are older than you and younger than you, ones with more scars than you and less scars than you, ones who are skinnier and fatter than you, ones who are more and less beautiful than you.

There are generations of families (grandmother, mother and daughter) who are hanging out (naked!) in pools that range from boiling hot to icy cold.  There are steam rooms.  There are showers.  There are tables on which you can get the most amazing body scrub, facial and massage from women who speak very little English.

The purification that happens for me in this room is that of feeling better about my own body.  

When I am feeling quite waterlogged, I put on the uniform of pink shorts and t-shirt and head to one of the many co-ed healing rooms.  Below is a picture of the mineral salt room:



In these rooms, you sit on a mat on the ground in silence surrounded by men and women who are also silent.  Some appear to be asleep, but most are just quiet.  There are many rooms with different types of minerals or healing properties like the one pictured above, but there are also recliner chairs in rows in front of televisions where people just lie down in their uniforms to take naps.

The purification that happens for me in these areas is very much connected to the mind.  It is difficult for me to be among a group of people, albeit strangers, and be completely silent.  It is also freeing and after some time I relax into letting my mind wander and be free.

Then there is the food.  Which is fantastic and is served cafeteria style as seen below:



I eat lots of spicy and savory veggies and noodles and drink lots of water and sit on a bright salmon pink oversized chair and watch soap operas.  It is the only day of the year that I would ever consider watching a soap opera and four years into visiting King Sauna, I would say that my trip would not be complete without it.


So I have already written about the purification of body and mind.  Does this mean that the food I eat and soap operas I watch serve as purification of the soul?  As delicious as the food is (and as trashy as the TV is), the answer is no.  For me, connection with the soul has never been in silence and always involves music.  Sometimes it's voices raised in prayer and sometimes it's just a song that strikes me.  

I had not set out to write a review of King Sauna; instead I had intended to write about the importance of ritual across different cultures and faiths.  It didn't work out the way I planned, but I am still pleased because I learned something about myself and the sheer importance of the role of music in my life.  It all makes sense.