The Erotic Mikva

by Jay Michaelson

From the Archives Ashé Journal, Vol 5, Issue 1, 66-83, Winter/Spring 2006.

According to the second-century Alphabet of Ben Sira, the mystic who gives the text its name was conceived when the prophet Jeremiah’s daughter bathed in a mikva in which her father had ejaculated earlier that day.  Ben Sira was thus a child of virgin birth; the son and grandson of Jeremiah, the prophet of Israel’s doom; and the product of an unintentional incestuous union between father and daughter.

Often, when I step into the mikva, I am reminded of this tale, particularly when, as is often the case, the cleansing waters of the ritual bath are themselves filthy with bits of floating human hair and flesh.  The mikva’s purifying powers are not unlike the health-giving powers of kosher food: they exist in a way so conventionally false, so distant from physical reality, as to only be cognizable as ‘spiritual’ in nature.  Materially, the “living waters” of the mikva are often stagnant, unchlorinated pools, just as “healthy” kosher foods are often poor cuts of tough, greasy meat.  Thus although the tale of Ben Sira seems fantastic, it is entirely reasonable to me that I may be ingesting the bodily fluids of a previous visitor to the mikva, as I immerse my naked body in its warmed waters every week before the Sabbath.  Since the water, by law, must be untreated, I do not doubt that, like Ben Sira’s sister-mother, I am engaging in unintentional intercourse with dozens of men I do not know.

I moved to Jerusalem three years ago, and have missed only two weekly visits to the mikva in that time.  One time was on a weekend holiday in Paris, where I arrived too late on Friday to begin the complicated process of finding a ritual bath for men.  And another was when my shopping was postponed by a terrorist attack at the shuk.  The attack did not come close to my usual stores, but it thoroughly disrupted both the market and my own personal shopping routine, as well as (I suppose) my heart.  By the time I had made all the purchases I needed to make, the sun was almost setting, shabbat had nearly arrived, and the mikva had closed.

At first, I went to the mikva to cleanse myself of the sin of homosexuality which God had seen fit to bestow upon me.  Strictly speaking, the mikva only removes certain kinds of tum’a (impurity) and the authorities are divided as to whether the tum’a from wrongly-spilled seed is among them.  Still, there is no alternative, until such time as the Temple is rebuilt and the sacrifices are restored.  For my sin, the consequences of my nature, it is the mikva, or nothing.

It was ten years ago, when I first visited Israel for a year of yeshiva study before college, that I both became aware of my sin and began my regime of effacing it.  I had grown up in an Orthodox home, even though, privately, many of the so-called ‘lesser’ mitzvos were disregarded or treated lightly by my parents.  Outwardly, we conformed entirely to the modern Orthodox mainstream, but when no one else was looking, corners were cut.  It was not until I became an adolescent that I learned that our secret transgressions — not toveling our new dishes, being lax when it came to gossip and other forms of lashon hara — were part of that mainstream as well; that they were not, as my parents had said, peripheral mitzvos attended to only by the ‘crazies.’  Over time, I came to develop a disdain for my parents’ casual commitment, their inability to see their transgressions for what they were, their abundant desire both to explain away their own shortcomings, and ascribe pejorative labels to those who did not share them.  Better to reject one’s Judaism outright, I thought, than pretending one is a practitioner while in fact violating its essence.  I grew to be mystified by my parents’ occasional levity in the face of God’s command; it simply made no sense to me.  Fleeing their home for the monastic, meticulous life of my yeshiva in Israel was a flight into the opportunity to be the more reverent Jew I wanted to be.

At that time, I had no real understanding of my own sexuality, and how it would inevitably interfere with the life I desired.  Growing up, all sexual desire was effectively forbidden, so the fantasies I entertained about my classmates were repressed, I imagined, with no more or less effort than the fantasies they held about models or actresses, women whose bodies I always found repulsively rounded and curved.  My and their desires were equally constrained, and all were equally forbidden.  Of course, I was troubled.  I consulted certain trusted sources for instruction as to wet dreams, and learned of Rabbi Nachman’s tikkun klali, a set of psalms to recite in penance after such a dream came.  Yet at the time, I did not see myself as special.  In the showers at the gym or in the bunks at my summer camp, I observed myself to be no more inquisitive as to the naked bodies of my friends than they were as to each other’s, or mine.

It was only at yeshiva that I began to see myself as abnormal, different, and in need of repair.  I was eighteen, and living in a dorm room with three other boys.  All were from around New York, like me; all were going to college afterwards, like me; and all, like me, were sincerely thankful, it seemed, for the chance to learn with the great rabbis of our yeshiva.  Often, we would confide in one another that, were it not for our parents’ insistence, we would stay a second year, or maybe even stay forever — make aliyah and live here permanently.  Of course, the secular world of modern Israel held little appeal for us.  It was the Torah learning, the sincerity, the piety that we saw, every day, in the faces of our teachers — these enticed us to remain, in Jerusalem, or the small settlements outside it, in a lifestyle that was only imagined in the diaspora.  We knew that much of Israel did not share our values, could not understand them — and so we clung to the yeshiva, as if it were a tiny life-preserver in a  sea of ignorance and superficiality.  Many of us only left its walls when we really had to do so.

At the same time, the yeshiva was like a hormonally-charged locker room.  In high school, my bodily interactions with other boys had been bounded by the walls of the gym and the bells of fourth period.  Now, physicality was omnipresent.  The place was redolent with the smells of late adolescence.  The sexual tension could be felt in the air, in the beis medresh, in the dorms, even in the room where we ate our meals.  Moreover, I learned from my roommates, my  high-school assumptions of universal celibacy had been false; in fact, these other boys had all been “hooking up” with certain of the girls, and if not, then “jerking off” themselves.  These terms were more foreign to me than the Aramaic of the gemara, but I quickly came to understand them, and my own alienation from these students who had seemed so much like me.  Only I, it seemed, had scrupulously avoided encouraging my evil inclinations.  During my entire adolescence, only once, in a moment of weakness, had I pleasured myself, in the shower, and even then it seemed to happen half by accident, and was followed by weeks of tehillim.  But, I learned, this was not the norm even among the frum boys whose piety I had admired.  They had all been carrying on in ways I had never imagined.

And now, in the yeshiva, with the normal outlets for sexual energy denied to my classmates, masturbation was omnipresent.  There was little alternative; as for meeting girls, there was little opportunity to socialize with them in an unsupervised setting, and hardly any free time at night; even getting to a place where there were any women (apart from the wives and young children of the rabbis) was a serious undertaking.  Yet as there was hardly any privacy in the yeshiva (all the dorms were four-to-a-room, and the showers were open, army-style), what I had thought was the most secret of sins was suddenly out in the open — in bathroom stalls, in beds while roommates were thought to be asleep (and even when they weren’t), even, once in a while, openly, in the showers, as a contest, or a game, with targets and prizes and rules.  I participated — of course, I participated.  At first I was reluctant, knowing these games to be an incitement to the yetzer hara, anxious about my own lack of expertise, but I felt that if I didn’t join in, my secret — that I wanted not only to pleasure myself, but to touch the other boys as well — would somehow be discovered.

Confronted with this omnipresent eroticism, it had become impossible for me to deny my own sexual orientation any longer.  When all desire had been repressed, not even discussed, it was easy to see myself as the same as everyone else.  But now, with constant talk about breasts and vaginas and the other disgusting viscera of the female body on the one hand, and with, on the other, the naked bodies of beautiful boys constantly around me, constantly available, and  constantly engaged in open sexual acts, it was clear what I wanted — and how that set me apart from the others.

I told no one, convinced that I might in some way be able to master this inclination.  But I knew.  And I also knew that “the guys” were not so entirely heterosexual as they seemed.  Notwithstanding the macho talk — or, perhaps, as a quite unsurprising complement to it — my classmates’ sexual play was undeniably homoerotic; their sarcastic remarks about each others’ anatomy contained a grain of honesty, no matter how much they might deny it if confronted.  No one was as straight as they seemed.  Yet, for all that, I also knew that I was different.  These guys were playing with each other as part of a phase; later, I knew, they would all go on to be happily married to women — as indeed they did, as the years wore on.  Not me.  I lied about which models I found attractive, which girls back in school I had desired; lied about it all, inventing a series of false fantasies, when in fact the objects of my erotic attention were right in front of me.

I first went to the mikva before Yom Kippur, with the rest of the yeshiva.  Most of us had already spent the whole summer together, so being naked in front of each other was hardly novel.  I even felt the stirrings of an erection as we stripped, habituated as I was to the group sessions that took place in the showers.  But this was supposed to be different.  We had learned about the mikva before we went to it, learned of the waters’ purifying power and holiness.  We learned — I especially — for which sins the mikva was especially efficacious, although we had to deduce them from the rabbi’s nineteenth-century talk of “self-pollution” and “seed.”  And of course we learned of the many halachot of the mikva: its minimum size, its use, the requirement for waters untouched by human or mechanical agency.

Although I did not understand it at the time, I have since come to understand the warm, amniotic waters of the mikva as allowing a sort of new birth.  The plunge into the waters is like a re-entry into the womb, where all is undifferentiated, and I emerge from them a new man every time.  That first Yom Kippur, I knew more than ever before what stains clung to me, stuck to me like barnacles on the side of a ship.  And in those first immersions in the mikva, I wanted nothing more than to cleanse them from my body.  I imagined the mikva as filled with acid, or cleanser — anything to scrub away my defects.  Yom Kippur itself is centered around this notion of catharsis; kapparah, usually translated as ‘atonement,’ more literally means ‘cleaning.’  It is what must be done to any place that has become impure: scouring, uncovering hidden stains, confronting them, and, through hard effort, expunging them.

Afterwards, I felt refreshed in a way I could not explain.  I was prepared to focus my mind when entering the mikva, and had learned how important the mikva had been to the Israelites in the desert, and indeed to Jews throughout the centuries.  I knew that the first building a Jewish community would build, even before the synagogue, would be the mikva.  And I was taught that while immersion was only commanded of women, it was practiced by men, regularly, across hundreds of generations.  But nothing had prepared me for the feeling of it, the real feeling that I experienced, donning my white clothes, symbolic of death, for Yom Kippur: a sensation, and also a deep, profound knowledge, of having died and been reborn.  I felt as though the mikva had annihilated my sexual longings along with the residue of my sexual sin.  Yom Kippur is known as the “day of death,” the day on which Jews, who normally eschew asceticism of any kind, deny themselves all of life’s pleasures.  And I felt as if the mikva was a portal to this special death which contained within it the seeds of life.  It had done what, alone, I had failed to do: kill my inclination.

And so, I went again, before the Sukkot holiday.  And soon, every week, before shabbos.  The mikva became a part of my life.  I would review, before each visit, how well or poorly I had fared in the preceding week’s efforts to control my yetzer.  I would consciously focus on annihilating this inclination within me, and feel myself dying as I entered the liminal space of purifying water, only to be reborn, with a clean slate and fresh chance, as I exited them.

Though both the yeshiva’s showers and the mikva entailed bathing with other naked men, they were polar opposites to me.  One was the place of desire, the other the erasure of it; one the side of sin, the other of purity.  To minimize the chances of encountering anyone I knew, I found a different mikva, further from the yeshiva, so that there would be no possibility, as I effaced myself and obliterated my desire, of some chitchat with a guy from yeshiva.

That was all many years ago, and everything about my life has changed.  I am no longer in touch with any of my friends from yeshiva. All of them have wives, and most, by now, have children.  In college, and for the first few years afterwards, bachelorhood was a shared condition, and we would spend time together, have shabbat together.  But gradually, as they settled into relationships, they stopped calling me, stopped needing to call me, as their new lives supplanted the old ones, and as, I supposed, they grew suspicious of my lack of interest.   I grew increasingly removed from the community, increasingly worried that my abnormality was readily apparent, if only from my lack of a wedding band.  No one ever said anything openly, perhaps because, by the time someone would be expected to say something, there was no one left to say it.

For a while, I contemplated marriage myself, and dated several women, in the non-sexual way that many Torah Jews date.  It was not difficult, really.  A few meetings in hotels and parks, honest discussions about everything except for that, and the celibate march toward marriage could proceed.  I considered the promises that some rabbis held out, that it was possible to change.  But, in the end, I knew these were lies, and at any rate, an impossible life for me.  I was repulsed by the idea of sex with women, that I knew.  Perhaps I could do it; after all, if I can fantasize by myself, I should be able to do it with a woman.  But it was more, really, than mere sex.  It was the deception as a whole, the false vows before God, and the daily confrontation with someone who was supposed to be my lover but who would only be a nemesis.  I preferred to remain alone, and have everyone know but not say, or say but only in a hushed tone, rather than this — rather than a sham of a marriage, a postponed life, and a betrayal of another human being.  No — I could not force another person to live the life into which God had forced me.

Yet I knew that the ‘gay lifestyle’ was not for me either.  I experimented now and then, venturing out into their seedy bars and mindless, pulsating dance clubs.  But no matter how I tried to convince myself otherwise, I saw the sin, the darkness, everywhere I went.  It would be enough of a burden if it were merely the sexuality, only the act itself that alienated these people from God.  That burden, I thought, might be overcome, with sincerity and monogamy and, if possible, love.  But everywhere I went in the ‘gay world,’ I saw the glorification of surface, sensuality, and the kind of ‘freedom’ that exists only in the hearts of men who do not truly understand the meaning of the word.  The few times I did meet men for sex were limited to semi-anonymous encounters in parks or, once, at a club.  There, in those contexts, it was at least clear that we were servicing a biological need, like going to the bathroom; there was no glorification of it, no illusions.  The sex was quick, and at once mechanical and animalistic.  I never knew the men’s names, never wanted to hear them speak.  Where this sort of indulgence was celebrated, I was disgusted as much as by women.

As a consequence of this double alienation — from the Jewish community on the one hand and from the gay community on the other — I grew quite alone.  I am not so strong or so righteous as to say that my piety was stronger than my libido; there were men whom I met on the Internet or by happenstance.  But they were nothing more than that.

I know what some would say: that the voice of conscience is not a spark of God but  rather guilt; that the Torah is somehow false; that I should have surrendered it all in the sake of some ill-defined concept of health or happiness.  But when I heard that voice, the voice of my better self, whether in a bar or in bed or catching someone’s eyes in the park, I recognized its timbre as precisely that tone which accompanies the exhortation to do good.  I knew it well; I knew it from parts of my life that have nothing to do with my sexuality.  To deny this identity –the identity, that is, of the Voice — was as false as to deny my own.

I came to live in Jerusalem in part because here, being a single, frum man in one’s thirties is not as much an aberration as in America.  Everyone in the Anglo-Israeli community here in Jerusalem has their mishegas, their various peculiarities clad in awkward sandals and plaid shirts.  They’ve come here for different reasons, some for ideology, others for love, but all of us have at least one radical idiosyncrasy in common: we’ve all rejected a comfortable life for a less comfortable one.    In such an environment, where everyone is a bit of a misfit, my own difference seemed somehow to matter less.

And notwithstanding the machismo of Israel’s secular masses, there is somehow more space for effeminacy as well, particularly in my religious community.   With many men, it’s as if you can read the impressions of their overbearing mothers on their faces, see how it has made their sexuality more tentative, more meek.  In America, the boys I knew lost their effeminate vocal cadences and pretty-boy features by age sixteen or seventeen at the latest.  Here, I find myself surrounded by instances of the same ambiguity and sensitive fragility even in men whose ages approach my own.

And, there are many frum Jews like me, fighting the same inclinations, every day waking to the same battles with the yetzer hara.  We do not march in the parades.  We don’t look like the gays, or act like them.  But we are here, in the parks and the personal ads, and also in shul.  I hold out hope that, one day, I might even find a man with whom I can share my life, someone who has refused all the same compromises as I have, and with whom I can share our uneasy contradictions.

I continue to go to the mikva with complete faithfulness.  It was harder in America, where there are fewer mikvas, less time, and more of a sense of strangeness to the ritual.  There one feels almost ashamed, buzzing the un-labeled doorbell on an anonymous Manhattan brownstone, skulking up the stairs.  Here, everyone goes: families, students, Ashkenazim, Sephardim. I almost imagine that I am normal.  And as the years have passed, the mikva has grown into the simultaneous expression and abnegation of my sexuality.  I still feel its waters cleanse me of whatever sins I have accumulated; its all-encompassing warmth and silence return me to a state of innocence and purity, if only temporarily.  And yet the mikva is also a place of confrontation, an erotic zone of permissible shared nudity, like the showers at the yeshiva those years ago.  Unlike in my yeshiva days, going to the mikva is the only time during the week that I see other men, and boys as well, naked.  Stripping off our clothes together in the changing room is usually the most sexually liberating act I perform. Here, in the conspiracy of the changing room, all of the men are transfigured together.  At the mikva, we are men in a place normally associated with women.  In the showers, friends, fathers, sons are all naked together, dissolving boundaries that, in my recollection, strictly governed my adolescence.  And in the bath’s waters, we commingle with one another, an act most men would usually deny.

The wall I once tried to construct between the eroticism of the mikva and its effacement of it is gone.  Now it is in the union of those contradictory impulses that the power of the ritual bath lies: in stimulation and annihilation, confrontation and abnegation.  To me the mikva is charged with eroticism.  In heated mikvas, one feels release, surrender, the warm intimacy of a pre-natal memory, of the soothing, maternal heartbeat.  In cold ones, those fed by streams or natural springs, I feel a different kind of surrender: it is all I can do to suppress the lustful, soprano-pitched sigh as the impossibly cool water takes me, possesses me.  In the ocean, I like to wade in: the legs, the thighs, the waist, the abdomen — that is the hardest — the chest, and then at last the total consummation.  But there is no time for such idling in the mikva.  The erasure is absolute, and instant.  In the years that I have allowed myself to be penetrated by other men, no act of intercourse has ever amounted to the total subjugation of the cold water surrounding my naked body.  I am its plaything.

I try to enter the mikva alone.  Joining another man in the mikva is too much: it is an act of intimacy commensurate with sexual union itself.  The mikva is a womb; it is a place of non-self, of dissolving the illusory boundaries of what it means to be a self, distinct from the world, and a place of return to the primordial pre-individuation of the amniotic sac.  And to be in the womb with another person is a consummation: more than any pathetic imitation of heterosexual sex, it is the mikva that allows two men to unite with each other.  Were such an intimacy desired, it surely would be the place for it.  But as a casual encounter with someone who happens, obliviously, to slip into the mikva with me, it is too much; it is sex with a stranger.

Of course, I do not share the eroticism of the mikva with others.  Many men chatter in the showers, before and after they bathe, as if nothing is different, as if they are naked with each other all the time, and as if the mysticism of the forty se’ah of living water is as commonplace as a traffic light.  Only the younger boys look overtly at the other penises in the room, their curiosity allowed by their youth and coupled with an innocent acceptance of our shared nudity.  Perhaps this casualness of intimacy is what arouses me the most.   Indeed, actual physical contact, actual sexual consummation seems superfluous.  The very possibility of it would compromise the delicate nest of illusions in which we all nakedly reside.  And so in ten years of going to the mikva, I have never witnessed nor participated in any overt expression of physical sexuality.

Except once.

It was a normal Friday afternoon — the city rapidly preparing for its weekly slowing-down, everyone carrying shopping bags from one place to the next, the last buses making their rounds as the streets began to slowly empty.  For some reason, I was running later than usual, and by the time I got to the mikva, the attendant had already left, as is frequently the case when it is less than one hour before shabbos.  I was fortunate that the mikva was open at all, this late.

When I entered, the place was virtually empty.  Only one man was in the changing area, a round-bodied and hairless man in his fifties, and he was putting on his clothes.  I felt a familiar blend of satisfaction and disappointment.  My meditation would be easier, undistracted by naked bodies glimpsed in my peripheral vision.  And yet, did I not also want those distractions?  Had I not looked forward to them all through the lonely week?  The consummation devoutly to be wished for; in the presence of it; surrounded by it?

I nodded perfunctorily to the man, and began to take off my clothes.  As is my custom, I turned my mind to reviewing the week, my tasks at work, my plans for shabbos, my lapses in self-control.  It had been an ordinary week; only two nights in front of the computer screen to be washed away in the water; and nothing particularly remarkable besides.  I had lost some weight, I noticed.  My skin was pale, but summer was coming; it would turn a healthier shade soon.  Naked, I walked to the shower, where I washed off bits of hair and dirt still clinging to my body, making sure that nothing interrupted the complete contact between myself and the living waters.  Both of the two mikvas had been heavily used that day, and showed it, but I was in my mind now, oblivious to the dirty water.  I was preparing for the shabbos, shifting from the weekday to the holy.  I immersed myself my customary seven times, spending a few moments under water each time, feeling the renewal and the peace and the quiet, making sure that none of my body protruded from the water, visualizing an inner mem-yood-mem, spelling the the Hebrew word for water, mayim.  I heard its feminine, maternal sound, each mem the numerical equivalent of the forty se’ah of water needed to make a mikva valid, each forty a symbolic representation of completeness and rebirth, like the forty years in the desert and the forty days and nights on Mount Sinai.  Each mem the Hebrew equivalent of Om, the universal mother, rebirthing us anew; the lone yood of my own sex suspended in between.

As I stood up from my seventh and final immersion, I saw a beautiful boy stepping into the mikva — my mikva, I thought immediately, even though the other one was empty.  Why?  Stunned, I couldn’t help but watch him.  He looked to be about seventeen, white skin, dark brown hair; a thin frame; delicate, feminine, quintessentially Jewish features.  His chest was between a boy’s and a man’s; his body was smooth save for a small nest of brown pubic hair; his penis was well-sized, slightly larger than mine.  The way he carried himself, the kind of insouciant obliviousness to his own beauty and nakedness, made me certain of his heterosexuality, despite his choice of the occupied mikva over the unoccupied one.  The boy seemed to have an unconscious, unpracticed straightness that I could not duplicate even with years of effort.  It was only as my eyes watched his calves gently stepping into the mikva’s waters that I realized I had been staring.

Immediately I ought to have averted my eyes, gotten up, moved past the boy, and returned to the shower room.  The right thing to do was clear.  I still cannot explain why I did not do this, why instead I moved my eyes up from his legs to his body to his face, to find that he was looking at me, expressionless.  It was still safe to leave.  His face was completely blank; he was neither offended nor interested nor anything at all.  Just impassively, impenetrably blank.  His dark hair was matted to his head; I tried to discern whether he had any payes, to see how religious he was, but couldn’t tell.

AHello,” he said, in English, but with an Israeli accent.

AHi,” I said back, shocked that he had spoken to me, greeted me — and in English, as if he knew (as many Israelis seemed to know) of my foreign origins.  It was surprising that he even acknowledged my presence as another person with him, otherwise alone, in this place; let alone in English; let alone as he seemed, too, to stare back at me.  I tried to act as if I were one of those who talked in the mikva, that it was not unusual to say hello to another person coming in B and thus, not unusual to linger, either, enjoying the warm water and the relaxation before getting out.  I thought of making small talk, to justify my presence, but instead pushed off my feet as if to swim innocently for a moment in the mikva, which was about six feet square and four feet deep.  This action unintentionally flashed my slightly-stirring penis above the water line.  The boy, I noticed, looked over at it.

He looked away and did three immersions in the mikva, quickly, again seemingly without much expression or feeling.  Then he stood up and, as I had done but more exaggerated and obvious, lifted up his feet and floated on his back, as if he were showing off.

“Are you looking at me?” he asked, almost in a whisper.

“Sorry,” I said, growing erect under the water.  The boy moved closer.

“Do you want to touch it?”

I put my hand on him.  I had never done this before, never in the mikva, never with someone so young, and apart from a few encounters, never at all.  He grew rapidly in my hand.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.  I stroked him gently, not masturbating him — caressing him.  There was a silence in the room that I had never heard before.  It was as if we were entirely underwater, instead of only partly; the air seemed to be made of wool.

“You won’t tell me your name?” I said.

“It’s not important.”

I continued touching him.  I quickly wondered if we would be caught.  Unlikely — shabbos was almost in.  No one would be coming, except maybe the attendant to lock up.  We would hear him.  What was I supposed to do?  I had never done this before.  I maneuvered him so that he was standing in front of me, my hands caressing him, my body pressed up behind his.  I was touching him lovingly, not lustily; I wondered if he noticed this.  I wondered if he preferred to be touched in this way or the other way, if he had done this before, or whether, as for me, this was one of the precious and silent times when the ordinary laws of the universe seem temporarily suspended.  Perhaps I had emerged from my immersions reborn not into the ordinary world, but a world to come in which this was as natural as it felt.

He reached around his back and touched me.  I sighed reflexively.

“What’s your name?” I asked again.  He didn’t answer.  I don’t know why I was asking; it seemed the only set of words that I could think of.  But I wanted to know, I wanted to know him. Maybe he was like me — not like me simply in sexuality, but like me in some deeper way that I could not adequately express: with a shared neshama, as the Baal Shem Tov says, a soul with shared roots in the other world.  Like me, like me.  Maybe I asked because I wanted to know this for sure, the learn the essence of his being, which as the mystical books tell us is encoded in his name.  At the same time, I did not offer my own name; I wanted to know his first; I wanted his reply to be honest, uncorrupted by what I would tell him.  I felt he was not truly naked until he would tell me, not fully known, not fully capable of being loved.  Even as I touched him.  Even as he stood close in front of me and touched me in return.  And it was not lust that I felt, now; it was a love that is kadosh, holy.  I knew in one moment that I wanted what the other Jews had, as they consummate their love for their wives every Friday night, and in so doing effect a unity on high between the shechinah and the Holy One Blessed by He.  I wanted no lines of separation.  The sexual and the spiritual had always been separate for me; but now I wanted their union.  I want the holy love that others take for granted, unifying the lusts of the body with the thirst of the spirit.  This is my place, I thought, this place of nakedness and exposure, intimacy and purification.  What is his name?

“Tell me your name,” I whispered into his ear.  He only sighed.  He was getting close, I could tell.  As was I.  Closer to unity; closer to what was always denied, deferred.  His hand moved faster on me, his body had begun to tense.  I remembered my roommates in the yeshiva, seeing who could shoot the farthest, ripping off their clothes to compete, naked, even though there — was no — reason they had to take off their shirts, and shoes, and socks, because they — wanted it; they wanted each other completely, just as God wants us completely, just as we must strip away all of our clothes and all of our personalities, all our thoughts and sins and sense of self, just as we must cleave to God and stand naked in front of God, face to face as the Zohar says, and behind God, and we must know Him, and make love to Him, and unite with Her in her mikva bath, and become one with Her and with Him and conceive mercy that comes to us, raining down on us from the Foundation of God’s sex, and in this bath in this moment, and — what is his name?

“Tell me your name,” I said urgently, on the brink of orgasm.

“Mendel,” he said, and we shuddered together, with the exhalation of a single aleph, with the sigh that precedes the sigh, and his seed flew onto the small of my neck, to the left of my adam’s apple, as my head was arched back in release, and I said, “Mendel,” and I ejaculated again into the water, and we both fell backwards slightly in the water, and I held him as we floated, in the water.

The Alphabet of Ben Sira does not explain the circumstances of how Jeremiah’s sperm came to be floating in the mikva where his daughter would later bathe.  Some commentators assert that Jeremiah was accosted by a group of homosexuals, that they forced him to ejaculate into the bath, that his ecstasy was neither deliberate nor true.  I, of course, prefer to think otherwise, and wonder who the prophet met that day in the mikva, or whether he was by himself, imagining a postponed consummation.  I wonder why a book concerned with the arrangement of letters in creation, the codes that determine our natures and our desires, begins with this parodic virgin birth that originated in the ecstasy of the mikva — and whether through those letters, what is done may be undone, and what is broken be brought together.


Jay Michaelson is a writer and teacher of spirituality, Kabbalah, and meditation. Jay is the director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for LBGT Jews.  His books, articles, classes, retreats, and workshops focus on the integration of body, mind, heart, and spirit, of diverse contemplative, scientific, and cultural traditions.  His piece “Daat” was recently included in the Alyson anthology Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer.  His freelance writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Shma, SpinSurfaceWhite Crane and Legal Times.  Jay is chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, which appears online every month ( and in print twice a year.  Information on Jay’s projects is online at  He lives near Garrison, New York.