In Jewish tradition, the mikvah is a rite of passage primarily for women that involves a ceremonial bath. The qualification to partake in this ceremonial bath, however, is further restricted to a particular class of women: heterosexual cisgender women. Broadly, the purpose of this rite is to achieve a spiritual cleansing. According to the pamphlet distributed at the exhibit detailing the rite, the mikvah bather “is naked and immersed in water that comes from a natural source.”
MKV: Credit River Immersion, an exhibition displayed in the e|gallery as part of the Blackwood Gallery’s third circuit, transgresses the traditional deliverance of the mikvah. The artist of the exhibit, Radiodress (Reena Katz), is a rabbi, and administers the ceremony to an audience wider than what the Jewish canon considers acceptable.
Upon my entrance to the exhibit, I see a bronze bathtub placed at an angle towards the corner of the room. I presume that this is the bathtub in which the water immersions will take place. Olivia Zaloski, a fourth-year art and art history student and steward of the exhibit confirms this presumption.
Zaloski explained how, in particular, Radiodress is transgressing traditional Jewish canons in her deliverance of the mikvah: “[The mikvah] is similar to the Native American practice of smudging. Thus far, [the mikvah] has been restricted to straight married women. Radiodress has opened the practice to all members of the community—of all genders and religions. Right now, Radiodress is working with members from the LGBTQ community, but she has also done this work in prisons.”
I appreciated Radiodress’ gender-neutral interpretation of the mikvah. I thought that opening up the rite to the LGBTQ was a societally defiant, yet morally progressive, move on her part. Though I could understand the moral impetus of equality and fairness underlying the Radiodress’ revision of the practice, I wondered whether Radiodress received backlash for this gender-neutral interpretation. Particularly, wouldn’t such an interpretation be considered sacrilegious and blasphemous by the Jewish community?
When I asked Zaloski about the reception of Radiodress’ work, she admitted that the immersion practices taking place at the exhibit would normally not be recognized by orthodox Jews.
“It’s risky territory. But it’s something that needs to be acknowledged. It’s something that similar to how in modern times, people have to get over [backward ideas] that women can’t be spiritual leaders. This immersion ceremony is just another step in pushing that boundary,” Zaloski added.
Besides an openness to the LGBTQ community, Radiodress’ revised interpretation of the mikvah is particular in other ways. First, participants take a walk with Radiodress along the Credit River. During this walk, participants reflect upon the goals they have in mind for the ceremony and share this with Radiodress. Then, participants pick items along the Credit River—ranging from all types of flora—to take back to the exhibit. Once these materials have been selected, participants are given a box that they may decorate with the materials.
In the exhibit, these small dark boxes litter the floor in a circle around a lone cushion. A
pastel gauze cloth hangs overhead the cushion. Most of the boxes are stuffed with dried leaves and plant shoots taken from the Credit River. Nevertheless, one box that I peer into is unique in its contents. It contains a white sheet. Scribbled on this sheet is a poem by Tad Hargrave, “On Causing Harm,” with nonsensical doodles following certain verses. The poem bespeaks of an individual’s burden of carrying pain caused by others. One line in the poem implores the individual to “sustain your gaze on the wreckage but do it without collapsing inside of yourself.” As I leave this part of the exhibit, I wonder how this poem is reflective of this participant’s emotional burden. I feel a wave of empathy and melancholia as I try to understand the cathartic process this participant experienced while penning a copy of Hargrave’s poem.
MKV: Credit River Immersion provided nine private immersions until December 3 at the