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Celebrating the “Old-New”

When a people have been around as long as the Jews, they have to be pretty good at renewing and re-imagining traditions in ways that feel authentic and also relevant. How else can rituals, practices, and beliefs survive the changes of time and place? It's a fine balance that is nicely captured in the term "old-new"--used, for example, in Theodore Herzl's Zionist novel about the "Old-New Land."

Jewish women are particularly skilled at negotiating the tensions of the "old-new." Feminism has helped us recognize and acknowledge the absence of women's voices and perspectives in many Jewish texts, rituals, and institutions, challenging us to find ways to enrich (and, in some cases, transform) Jewish life so that it still resonates deeply--perhaps even more so.

How do we do this? By building something new out of the old--drawing on familiar language, rituals, melodies, tastes, fragrances, and stories. Here in Boston, we're lucky to see this process unfolding up close and personal at Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh (ritual bath) and Education Center, which has reclaimed and reimagined the ancient ritual of mikveh and expanded it for a contemporary audience.

Traditionally, immersing in the mikveh is one of the central obligations of a married Jewish woman, to mark the end of her period and prepare her to reengage in sexual activity with her husband. The first wave of Jewish feminism distanced itself from mikveh and its implication that menstruation makes a woman "unclean," but later feminists (in the 1990s) began to think more expansively about the potential uses of mikveh as a framework for new rituals to mark important moments in women's lives and to offer healing for the painful transitions.

Though Mayyim Hayyim draws on the evocative power of the "living waters" of mikveh, often associated with the feminine, this is not your Bubbe's mikveh. Spa-like and beautiful, it bears no resemblance to the cold, mildewed basement pools to which Jewish women of past generations came under cloak of darkness. More importantly, it is welcoming of all people, no matter their level of observance, gender, sexual orientation, race, ability.

This weekend, Mayyim Hayyim hosts another of its celebrated theatrical productions that highlight its old-new approach. This one, Take Me To The River, takes a well-known tale from the Torah--that of Moses and his rescue from the Nile--and reimagines it through story and song, bringing to light the perspectives of the women involved in this drama. The production, like Mayyim Hayyim itself, offers a modern spin on a classic, drawing on the talents and insights of a diversity of Jewish artists, like its founder and author of the best-seller The Red Tent Anita Diamant, and Persian Jewish singer Galeet Dardashti and her all-female powerhouse ensemble Divahn, who themselves embody old-new stylings. If you're in the area, check it out--it promises to be an inspiring afternoon.

Mayyim Hayyim has persuasively argued that mikveh is for everyone--but it's not the be-all-end-all of the old-new rituals. American Jewish life is filled with these vehicles of transformation and renewal, from ritual objects like Miriam's Cup to liturgical options that blend Hebrew language with gender-inclusivity, from feminist midrash to new images of God, from new melodies that breathe life into old songs to innovative ways of keeping kosher that value organic farming. What practices and/or beliefs have you reinvented and renewed? What do you think makes a new practice feel authentic? What old-new forms of Jewish life resonate most for you?

Topics: Feminism
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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Celebrating the “Old-New”." 17 March 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 2, 2020) <>.

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