"Such is the mikveh. It is a place where one is stripped down on both the physical and spiritual levels, where women undergo a transformation from girl to woman, from virgin to bride, from impurity to purity.

"Judaism is very precise in defining categories and drawing boundaries in all areas of life. Between sacred and profane, meat and milk, hametz and matzah, male and female, impure and pure, forbidden and permitted. The world of nature must go through a process of classification and separation. Each natural thing must undergo a transformation in order to enter into the realm of culture; that is, to enter society and become part of it. Through the conversion ritual, for example, the non-Jew who is off-limits and outside the society becomes a kosher Jew who is a part of the society. The immersion ritual transforms the impure woman, who is ruled by the forces of nature and consequently banished from society, into a kosher woman, who is under cultural control and so included in the community of Israel.

"The clanging bell, announcing that another woman was ready for her ritual bath, jolted me out of my reverie. I looked around and saw that the broad vestibule, though poorly lit and lined with bare gray walls, was bustling with life. Women were coming and going down the hallways. Balaniyot hurried back and forth among the rooms, perspiring in excitement as they murmured the final words of blessing over one immersion and prepared to greet the next woman in line. Some women left the mikveh soon after they were finished, mumbling a quick good-bye to the balanit. Others, their heads wrapped in towels, lingered in the vestibule, in front of the prayer sheet displayed on the wall near the entrance to the right-side corridor, reciting the words in hushed tones:"

Dear Lord! With a fervent heart I observe the mitzvah of immersion for the sake of purification. I have striven to be faithful to your commandments and hope for the sanctity of your name, and as the waters of the mikveh purify me spiritually, so I pray to you that you wash away from me all sin and transgression, all sadness and sorrow.

Dear Lord! Who holds every living thing in your hands, grant me, my family, my relatives, and all of the Jewish people your blessings, for long life, health, happiness, good fortune, and gratification from my children, bestow upon me your pure spirit and divine presence.

May it be thy will, 0 Lord, that our home be one of peace and brotherhood, and may your kindness never desert our people, and that I always be worthy of the purification appropriate for the daughters of your people, the House of Israel. Amen!

"The women pray with eyes closed, with full concentration, sometimes gently swaying to and fro. I watched as three women dried their hair with the hair dryers attached to the wall next to a large horizontal mirror in the corridor to the left of the prayer sheet. They gazed at the reflection of their purified selves as they primped in preparation for their return home.

"If the private thoughts of all the women here were magically voiced, what would we hear? What goes through the minds of these women, all gathered in one place at one time for one purpose — sanctifying themselves for the act of love? Each has her own life story, her own desires and dreams. But all of these Jewish women here in the mikveh at this moment are united by two common denominators: All have a husband waiting at home who has been sexually starved for two weeks and is now eager to remedy that (or perhaps apprehensively anticipating the fulfillment of his obligation). All of these women are now halakhically purified and tonight all will observe the most important of the Torah's imperatives — the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Tonight, when the egg in their ovaries is, theoretically at least, optimally ready to meet their mate's sperm."