A Non-Swimmer Considers Her Mikvah—Chapter 4 ©Mary E. Carter
Whoever is Here, Whoever is Not
Not with you alone do I seal this covenant, but with whoever is here, standing with us
today…and with whoever is not here with us today.
This is the story of how I splashed to the surface of the waters of my mikvah, breathing my
first breath as a Jew. It is the story of how I came to step into those waters in celebration
and in continuity with Jewish life after I was fifty. It is a story about how I contributed to
the Jewish diaspora by increasing it by one single individual—me!
If it is imaginable to have been somewhat Jewish by default, I can honestly say that I have
never missed a single yahrzeit for my mother’s death, September 30, 1968. But when I
started my annual observances, I had never heard the word yahrzeit. Seventeen years would
pass before I would learn that word. Seventeen mornings I woke up and thought, it was
today, and, instead of lighting a candle, I had to go to work. During most of my career I was
an advertising copywriter.
Sitting around the long corporate conference room tables, reading aloud to clients and to
account executives the TV commercials that I had written—for dog food and for banks and
for tacos—I would remember, with a twist of grief in my heart, that today’s date was
important, was horrendous. But on any particular September 30th, like all my other
workdays, I had to go to work and to pretend to talk seriously about things that were not
serious, were idiotic, even, compared to my personal yahrzeits. And I would think—as the
executives around the table harrumphed through reams of marketing input—well, at least
nobody died today.
Lately I discover that my story has the added pizzazz of being about a person who did
something new and exciting later in life. The news is focused on my generation and how we
are starting new ventures and going in new directions in our lives. Some are starting new
careers. Some are returning to university to get doctorates. Some are breaking up long
marriages and starting new families. My story is not organized around mission statements
or business plans or curriculum vitae. Nor is my story about seeking or finding God. I will
leave discussion of God to the rabbis for now. Perhaps later in my Jewish life I will consider
God, but for now my story is concerned with the events and people that influenced me in
discovering my new Jewish life. And, although this is not a how-to book, it could be helpful
for anybody contemplating a late life change. And, of course, it may also add insight to
anyone thinking of becoming Jewish later in life.
My story has happened, and it continues to reveal itself, through the unfolding events and
actions and insights of a lifetime. I did a few things and a few more things until, seemingly
suddenly, I did something which I could not have predicted earlier in my life.
I am a bit too old to be counted as a boomer, but much of my experience has been
influenced by being born at the end of WWII and raised in white bread America. Being
raised in the fifties had its own atmosphere – a mixture of toxic San Fernando Valley smog
and our parents’ smugness about their victory over the enemies of democracy. In that era
democracy equaled stuff – washing machines, draperies, sofas, nice cars, green lawns. We
lived in a culture that equated accumulation with wealth and wealth with success and all of
that with contentment. Back then every parent in the neighborhood was a citizen-soldier
now, transformed by their war experiences, blooming with confidence. Jobs and money
were plentiful, even if housing was not. TV advertising focused our parents’ postwar vision
on the stuff they would come to need to create a safe and privileged environment for us
little kids. It is no small coincidence that I sought a career in advertising. I saw so much of
it growing up.
Decades passed. And then what happened?
When I splashed up from my mikvah and took my first breath in my new life I knew very
little about what was to come. My rabbi had taught me that,
At the moment you came up from the waters of the mikvah, as far as the tradition is
concerned, you, as I, stood at Sinai. Literally and for real. But if you want to take that
as poetry, try this because it isn’t. At the moment you came up from the waters, all of
Jewish history in one instant became your history, the same as if you were
biologically born to it. Powerful stuff all of this.
And so with all of Jewish history now my own history, I would need to dry off, get dressed
and get going to discover my own place on that long Jewish continuum. As I considered my
mikvah, I saw that I had never before summoned the courage to plunge into a whole new
life. But this time, I was braver. This time I was ready to change my life entirely. And I did.
How I made my Simchat Mikvah is contained in the kaleidoscope of my life’s events,
occurring over a long period of time and all jumbled together— kaleidoscopically I might
say—bits and pieces of my life’s events juxtaposing over, under, around and through one
Turn the kaleidoscope, either clockwise or counterclockwise, and go forward or backward in
time. Someone from my past bumps into someone I met last week. Something I learned in
childhood bumps into some-thing I Googled yesterday. This is Torah! After my mikvah, I
was again reviewing things and people who were with us today…and the things and people
who were…not here with us today. After my mikvah, I began to see my world from a new
The question to consider in my story is always this:
And then what happened?
A year after Gary’s uncle died our Aunt B. struck a kitchen match and kindled a little white
candle and I ask her,
—Today is the anniversary of Martin’s death and this is a yahrzeit candle. This is how we
remember and observe the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
And that was it. If it is imaginable to have been somewhat Jewish by default, then that was
Jews do not proselytize. But the persistent student can find a way in. This is a funny kind of
club, tight-knit and tight-lipped, proud and stiff-necked. Hey, do you want me or not? I
write my story in deepest gratitude to those who show me how to be Jewish in the world.
My Hebrew name is Tovah Miryam bat Avraham v. Sarah. So now already you know
something about who I am. The rest is commentary.
Copyright ©2020 by Mary E. Carter