Under Water

Nancy Quick Langer

July 1992. The changing room is small and very clean. Fresh towels are stacked on a table near the inner door. I pull off my shirt and step out of my shoes and jeans. There is a bowl of potpourri on the counter under a round mirror just large enough to reflect my face and shoulders. This is a comfort. I dislike mirrors, especially in changing rooms, and while I’ve made progress in my efforts toward self-acceptance, my relationship with my body is at best a détente. I unhook my bra and remove my underwear. I breathe in, then out, before I reach to turn the knob and open the door.

I stand on a landing and look down at a room full of water. Seven steps lead down into the mikveh below. Doors on two of the opposite walls lead to hallways outside. One of the doors opens, and the rabbi pokes her head in and smiles at me. Ready? she asks. I am 26 years old, naked, and about to convert to Judaism. I nod my head and begin to make my way down the steps into the water.

 

I met the rabbi in Boston in 1991. I’d been thinking about converting to Judaism, wrestling with the question and my reasons for considering it. Jeff did not want to pressure me, so we agreed that I’d take a class, consider carefully, and and make my decision on my own. We signed up for an “Introduction to Judaism” course taught by an effusive Sephardic rabbi named Sonsino. In addition to attending Rabbi Sonsino’s once-weekly classes with Jeff, I was required to meet privately with another rabbi to explore my interest in Judaism further. I chose her name from a list of names on a piece of paper Rabbi Sonsino passed around on the first day of class. I began meeting with the rabbi, a kind woman whose short brown hair was salted prematurely with grey, once a month in a paneled office lined with bookshelves. We talked about Judaism, about holidays and rituals. She gave me books to read. After several months I told her I was ready to convert, and she gave me another book to read. I understood by this that I was not done studying, that she wasn’t done considering my request.

So I read another book. When I met with the rabbi again we talked about the candlesticks and Kiddush cup I ordered from a catalog called “The Source for Everything Jewish”—painted porcelain, “Armenian-style,” in blue, yellow, and red with flowers and vines and the word “Shabbat” in Hebrew on a separate rectangular drip tray. Jeff and I practiced each Friday evening. I set up the candles, wine, and challah on the glass-topped wicker table that doubled as my desk in our tiny Brighton apartment. He taught me the Kiddush blessings—I memorized the words and melodies, practicing them line by line, getting used to the sound and feel of the strange words in my mouth. These most common of Jewish prayers seemed like our private language to me, and Shabbat a quiet, candle-lit space where we could be alone, figuring things out together.

I think I’m ready to convert, I told the rabbi. Let’s meet again next month, she replied.

People assume I converted for Jeff—or more precisely so that I could marry him. I always bristled at this assumption because it had truth in it. I wanted to stay with him, to make a life with him, and I saw that being Jewish mattered to him, no matter how many times he assured me that the decision to convert was up to me. He was never going to ask me to become Jewish. He insisted that we’d stay together—and get married—either way. And yet. I saw that my being Jewish would make things easier for us with his family, and I wanted them to like me, to be proud of him. I chose to please everyone—because it comes naturally and feels safe and is my way.

But that wasn’t the whole truth. I also wanted to find my own spiritual path—one that belonged only to me. Rabbi Sonsino’s classes felt in some ways like an extension of the graduate work I was doing in the English Department at Boston College. I liked that Judaism was all about study, that questioning religious texts was expected and encouraged, that one can be a Jewish Buddhist, a Jewish atheist. I was fascinated by the Hebrew language—the way its masculine and feminine forms appear simultaneously in key passages of the Bible, suggesting that God reflects all of us. I wanted to find my place, to feel welcome, to ask questions and to be heard.

That year in Boston, when Jeff and I were beginning our life together apart from family and friends back home, I discovered and valued my independence. I walked to the T stop, headphones on, listening to the Indigo Girls as I worried over essay assignments and learned my way around the largest city I’d ever lived in. I waited tables at a lobster place downtown, took graduate classes in Chestnut Hill, wandered through bookstores and coffee shops in Harvard Square and Back Bay, felt strong and capable for the first time in my life. Studying—and eventually converting to Judaism—seemed like a way to keep walking my own path toward an identity I would determine for myself.

The rabbi and I talked in her office one more time. She explained the process of conversion to me. She told me that in order to function as a mikveh, a body of water must have a constant flow of fresh water entering and exiting the bath. She explained that when a convert to Judaism steps into the mikveh to recite the conversion blessings, she brings her life experiences with her—her whole self flows into the bath with the water. After reciting the blessings, the convert steps out of the mikveh just as the water flows out the other side. Still intact, but altered from the experience—she is now herself and a Jew. I liked this idea. Even though I felt ready and eager to begin a new chapter of my life, I was also anxious, even fearful of shutting the door on all that came before. I’d spent years learning how to see myself clearly, to nurture my childhood self instead of punishing her, and that work was far from over. I knew that denying my past, as tempting as it might have been, would only confirm my well established, though embattled, self-contempt. So the rabbi’s analogy comforted me—gave me a way to hold tight to myself as I stepped into a new identity. I understood my conversion to be a private agreement—a deal I was making with myself—so I was relieved when a scheduling conflict prevented Jeff’s parents from making the trip to Boston to celebrate with us. Negotiating their expectations of my Jewish life would be a challenge later, but not this time.

 

The water is warm. I want to lower myself into it quickly, aware that three rabbis are there to witness my recitation of the blessings. Because they are men, two of them listen without looking. The third—my rabbi—watches discreetly from the doorway. Once I am submerged to my shoulders, my self-consciousness recedes and I feel my limbs relax. I am alone in the quiet, humid air of the place. I’m ready, I think, to do this again.

 

The first time I went under water in front of witnesses, I was 13 years old. It was a Sunday morning at Central Christian Church in Pittsburgh, and the congregation had gathered for a weekly Sabbath service that this week included my baptism. I was the last in my family to be baptized, the youngest of four children. Although I was too young at the time to remember when my sisters had done it, my brother took some pleasure that morning reminding me that when he’d been baptized five years earlier, something had gone wrong with the heating element and he’d had to wade waist-deep into frigid water. I began to worry, as he was sure I would.

At 13, I thought I’d fixed my biggest worry: my weight. That number on the scale was the source, I thought, of all middle school cruelty, the reason my brother tormented me—“You used to be so cute,” he’d say. “What happened?”—the key to my unhappiness. One late spring day a year before, all of my fear and doubt and frustration had coalesced into a powerful idea, rooted in self-loathing and fueled by anger. I’ll show all of them. By the time I returned to school in the fall I’d shed 25 pounds. My new school clothes were several sizes smaller than my old ones, and all of a sudden everyone noticed. I felt occasionally victorious but also single-mindedly focused on the rituals and prohibitions that had come to define my days and pull me away from every person I knew. I no longer cared much about showing anyone anything, having retreated fully, my reasons unclear, even to myself. I kept losing weight. If I turned around and angled a hand mirror just right, I could see the bones of my spine in my reflection above my mother’s vanity.

At our church, new members were required to confirm their faith through baptism. Children of members waited until age 13, when they were considered old enough to walk into the baptismal font, declare their faith, and be immersed. As with most coming-of-age rituals, however, this one was based on social expectation and performed for the benefit of the adults. The concept of entering a body of water in order to be born again into faith was lost on most middle schoolers, including me. None of my peers understood this unusual ritual or attended our small church. It was hard enough explaining what religion I was. Christian, I’d reply when asked, and every time the same follow-up question: Everyone is Christian. What kind of Christian are you? For this I had no answer, and my friends became skeptical of me.

I’d spent many Sunday mornings sitting in the pews. The hour-long worship service always seemed interminable to me. I’d fidget and watch the hands on the round wall clock over the entry doors. Sometimes, though not lately, my mother would fish a piece of Juicy Fruit out of her purse for me. My dad would pull a pencil from his suit pocket and doodle funny drawings on the service program or start a game of tic tac toe with me. At the front of the church a magnificent stained-glass window gleamed—Jesus kneeling at a rock beside a body of water. The window comprised the entire back wall of a baptismal font constructed above the church’s altar like an inverted balcony. A doorway opened into the font on the right and the left. The fourth wall was open, overlooking the sanctuary below. On Baptism Sundays, the font was filled with water, and when the time came, the minister would wade into it from one side, the supplicant from the other. With the entire congregation as witness, the supplicant would make what my dad called “the good confession,” declaring Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and then, as I’d watched others do it, get dunked.

That Sunday morning my mother took me to a room behind the altar where I took off my church clothes and, leaving my bra and underwear on, zipped into a full-length white choir robe. I was cold. The robe was too large for me, a fact I privately registered in the plus column I’d been filling with small victories in my quest to armor myself against attack and/or to disappear. Each night’s visit to the scale in my parents’ bathroom closet to weigh myself was a small victory. The way I could wrap my right thumb and index finger easily around my left wrist. The reassuring concavity of my once rounded belly. My mother left to rejoin the family in the pews, and I waited quietly at the entrance of the baptismal font for my cue to proceed, and again for the minister to appear in the doorway across the water. He was also wearing a white robe. He did not smile.

We waded in toward each other. The water was warm, and my robe was heavy with it. I felt suddenly very tired. The minister said words that sounded familiar but did not quite register. I was worried about whether the wet white robe would stick to my bra. The thought of this filled me with dread. Distracted, I almost missed my cue to turn around.

Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? the minister asked in a voice meant for the congregation to hear. I understood this to be the big moment but could not feel its power or presence. I knew what I was expected to say. Yes, I said, forgetting what I was supposed to do with my hands.

The minister guided my palms together and with one of his hands on my back, he used the other to direct my own two hands up to my face. I remembered to hold my nose just as the minister put his hand over mine and yanked me backward into the water, under, then back up, in one forceful motion. I thought fleetingly of the undertow grabbing my feet just as a big wave crashed over my head, of forgetting to hold my breath in the pool and feeling the sting of water behind my throat. But then I was upright. And thoroughly wet. I knew for sure that the outline of my bra must be visible and wondered if anyone would notice. While my tiny frame might be worthy of a check mark in the plus column, the revelation of my breasts—and their too-small size—would surely count for two checks in the minus column.

The robe was even heavier after my immersion and dragged behind me as I waded out of the water. There were cookies and punch after, in the church social hall.

 

Now I feel the warm water as it surrounds my arms and legs. I immerse myself fully so that every strand of hair on my head is covered. My body disappears, cushioned by the surrounding water. There is time to notice the silence. Then I emerge, take a breath, and pronounce the Hebrew words of the conversion blessings I have carefully memorized. Following the rabbi’s guidelines, I go under again. And then a third time. I am used to the water now. It feels familiar. Under water I don’t think about how my body looks or what will happen next. I don’t feel unsafe. I toss my wet hair back as I’ve done hundreds of times before in the pool and lake and ocean. I say one last blessing—not a confession this time, not a promise to be good—instead a simple prayer of thanks to God for keeping me alive, sustaining me, allowing me to reach this day, this moment. I begin again.

Author Portrait

Nancy Quick Langer is a writer and college English teacher. She received her BA in English Writing from the University of Pittsburgh and her MA in English Literature from Boston College. Her essay “Rose of Sharon” appeared in Flying South 2017 (Winston-Salem Writers). Her writing on family life with autism includes the blog series “not a man of words” (bethelcong.org) and “Sunday Morning” (Broken and Woken / August 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her family.