Taking the plunge &mdash why my friend jumped into the ocean, stark naked

You know you’ve arrived in San Francisco when naked men, strutting outdoors, stop to stare at you. Such was the scene on the nude part of Baker Beach last month, when a gaggle of women descended on the coastline.

We’d trudged over the hill and through the woods with a single purpose in mind. The objective: One of us was going to strip down, stark naked, and plunge into the ocean.

Laura, as I’ll call her, was getting married a week later. And as is customary, the bride-to-be wanted to mark her transition from single to wedded life with a trip to the mikvah, a ritual bath. Mikvah waters must be “living waters,” after all, and the crashing waves of the Pacific undoubtedly fit the bill.

Of course she could have opted for a more traditional, staid, indoor setting, but the beach and its scenic backdrop beckoned Laura. The Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, the land on which we stood — all of these places carried significance in her life and her relationship. And she wanted the pack of us to share the moment, something a confined space would not have allowed.

With our arms around each other, we encircled Laura as she read the appropriate blessing. We hummed a niggun and sang the Shehechiyanu to acknowledge what she was doing. And then, quicker than a naked guy can throw a Frisbee, she flung off her bra, tossing it into the sand.

We cheered her on as she bounded toward the ocean. Onlookers, dressed and otherwise, gawked as she dove into the waves amid our screams. We stood by, the water lapping at our toes, doing the job we were commanded to do. After each of her three immersions, we cried out “Kosher!” to consecrate her successful dunks.

Laura emerged from the water and stepped onto the shore to a round of applause and a flurry of blankets and towels. She’d done the dip with gusto, and the 15 of us could not have been prouder.

As for the other people on the beach that day, they could not have been more confused.

I’d been to a mikvah only once before, and that was about five years ago, when I attended a conversion immersion for a close friend. Our small group of women met at San Francisco’s Mikveh Israel B’nai David on Sacramento Street, a spa-like setting where sparkling tiles and wood accents reign. The location is discreet, the type of place you might not notice if you weren’t looking for it.

This mikvah experience, too, was a transition ritual — a demonstration, through action, of my friend’s desire to switch religions and join the Jewish people.

But the bulk of women who frequent mikvahs are married Orthodox Jews who observe niddah, sexual unavailability and prohibition of male touch during menstruation and the seven days thereafter. For them, the mikvah visit marks the end of this time and is the private, purifying ritual required to allow intimacy with their husbands. Incorporating mikvah into life this way is a commitment to unrivaled modesty.

That level of observance, while I respect it, is difficult for women like me to understand, let alone embrace. At 4 years old, I was singing Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” (“hear me roar”) as I splashed around in the bathtub. As a child I was taken to Chicago where I marched with tens of thousands of women who screamed in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, “ERA, all the way!” Never mind that I spent part of the day convinced I was marching for ERA Real Estate.

Odds are I’ll never observe niddah, nor will I make monthly visits to the mikvah. But Laura’s ritual immersion taught me something important. Her mikvah was far from modest, but the meaning was undeniable.

And whether we streak across public beaches or slip into hidden doors, even if we’re not brides-to-be or converts, we Jewish women have a unique way to recognize significant moments in our lives.

In May I’ll be graduating with my master’s degree. A ceremony will commemorate the occasion, as will the photos and fancy dinner that follow. And who knows, maybe I’ll even toss my cap and gown into the wind and race down to the beach to take the plunge, before heading into the world that awaits me.

Jessica Ravitz is graduating with her master’s in journalism at U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at [email protected].