The morning dip in the mikve symbolises the washing away of impurities and a fresh start with a clean slate for the new day and although I have lapsed in the last few years and rarely still indulge, with the season of goodwill and cheer upon us and work on hold I thought what better time than now…
Like most mens mikves it is below ground and has a pretentious, six foot high turnstile gate to stop unwelcome guests from entering. I descend the stairs and the once familiar smell of shampoo, bleach and sweat assaults my nostrils. I take a neatly folded towel from the pile on a chair and push the changing room door open. I am hit by a blast of Vosene scented steam, the noise of running showers and the carefree chatter Chassidim only seem capable of in the mikve. My glasses cloud up immediately and I have to remove them to see where I am.
Astonishingly, nothing seems to have changed in the years since I last visited. The banal sickly green coloured floor to ceiling ceramic wall tiles that must have fallen off a local council building-site lorry, still lend an air of the public lavatory to the place. The rough wooden benches round the communal changing room and the metal hooks for the clothes above them are standard fixtures in every mikve. I used to be rather self conscious about this set up when I compared it to the luxury of the swimming baths where we all get our own cubicle. Seeing it now I realise it is no different to most sport club facilities I have visited. I smile to myself at one more indication we are not as different as we like to suppose.
The condensation was plainly not enough to cover my condescension and I am greeted with a gruff “Vus lachst di?” from a middle-aged heavyweight struggling to reach past his ample girth and pull his stretchy, off-white long-johns over his whiter shade of pale legs. “I am not laughing,” I reply as soon as I have collected myself but he is already busy untangling his trouser legs and ignores me.
I observe that the massive plastic bin for used towels is overflowing, evidence that a growing number of people take their ablutions here. With a dozen or more places like this in Stamford Hill alone, daily purity seems to be an in thing in chassidistan. I look around for a free spot to undress in and park myself next to a man I recognise. He considerately moves his shoes and clears a wider spot on the bench. He too can see I am no regular. As I fold my clothes and prepare my toiletries I listen to the men opposite discussing the new chastity laws.
I gather from their conversation that the Kedassia 9 have found a new way of marking their territory and are insisting that women buy only clothes that have been okayed by a group of checkers. I am encouraged to hear that the black-bearded guy with a very hairy chest and enormous pectorals does not like the idea of the hounds sniffing around his wife’s clothing and told his wife to ‘buy votever de hel she vonts’. Only one of the two others in the conversation thought maybe those exposed flesh seekers mean well, but even he did not sound too convinced.
As I head for the shower room armed only with a flannel and soap, Mr T. is expounding on how tzniusdik (chastely) yet beautifully his lovely wife dresses, to the delight of a young boy listening in with a voyeur’s intensity. The shower room contains five showers in a row, four of them in working order, making this one of the better maintained mikves in town. With the impressive row of shower gels and shampoos on display the old canard about Chassidim using only (kosher) margarine won’t wash anymore.
The hot water flows for about a minute each time you press the shower tap. With a good ten men in the room, each time a shower stops its inhabitant makes way for the next one to enter, in a bizarre sudsy musical showers. Our Chief Rabbi is getting a real washdown – That is a metaphor of course, I don’t mean the popular intellectual who wants to curb multiculturalism and has much to learn about the dignity of deference to traditional Torah values, but our own ineffectual scholarly leader who commands all the dignitaries who do defer, and is against any kinds of cultural awareness.
The issue is the latest fad for investment in Eastern European property. Apparently it has become popular in our circles to buy properties in these emerging economies, and a whole new class of bankrupts have lined the pockets of these emerging capitalists with the last of the savings of many a sorry opportunist. All the soapy limbed oracles are in agreement that for many of the uneducated newly weds we so avidly breed, such deals are their only chance of actually feeding their families.
A man with a face shaped like a ponderous fish with a very big mouth, sinewy thin limbs and a long pink loofah is adamant that the problem is that Chassidim do not want to work. If they did the goyim would employ them. "After all we are cleverer than them and better in every way." "This is reeeely the truth." another one pipes up helpfully. Big mouth waves him dismissively down with his loofah.
“The real truth is we are too clever to work a whole day in an office for a measly paycheck. Ven you vont to live kosher you need real money and dis you don’t make by vorking vid your hands.” At this I notice a few irritated expressions from the other shower users and I realise that this orifice has spoken before.
The rabbi who had been studiously scrubbing himself departs hastily for the pool, and as that theme is further expounded and blame heaped upon the rabbinate, tzaddikate and sundry, I retire there too. The waters of the mikve itself are warm and murky and I'm grateful for the strong chlorine smell. Two more people are already relaxing in there and had obviously been listening to the speech from the showers. As the Rabbi ritually bobs under the water and comes up each five seconds gasping like a whale, a red bearded head observes that he was right to escape from there before someone asked him what he is doing to remedy the situation.
“Nothing, they do, except find new ways to make our life even more expensive. But it’s no use, nothing will change. Frummer and the Shaigetz have even given up complaining about it.” I leave the mikve into the freezing cold London morning knowing at least one of their problems can be remedied.