Mikveh, or Mikvah (Hebrew), literally translated as a “collection” or “gathering”, is a pool or bath of clear water in which immersion renders ritually clean a person who has ritually unclean, Jewish Virtual Library
The whiff of chlorine enters to our nostrils as we shuffle inside. An enormous pool stands before us. It looks new. Modern. It doesn’t look very much like the tiled surfaces or cracked stone of the Mikvahs I saw on Google Images. But the water looks inviting; ribbons of steam rise from its warm surface, they curl in slow, seductive waves towards the vaunted ceiling. For a moment, my attention is diverted to the nearby microphones and electrical equipment that has been set out. I quietly hope that none of it gets wet. A row of towels hangs suspended on the rear wall, arranged with fastidious care and attention. The occasional flash of color hooks the eye amid the grey arrangement of fabric. I take my seat, breathing in the unusually humid atmosphere of The Yard’s auditorium; I gaze again into the undisturbed surface of the water. Peaceful.
Eitan (Oliver Coopersmith) is seventeen. Avi (Jonah Russel) is thirty-five. Both Jewish, both gay, both from Stoke Newington, both lost. Eitan is a Gunner, Avi is a Yid. Eitan is a tenor, Avi a bass. Eitan is a flighty, precocious soul with a tendency of lapsing into a rude-boy style, Jamaican patois (much to the irritation of Avi). Avi is married to Leyla, identifies as ‘postmodern orthodox’, and is a stickler for tradition (much to the despair of Eitan). Eitan is having wet dreams, Avi may be infertile. His wife wants a baby. It’s expected. Eitan wants to be with a girl. This is also expected. Eitan wants Avi, Avi wants saving. They speak softly, sometimes to us, sometimes to each other. This is direct address as emotional foreplay. Each word they utter strokes us like a caress; subtle, soothing tones, voices occasionally catching in the throat. Their story flows out in easy, mellifluous waves. They sing for us; incanting a tender, Hebraic hymn as the light hits the Mikveh’s rippling surfaces and illuminates its shifting patterns before our eyes. This is music of deep, hungry longing. They talk about food, family, sex, girls, football, music, school, work, life, religion, God.
Avi visits the Mikvah to cleanse. Eitan visits the Mikvah to see Avi. Everything is imbued with a sense of ritual; religious, spiritual, emotional, sexual. Avi immerses himself in the water while a transfixed Eitan watches, only to emerge and descend again seconds later. The Mikvah offers spiritual cleanliness. It’s a place of absolution, filled with the promise of purgation, a holy site for the washing away of wrongdoing. But for Avi, the ceremonial act of submerging oneself in the water stands for something more. It’s also a form of punishment. Perhaps the water doesn’t soothe at all. Perhaps it scolds. “God should give us the power to erase”, he tells Eitan. He again descends again beneath the surface of the water, gasping for transformation, thirsty for renewal. But it’s different for Eitan. He has youth on his side. For Eitan, the Mikvah is a place of hope and a realm of sexual possibility. Slipping into the water alongside Avi, their naked bodies nearly touching, his gaze traces each droplet of water as it runs off Avi’s skin. Eitan isn’t interested in forgiveness. His erection gives him away. He wants to fuck. He wants to love.
The first kiss ends in disaster. Eitan ambushes Avi’s lips and is hurled aggressively into the water. Rejection. Confusion. Silence. “Do you want to explain to me what just happened?”, he asks. Avi warns him off, but Eitan cant keep this promise. Second kiss? Bliss. The boys abscond to Allicante – sun, sea, surf, silly hats and sex. This is the play’s enchanted forest moment. Avi permits himself this temporary respite from the reality of marriage, children, family and faith. This time it is Avi who locks lips with Eitan – a devouring, hungry kiss – but one tempered with the knowledge that the moment can have no permanence.
Leyla is pregnant. Avi is a father. Eitan is alone. Avi confesses to his wife. The act of truth telling cleanses in a way that no amount of water can, but no sooner is it out then it’s sealed away again. Denied. Boxed up. Locked. Put to rest. Back in the suburban sprawl of Stoke Newington, their lives resume the prescribed rhythms and conventional patterns of two well behaved, middle-class Jewish boys from good families with good future prospects. But the Mikvah remains; its permeable surface stands as a reminder, a monument to something submerged, fragile but undeniable.