When an accidental pilgrimage becomes a voyage of discovery.
Together, Alyssa and I had learned about the mikvah —a natural body of water used for the ancient Jewish practice of ritual immersion. And together, we had confessed that the idea appealed to our growing curiosity about the religion we had ignored as teenagers. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when, on the drive from Vermont to her family’s house near Boston, my college friend suggested a sunrise mikvah dip in Walden Pond.
We were seniors on break for Rosh Hashanah. As environmental studies nerds, we agreed that a detour to Thoreau’s old stomping grounds would provide a much-needed diversion from the holiday’s “pray, eat, sleep” routine. But Alyssa’s plot twist, casually mentioned as we merged onto I-89, represented something more. What better way, she reasoned, to usher in the Jewish New Year (not to mention our imminent entry into the uncertain world of post-college life) than with a skinny-dip in the environmentalist’s equivalent of the Ganges? The remainder of the drive passed in a spell of giddy plotting. The next morning, we awoke in Alyssa’s childhood bedroom, pulled on wool sweaters and sturdy boots, and set out for the woods.
Walden greeted us in its typical way: all pomp and pastoral charm, with the maple trees casting giant shadow puppets across the ground. But as Alyssa and I crunched over pebbles towards the water, I barely registered the scene around me. We weren’t there to leaf peep, after all. Before long, the first minivans would rumble in, depositing a flurry of camera flashes and picnic baskets into the stillness. In the meantime, we had more mischievous goals in mind. We could only hope that pristine woods would not take offense to the more spiritual peep show about to take place.
Alyssa and I had lingered over many dining hall meals, puzzling over the yearning towards Judaism that was taking shape deep within us. Religion had never been a defining part of my identity, but, as I edged towards the precipice of adulthood, I longed for something solid to wind my fingers into. This dip in Walden Pond, then, was something of a belated hazing initiation, the chance to do something completely outside of the college playbook to express my connection to tradition. I had heard that dunking in a mikvah feels like jumping into a swimming pool filled with holy water—an open palm to the soul’s reset button. Now at the water, there was no turning back.
I looked over at Alyssa who flashed me a thumbs-up. With our clothing scattered on rocks, we waded into the pond. Our skin reeled against the September chill. Then, with deep breaths, we plunged. I stretched out my limbs to allow water to flow across every pore. I imagined Thoreau’s bare legs skimming under the pond’s surface on one of his regular morning swims. What would he think if he awoke one day to find two nice Jewish girls splashing like rapturous fish in his waters? Hallelujah, no doubt.
Surfacing, I rejoined Alyssa on shore where we stumbled through a Hebrew blessing we’d practiced on the ride over:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who kept us alive and preserved us, and enabled us to reach this moment.
I silently said a second prayer of thanks as an unfamiliar sensation of warmth and electricity spread throughout my body. How strange, I thought, that after a lifetime of being Jewish, it took this accidental pilgrimage to understand what religion actually feels like.