Shirley’s Mikveh Bash - Challah at Your Girls

A secular young woman, along with her family and friends, opts to mark her upcoming wedding with a festive nod toward tradition.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Ivria mikveh (Jewish ritual purification bath) and spa.

Time: 7 P.M.

In the neighborhood: A darkened street, sparsely lit by orange streetlights, in a quiet section of the already discreet town of Givat Shmuel, five minutes’ drive east of Tel Aviv. In a small commercial center, “Herzl’s Hair Style” is the only lit storefront, it’s bright florescent white light washing a small section of sidewalk.

Venue: A newly remodeled two-story building, markedly stylish in an otherwise old-fashioned neighborhood. Upstairs, two rooms are readied for the happy occasion − one fitted with large pillows and a rug and the other with a few small couches. Both rooms are packed with finger food, both sweet and savory. Outside the window, a neon sign advertising a nearby gas station shines in the distance.

Simcha: Shirley Sokol’s pre-martial hafrashat challah

Number of guests: ~25

Hafrashat challah: A mitzvah (meritorious act), performed mostly by women, of separating a portion of dough meant for baking. Traditionally the separated dough would have been given to the Great Temple’s priests, or kohanim, who would then bake bread for their sustenance. In modern times, the excess dough is usually burnt or thrown away.

A brief history of time: Shirley, 26, a make-up artist, was raised in a secular family by mom Hannah (“Hanni”) and dad Yoram, raised in the central town of Hod Hasharon along with stepbrothers Guy and Tamir. Seeking to strike gold in the Land of Opportunity, Shirley went off to the United States, where she met future husband Shlomo (“Shlomi”) Davis.

Shlomo, 29, who was raised in an Anglo Haredi family in Jerusalem, slowly drifted away from the religious world, beginning at the tender age of 14. (Shlomo: “It just happened slowly.”) Opting to find his own way, he too arrived in the U.S., where he met Shirley. The two live in San Antonio, Texas, and have come to Israel especially for their wedding.

Rites: Shirley stands outside the mikveh complex, nervously smoking a cigarette with a few of her friends (“this is crazy”) before she’s whisked away to the ritual bath. Upstairs, guests, all women, trickle into the small reception area, bearing gifts and greeting an antsy Hanni, who skips from intermittent hugging and making sure the refreshments are all in place. Shlomi’s sisters, wearing head covers and long skirts, stand bashfully to the side.

Sima, the religious woman who will be leading the ceremony, arrives at the room with her assistant, nimbly connecting a sole microphone to a portable speaker and preparing her table.

The persistent buzz of chatter, however, is violently breached by a sudden clamor of yelps, undulations and applause as Shirley, wearing a cloth robe and fresh from the mikveh, is escorted by her friends up to the reception area. Within seconds, the bride to be and her proud mother are surrounded by clapping hands and singing, and everyone breaks into dance.

Following a short breather for Shirley to change (including a food break for everyone else), the woman of the hour returns wearing a short white dress and Sima blasts music on her speaker.

After telling her audience of the various miracles that happened to women who attended her ceremonies (“But I can’t promise it for everyone!”), Sima goes on to explain the importance of the challah separation ceremony (“The most important thing are the prayers that go into the challah.”).

Next, the dough is mixed and kneaded by Shirley, as Sima asks anyone who is interested in being blessed by the occasion to wash her hands and help with the kneading. Beginning with a slow, modest trickle, the entire room eventually rushes to get in line, with women asking to either be blessed or bless a loved one. One guest, asking for a blessing, is mistakenly taken to be single, causing Sima to backtrack on her blessing of a good coupling (“God, put that one on hold.”).

With everyone kneaded out, Sima turns on some spiritual-sounding music and asks everyone to close their eyes in silent prayer. To the side, Shirley, visibly exerting herself, keeps on kneading as Hanni stands smiling nearby. After a few more stories attesting to the miraculous aftereffects of Sima’s ceremonies, the evening’s spiritual leader and MC leads toast to the bride’s health.

And with a slight press on the “play” button, Sima’s unassuming speaker explodes into dance music mayhem and the room turns into a confetti-filled party.

In the background, Sima drops some nuggets of wisdom (“The strength of the Jewish people is their togetherness,”), informing everyone of her Facebook page, in case anyone was interested in their own challah separation (“Like me!”).

Music: Liturgical songs, Middle-Eastern pop.

Food: Savory: Assorted quiches, mini pastries, salads. Sweet: Cake pops, chocolates and cake. Challah dough.

Drink: Coffee and tea, wine, soft drinks and water.

Word in the ear: Sima, on the resurgence of hafrashat challah ceremonies: “I think a lot of women are looking to include hafrashat challah because they want to introduce a traditional aspect to their lives. They’re sick of the bars and the parties.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: That it doesn’t take much to draw even the extremely uninitiated into religious tradition.

Random quote: Two guests discussing the stylish premises: “It’s not like those synagogue mikvehs, that are …” “Shady?” “Thank you, I didn’t want to say it.”

Want to take part in Someone Else’s Simcha? Want to invite Haaretz to your family celebration? Send word to: HaaretzSimcha@gmail.com

Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Shirley’s mikveh bash
Shirley’s mikveh bash
Shirley’s mikveh bash
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Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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