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An Inside Look: Judaism in Oregon

October 14, 2016

Today, Dr. Ellen Eisenberg will share an excerpt from Chapter Six in her new book, The Jewish Oregon Story, 1950-2010. Religion may not be the first thing a person thinks of when they think about Oregon. However, Dr. Eisenberg has provided an eye-opening, thought-provoking book, allowing readers to delve into the history of Judaism in Oregon and how Jewish identity has been affected by the progressive ideas in this ever-changing state.

Before diving into this Chapter Six excerpt, Dr. Eisenberg shares some of her inspiration for the chapter, as well as giving a brief view behind this particular anecdote.

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From the moment I began thinking about a book on recent Oregon Jewish history, I imagined a chapter on “Jewish Portlandia.” Inspired by my own impressions of differences between the East Coast Jewish communities I was raised in and those I’ve encountered in Oregon, I wanted to explore what is distinctive about local Jewish culture and identity. How does the Oregon Jewish community reflect, embrace, and shape the state’s image as a trendy, progressive, innovative, quirky center? If the Pacific Northwest is the “none zone,” the part of the country where residents are most likely to check “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation and where they are more likely to identify as spiritual than religious, how does that affect local Jewish communities? How do regional sensibilities about politics, style, food and sustainability impact Jewish identity?

Drawing on archival sources as well as current expressions of communal identity through websites, public programming, and institutional innovation, Chapter Six explores the connections between contemporary Jewish communities and twenty-first century Oregon sensibilities. It opens with the story of Mayan Miriam, a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath), used traditionally for purification prior to conversion or marriage, and, monthly, by women to mark their transition back to a pure state in which marital relations are permitted. The mikvah, housed in a yurt in a backyard in Eugene, is an apt symbol of twenty-first century Judaism in Oregon, with its embrace of place, innovation, environmentalism, inclusion, spirituality, and do-it-yourself ethos.

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Libby Bottero first immersed in a mikvah when she converted to Judaism in the late 1960s, just before marrying her first husband and bearing their child. The marriage was short-lived, but her connections with Judaism and with the ritual of the mikvah were not. She found that first experience “transformative,” and made a point of visiting the local mikvah wherever she traveled for many years afterward. Although it would be over four decades before Mayan Miriam took shape, she recalls, “I always had this dream to build a mikvah where anyone could come.”

In 1968, after visiting a variety of synagogues to explore different streams of Jewish life, Libby and her young son moved into the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. Founded by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who would later become a major figure in the Jewish Renewal movement, the House of Love and Prayer was known as a “Jewish hippie commune,” which was, in Libby’s words, “both Shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observing] and a source of certain mind-altering substances.”5 There she met Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Renewal Judaism, and Aryeh Hirschfield, who became a major figure in Eugene Jewish life in the 1970s and early 1980s. After his ordination, Rabbi Hirschfield served Renewal congregations in Ashland (Havurah Shir Hadash, 1985–1995) and Portland (P’nai Or, 1996–2009).6 It was during her time at the House of Love and Prayer that Libby began regular visits to the mikvah in San Francisco’s Mission District.

After moving from San Francisco to Corvallis, Libby met and married her second husband, Joseph Bottero, also a convert to Judaism, and became involved in the community, first at Beit Am in Corvallis, and then at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene. Relocating to Eugene, the Botteros began thinking seriously about building a mikvah. For women such as Libby, who found deep meaning in the monthly ritual of immersion, the only options at the time were to drive the four-hour round-trip to the mikvah in Portland, or to immerse in a natural body of water, such as the Willamette River. For much of the year, the latter was an uncomfortable and unsafe option. The Botteros first established a natural pond mikvah in their Eugene backyard, but soon began talking about building a more lasting structure. Inspiration came from Rabbis Carlebach, Schachter-Shalomi, and Myron Kinberg of Eugene’s Temple Beth Israel, as well as from The Jewish Catalog, a 1960s-era popular guide that “encourage[d] ordinary Jews to be empowered with the knowledge to do mitzvoth,” such as hanging a mezuzah or building a sukkah. When it became clear that Beth Israel was not going to incorporate a mikvah in its plan for a new synagogue building in the early years of the twentyfirst century, the Botteros moved toward fulfilling their long-held dream.

While taking care to fulfill all the specifications for a kosher mikvah, they were also committed to making the mikvah experience welcoming to all and available for diverse, often nontraditional, ceremonies. Along with conversions, monthly, and prenuptial immersions, Mayan Miriam has been the site of a variety of life cycle and healing rituals: marking a clean start after a divorce or a miscarriage, ritual cleansing before or after cancer treatments, and many others. The mikvah has been used, as is tradition, by brides to be and also by same and opposite-gender couples immersing together in advance of their vows. It has been the site of women’s Rosh Hodesh (new month) ceremonies and women’s minyanim (prayer groups). Although not a large pool, it has hosted a rather crowded group immersion by a local women’s minyan. In 2015, the mikvah was the site of a ceremony to mark the conversion of twin boys carried by a surrogate mother from Oregon for a gay Israeli couple (because the surrogate mother was not Jewish, an immersion ceremony preceded the baby boys’ bris). Libby Bottero recalls that the two Israeli men, each of whom was biological father to one of the twins, “wrote the most beautiful, deeply moving essay in Hebrew and English, explaining the names, what it meant to them to be fathers. . . . We were all in tears and hugging. . . . It was so deeply meaningful to them and to us who were witnesses.”

   

Eisenberg, Ellen. "Chapter Six: The Jewish Oregon Story." The Jewish Oregon Story, 1950-2010. Corvallis: Oregon State UP, 2016. 208-10. Print.  

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