Just before I started writing this article, my partner and I lit a four-wicked candle. Between prayers, we tasted wine, smelled fragrant cloves, and inspected our fingernails in the candle’s glow. We were celebrating havdalah, the brief Jewish ritual that separates the end of Shabbat, our holy day of rest, with the rest of the week.
Much of Jewish religion celebrates the beauty of transitions: between sacred and secular, between clean and unclean, between one state of being and the next. Like havdalah, those transitions are often marked by ceremonies that are steeped in materiality: the sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch of things we find beautiful.
One of our most powerful sites of transition is a ritual bath called the mikveh. Converts submerge themselves completely underneath the life-giving water and emerge as Jews. Orthodox women cleanse their bodies at the end of their menstrual cycle. Many immerse themselves in the water to mark other transitions: graduations, b’nai mitzvahs, and healing from a long illness. Today, some trans Jews visit the mikveh as a way to mark the transition to a different new embodiment of gender.
By molding the clay that lines these ritual baths, trans and Jewish artist Nicki Green seeks to draw the mikveh to our attention and our inquiry. What is this object? How, why, and by whom is it made? Who are the people who use it, and how do their bodies interact with it, and what is the nature of the transition they experience beneath the surface of its waters? Where, ultimately, does its power come from?
Like many Jews, Green grew up surrounded by an abundance of objects that are central to Jewish life: spice boxes, kiddush cups, seder plates, candlesticks, kippot, and the myriad other objects one finds lining dining room cabinets and overflowing in Judaica stores. Green remembers her family’s Chanukiah (Chanukah menorah) in particular. “There was something about the presence of it in the house and the way in which it would reappear each year that held all of this energy, even just on our kitchen table, or at the window, that felt significant. It’s the power of an object, the significance or energy of the object.”
Green’s clay sculptures do not themselves function as ritual objects. Rather, they embody another key aspect of Jewish practice: they are commentary. They provoke us to think about the limits and potentials for the objects we use in religious and spiritual practice. Green’s sculpture “The Porous Sea” (Tub) (2019) is a basin too small for most people to submerge themselves in, but it still holds a complex and powerful spirituality. The beauty of transition is clear: only when we crane our necks to peer over the unfinished, rough outside can we see the intricately decorated, gleaming inside. A rippling surface suggests water, causing the paintings of hands, heads, and other ornamental patterns to crease, ripple, morph, and undulate.
Removing the functionality of a ritual object allows Green to experiment with the form, hypothesizing about what could be possible in a ritual bath. “Mikveh for Mycoltheology” (2018) is a basin broken in half, placed on the ground, and split into slices. Like “The Porous Sea”, we peer inside to see a dazzling illustration within a rough-hewn skin: a feminine figure collects mushrooms, overlapping in stages of transition, perhaps herself replicating the fungi’s life cycle.
Clay is intimately connected with our bodies: beginning as packed dirt, it constitutes the plates that hold our food and lines the showers that clean our skin. Working with clay — pounding, cutting, throwing, shaping — involves intimate contact with human hands.
“Because particles of clay are so small and tight, they receive our fingerprints and the shape of our body in a really direct way and become almost an archive of touch,” Green told Hyperallergic in an interview.
Like the waters of the mikveh, the fires of the kiln fuse a painted surface with the molded clay body. Green observes that traditionally, crafting the form of a work of clay was a men’s job, while decorating its surface was women’s work. “Is the firing process a kind of weird middle place? Is it a trans environment, where the masculine building of a form and the feminine decorating of the surface becomes sort of liquid, unified or complicated?” the artist wondered.
While her work inherently questions these traditional craft gender roles, Green also leans into the assumed femininity of painting dense ornament. Much of this ornament itself references the process of transition: the alchemical mandala, the un-gendered mushroom, the figures layered on top of each other in different stages of being.
Clay’s malleability makes it a perfect material to investigate bodies in states of change. It’s only since last year that Green has delved into creating human forms, marking a transition for the artist herself. In Eye of the Fountain, Knot Thick and Fruitful Vine (2022), she presents three figures participating in the mikveh ritual, their rough skin and unrefined edges offering a contrast to the tight precision of the mikveh’s tiles. These participants are shown in multiple stages of transition, including one sprouting from a mound of mushrooms.
For Green, the connection between the mikvah and queerness is clear. “Below the surface of the water is liminal space,” she says softly in a voiceover for the video project Blessing for Fermentation (2017), as a figure enters a wavering, turquoise pool. “Matter transforms here, and as queers, we know this place of in-between-ness. We are liminal people,” she continues.
Speaking to Hyperallergic, Green adds that she regards the act of washing itself as a “queer, transformational ritual that could be thought of as trans in and of itself.”
But not all Jews share this perspective. Many mikvahs are not welcoming to trans and nonbinary Jews. Nor are mikvahs always a liberating space for cis women: a monthly visit to the mikvah can be an obligation for Orthodox women to be considered clean by the men in their community. The notion of a mikveh that affirms the beauty of all bodies and all transitions on their own terms is in many ways a more recent phenomenon. As we continue exploring this possibility, the questions and commentary embodied in Green’s work help point the way.