May 30, 2011 The joke beyond the bathhouse
I once stole a big laminated poster from the mikva. I didn’t mean to steal it; it didn’t feel like an actual crime, it was more like taking. I quickly rolled it up and stuffed the oversized thing into my purse.
I decided I had to have it when I was sitting in the tub in my designated bathroom, clipping my toes, when that list of instructions hanging on the door suddenly struck me as hysterically funny, the aw-ha-haw kind of funny that makes you laugh and cry wildly in your own seclusion, so much so you’re glad the loud noise of running water is drowning out your insane guffawing, or else the mikva ladies will come and take you away. It was the absurdity of the sign written in clumsy Yiddish, awkwardly naming the orifices of my body and the various instruments I should use to dig out specified natural accumulations, in the strange setting of a sex-preparation tub with bleach and baking soda, that suddenly struck me as otherworldly brilliant insanity, a comedy that would make Woody Allen fall over laughing and drown in the bath, a tragic moment before the sexual climax of the night. I had to have it! I pealed the large sign-off and shoved it into my bag.
It was not unusual for me to collect souvenirs of my Hasidic experiences. I was privy to living life in its most hair-raising absurdity, and I held on to evidence of these surreal experiences as if they were rare valuables. I collected an assortment of things: strange instruments, instructions by – not for – dummies regarding cleaning your strawberries and naval, anonymous letters I got in the mail about the apocalypse and cancer being linked to how far I pull down my skirt (like a switch: skirt high, apocalypse on, skirt low, apocalypse off).
But when I started to wade into the greater world I came to the sobering realization that the absurdity was neither unique nor comical to anyone but me. It was, in fact, universal. Women of the modern world flock voluntarily to a place not dissimilar to the mikva, entering of their free will, at a time they could drive their cars to wherever and be off studying whatever. They come to the nail salon to have alcohol applied and their dead-skin picked with the same glistening weapon I almost stole from the mikva. And oh, not only do these salons exist and operate, but they’re in every shopping mall, in every crevice of this country. What in heaven’s name is wrong with the nail clippers in the medicine chest? Tens of be-sunglassed ladies sit there with hands stretched out like frozen debutantes, a matching number of Korean spies sitting across them, scraping and digging and pulling with various silver instruments while laughing between themselves in Asian codes. Besides for the ‘xlu kwa ku’ comments they say in our faces, which probably mean something about our abominable cuticles, it’s mostly a noiseless procession with classical music tinkling away while the hand-factory nips and tidies Samantha and Jody and Melissa.
Nails salons, with their echoes of the bathhouses of the frum married women, struck me as the funniest irony. Not so funny though, is that I too, after my big liberation from ritual bath pains, went of my own free will to the salon to hand my hands over to the Asian experts. Call it my cultural experimentation or whathaveyou, I had to check the mishigas out. Only this time I was humbled enough to leave all the posters on the wall.
I came in for my first manicure and pedicure slowly, sneaking in shyly, the bells on top of the door rattling loudly. To my good grief, everyone in the salon looked up at me.
“I want to do my nails?” I asked. A beautiful Asian girl, like all of them (what’s in their water?) barked out “pik a kalla, pik a kalla!” I didn’t understand what she was saying. Pick up collar? I nervously fumbled for the collar of my blouse.
She finally made herself clear. They had collars, or kallas, or colors, or what have you, quite a few. Hundreds of dizzying shades. Some women spend a significant amount of time pondering over the infinite varieties of the rainbow, like it were an exhibit of thought-provoking art, their minds deeply engrossed in what they’ll wear tomorrow and if the color will match their sandals, this decision interconnecting with their entire feminine identity. When I first went to the salon, I picked no kallah, of course. That was nonsense. It seemed ridiculous. Purple fingers made absolutely no sense to me. They seemed crazier than cleaning your bosoms with a brush.
And the first pedicure did not go well. Oy, my tights were a long nightmare, stretching to forever. If only my legs would go that way too. I shlepped one end off while I hopped on the other foot and pulled the end up to me, my toes coming menacingly with it. The pedicure massage did not mend the shame or relax my muscles. And I couldn’t help thinking that if it were the old wrinkled woman in the mikva that was banging on my legs the way the salon woman did, I’d have written a letter to the attorney general.
By the time I was done, I had taken quite a few deep breaths and inhaled the equivalent of three chemical labs, and felt suitably self-conscious and exhausted. The staff (it took two) gathered all my shopping bags, pocketbook, boots, jacket, scarf, wallet, phone, even the tights, the important tights! They took pretty much everything I owned and went off with it, (did I mention my wallet too?) to the drying station. This seemed very suspicious to me, and I shuffled frenetically after them in size eleven plastic slippers, toes expanded by globs of Kleenex, my hands raised in the air like a clay golem. Then I sat forever and waited and waited for the drying.
The other women in the salon were ever so nonchalant while they did absolutely nothing except have their limbs microwaved. Me, I was ready to leave, get out, put on my tights and rumple the pedicure and then try to frantically straighten it back up. I wanted to run. Far away from the overwhelming absurdity and the big tempting posters of “jello foot baths” (wha?) begging to be, er, taken.
Hasidim are weird, but this was a completely new uncharted territory of bizarreness with no laws or mothers to guide me and absolutely no bursting out in hysterical aw-ha-ha laughter.
It’s serious business, the challenging adventures of the secular newbie. You have to successfully integrate without giving away how unnatural it seems. You have to dump your klutziness, divorce the shlimazling, bask in blue drying laser-light with princess poise.
Otherwise, the joke is on you, you disarmed woman of uselessly cute claws. And when the joke is on you, ah, then it’s funny.
Originally published on the now-defunct Unpious here.