05/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011


"I'm driving the car, an hour outside of New York," I was telling my sister Mary over the phone, "and it's a red light, so I stop. But when it turns green, I have to floor it to get the car to move! The engine light is on and I'm just hoping that I'll get back to the city without it dying on the road."

"Prayer cloth," Mary interjected.

"Exactly!" I said. "And I do. I pray for the car, and the next morning, when I leave for the city, the 'engine' light was off, and the car ran just fine."

Mary was referring to an incident that happened when we were growing up. In our church, when someone was sick, he or she asked the minister for a prayer cloth, a small, white piece of fabric which I guessed the minister or one of the evangelists had prayed over. However, one church member believed that it could also repair her ailing car, and asked the minister for a prayer cloth so it would stop stalling. After hearing about this, whenever our car rattled or steam rose from the radiator, our brother Ed muttered, "Prayer cloth." Since then, "prayer cloth" became an inside family joke, hard to really convey to others, especially if you don't know how often our cars were on the fritz and thus, how common it was that we whispered "prayer cloth."

Religious practices tend to be somewhat untranslatable to those on the outside, which was underscored the following day at a kosher luncheon downtown where my friend, Amanda, was introducing the kosher Italian wines for a company, Sentieri Ebraici, which she represents. The fish was served, but there was a slight lag before the red wine was poured, so Amanda got up to hunt down the rabbi. It was the rabbi, not one of the waiters, who must open the wine. The wine wasn't mevushal and couldn't be opened by a non-Jew.

Two thousand years ago, if a non-Jew opened and poured wine for a Jew, the rabbis believed it was possible he was secretly consecrating the wine to his god. Inadvertently, then, the Jew would be considered a party to his idolatry. The rabbis said that if the wine were boiled (mevushal), then the idol worshippers wouldn't want to use it in that manner. (Apparently, those gods had standards. Jews didn't.) Hence, today, if wine is not mevushal, the non-Jewish wait staff can't open it. The mevushal ruling is, to many within the Jewish world, an arcane law that need no longer be adhered to, but it remains, and it's hard for many Jews let alone non-Jews to understand.

That night, looking at a stack of metal whisks piled on the sink in our synagogue's kitchen, I was reminded both of the prayer cloth and of the mevushal wine. These metal whisks had just been returned from being teviled (immersed) in the mikvah (ritual bath) before they were allowed to be used for our Sisterhood's pre-Purim hamentaschen demonstration. That's a lot of translation necessary! Because the whisks were new, and metal, they needed to be immersed, not in order to clean them, but in order to "purify and uplift the utensil" (quoting from Jewish law). However, not all new kitchenware items need be teviled - plastic bowls and various other items don't. There is a lot of minutia when it comes to mivkah rules in general, and the rabbis go on at length about everything from how long they should be immersed to which utensils require a blessing and which don't during the teviling.

To those outside a religion, and even for some within, many religious practices are odd, that's all there is to it. As a pre-requisite for converting to Judaism, I took a "family purity" class. I remember walking in, uncertain what "family purity" meant - maybe it was about being honest in your relationship with your family? The syllabus was quite the surprise: checking for blood after your period; the color and size of blood, and when to bring your stained underwear to the rabbi so he could rule on whether it counted as a clean day or not (Underwear to the rabbi! thought I); how to count after your period ends; rules for going to the mikvah... I took my seat with the 50 or so other Orthodox women for whom this was a pre-marriage class, listened attentively and took notes.

"A time and place for everything, especially a time...each month reminds you of the life cycle...Judaism elevates sex to a holy activity...dichotomy between clean and unclean, pure and impure...ritual bath cleanses mind and heart, not just the body." I remember the teacher saying, "During your menstrual period, you are t'meah, which does not literally translate from the Hebrew as 'unclean.' When your period ends, you do a check, a b'dikah." She held up a small, square white cloth, wrapped it around her middle finger and cautioned, "It's very important, when you put it up your vagina, that you are thorough. On one hand, we don't want to encourage blood to come down, otherwise the counting has to start all over, but on the other hand, you can't just swipe at it, either."

At the end of the eight weeks, the teacher gave each of us a supply of b'dikah cloths (which looked uncannily like the prayer cloths of my childhood) to check for blood during the seven days following our periods, during which time we couldn't have sex, and after which we were to go to the mikveh for purification.

Before the hamentaschen demonstration began, I mentioned to my friend Sandra that the whisks had to be taken to the mikveh, and she said she remembered after she got married pushing her china in a cart to the mikvah to be immersed. "It's the ultimate mitzvah," she said, "because it's just between you and God. No one else knows that you did it."

And maybe that's why religion is so hard to translate to others: because one's faith is just between you and God, after all.