"The lower east side's synagogue, tenement, and Russian bathhouse: Mikva'ot and the excavation of a mikvah at 5 Allen Street".

Author:Bergoffen, Celia J.

Writing about the imponderables of ancient Mesopotamian religion, Leo Oppenheim wondered, "To what extent and with what degree of reliability can written sources impart to us that accumulation of cult practices, of tradition-bound individual and group reactions to things considered sacred ...?" (1) The same question arises with respect to the mikvah in late nineteenth to early twentieth century New York City, when the Jewish population of the Lower East Side reached its highest concentration. In the first place, the relevant documents do not address the experiential "accumulation" of ritual practices associated with the mikvah, much less the attitude of participants. To understand these, one needs the illuminating details of oral histories, but human memory is selective and imperfect, and since mikvah use is associated with women's bodies and sexual relations, modesty forbids many to discuss the topic in detail or in a public forum. As Jenna Weissman Joselit put it, there is a "hush of silence" surrounding the mikvah, making the performative aspect of its history very difficult to trace. (2) Our picture of the loci and forms of ritual immersion in the period in question needs the corroboration of those sacred things themselves, yet the key component, the mikvah, was until recently virtually unknown because the installations had all but vanished. (3)


The archaeological and documentary evidence, however, evince a great variety in the mikvah's construction and situation in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries that bespeak the different expectations and experiences connected with mikvah use and demonstrate that the criteria considered necessary for the performance of the ritual were quite variable. For instance, in past centuries both in Europe and in the United States, men or women could combine the sensual pleasures of the bathhouse with ritual immersion. Bathhouses might offer hot rooms; treatments such as massage, cupping, or hair styling; restaurants, and card games--and a kosher mikvah besides. Today, this pairing of sociable bathing and ritual immersion is out of fashion and, to some mikvah users, seems quite "unorthodox," even unimaginable. "Nobody ever had a mikvah in a Russian Turkish bath" claimed one woman, whose family ran bathhouses on the Lower East Side during the 1920s. (4) In fact, the separation of the mikvah from the bathhouse in favor of private bathrooms at home, and individual mikvah cubicles in specially purposed facilities, are twentieth century phenomena linked, in New York City, to demographics and developments in tenement house legislation. Arguably, the decline of the mikvah, described in the 1920s as a "Cinderella among religious institutions," occurred largely because of these factors, along with a rejection of some of the Lower East Side's less appetizing ritual loci, and it need not be attributed to a general fall in orthodoxy per se. (5)


The archaeological excavation of a mikvah in the 5 Allen Street Russian baths and its interpretation in light of contemporary records and oral histories provides important new data regarding the social and architectural context of ritual immersion at a key point in American Jewish history. The site was investigated thanks to the generosity of William Josephson, former treasurer of the Eldridge Street Project (now the Museum at Eldridge Street), and to former project director Amy Waterman's inspired leadership. Established in 1986, the Eldridge Street Project aimed to restore the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the Ashkenazi community's first purpose-built temple in New York City, erected in 1887 at great cost, and on a grand scale. As the Lower East Side's Jewish population declined, however, from the 1920s on, the synagogue's membership dropped and the building decayed. It took some twenty years and $20 million to restore and rededicate the synagogue. The building is now both a registered New York City landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Eldridge Street Project purchased the vacant lot at 5 Allen Street behind and adjacent to the synagogue as a staging area for construction equipment and, potentially, for additional exhibition and office space (Figure 1). The project's board also considered incorporating the history of the site in its educational programs and development plans. Program associate Renee Newman began the research and soon found the 1923 Sanborn map recording a "Russian Bath" on the property. But the building's last owner told Mr. Josephson that it also housed a mikvah. Intrigued by the unfamiliar idea of a mikvah in a bathhouse, the board decided to hire this writer to prepare a property history that would also satisfy the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), in case its approval was required to obtain a future building permit. The study submitted to the LPC in 1997 included a review of city directories, insurance maps, New York City Department of Buildings block and lot files, deeds and conveyances, newspaper articles, advertisements and oral histories. (6) Archaeological testing followed in October 2001. Subsequently, two additional mikvah pools were discovered by others: one at 308 East Third Street, uncovered in archaeological excavations, and the other at 209 East Seventh Street, found accidentally, in the course of basement renovations.

This article presents all the foregoing data together with more recent research and detailed descriptions of the archaeological remains. We begin with a summary explanation of the uses and requirements for ritual immersion as these relate directly to the construction, form and situation of the mikvah pool, but with no claim to expertise in the finer points of tahara mishpacha (family purity) or rabbinics. This study then presents a representative sample, not an exhaustive catalogue, of historic New York City mikva'ot. It is divided into three sections according to the three main--but partially overlapping--types that have been defined based on both documentary and physical evidence. (7) The earliest type to appear in New York and the first dealt with below were mikva'ot directly associated with a synagogue both physically and administratively. The mikvah pools were installed in the buildings' basements or yards, or in adjacent buildings, and paid for and run by the congregation. Larger congregations bought and refurbished churches, while smaller groups bought or rented space in tenement buildings. The latter might use a mikvah in the building's basement or yard, whether theirs or privately owned and operated by others. The latter category overlaps with the second main type of mikvah, those that were independently run and not connected to any particular congregation. The third type that existed on the Lower East Side were mikva'ot offered as part of a full-service Russian or Turkish bathhouse, like the one at 5 Allen Street. Additional information on the location of mikva'ot was supplied by readers of Yiddish and Ladino, who kindly pointed out the advertisements for these facilities in the Jewish newspapers. However, we have not exhaustively researched Jewish newspapers, and further investigation may well yield additional mikvah addresses. To the best of this writer's knowledge, none of the oral histories or memoirs archived at Yeshiva University, YIVO, Ellis Island, or the Tenement Museum, contained any references to mikvah use that might help to reconstruct its architectural characteristics or distribution on the Lower East Side in the period in question. Despite their differences, these three types of mikva'ot--synagogue, independent, and bathhouse--share ritual and construction principles. Taken together, they reflect the diversity of ways religious Jews practiced ritual immersion in turn-of-the-century New York, and how immigrant traditions shaped New York's ritual landscape.

Ritual Immersion and the Construction of Mikva'ot

A mikvah is the most important installation for a Jewish community, since ritual immersion is integral to Jewish identity and family life. It is required for conversion to Judaism, after contact with the dead, prior to marriage by men and women, and by married women after their menses or childbirth before resuming sexual relations with their husbands. It is also used to kasher (render kosher) dishes and cooking utensils. Traditionally, men or woman immerse themselves before the Sabbath and the High Holidays. It is necessary to bathe thoroughly before immersing oneself--the mikvah must not be used as a bathtub. After cleansing themselves, women immerse themselves under the supervision of a "mikvah lady" in either a small, one-person pool or a larger pool, but always singly. Men may immerse singly or in groups, without oversight, in either size pool. Today, large pools tend to be found where men's communal immersion is practiced, in addition to the small pools customarily used by women. Men and women may immerse themselves in the same mikvah at different times--the men during the day, and the women, because of the connection with sexual activity, discretely in the evening.

Mikva'ot should be built under the supervision or inspection of a rabbi, who issues a te'udat hechsher certifying that the facility is kosher. (8) The mikvah pool may not have the character of a container and must therefore be a built-in furnishing or attached to the ground, or dug into the ground, such as a basement pool. It must be large enough to contain sufficient water to reach every part of the bather's body, which must not be unduly contracted or touch the sides of the pool during immersion. The amount of water needed is variously calculated according to how one understands a se'ab, the ancient unit of measure, but no modern mikvah contains less than about 750 liters (198 gallons). (9) Typically, mikvah pools are square or rectangular and measure between 5 feet and 7 feet in length and width and about 5 feet deep.

A minimum...

To continue reading