Monday, December 23, 2013

Mikva'ot Discovered in Connecticut and Venezuela

Santa Ane de  Coro, Venezuela.  Mikveh unearthed beneath house of 19th-century Jewish merchant David Abraham Senior. Photo: Venezuelan Ministry of Culture

More New World Mikva'ot Discovered in Venezuela and Connecticut (Following Other Excavations in the Caribbean, Baltimore and New York

The list of re-discovered mikva'ot (also: mikvehs, Jewish ritual baths) keeps growing.  On the same day last week that I heard scholars discuss recent discoveries of ancient and modern mikva'ot at the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), as well as new research into the ritual and design associated with such structures, came the announcement of new find in Venezuela - an 18th-century mikveh beneath a formerly Jewish house in the town of Santa Ana de Coro, in the state of Falcon.

This news follows several other discoveries of mikva'ot in the Americas over the past few decades including Curaçao (1970s), Recife (2000), St. Eustachius (2004), and Barbados (2008).  

The discoveries - and the details of the types of mikva'ot found - as well as other discoveries of related mikva'ot in Amsterdam, have been reviewed by Laura Arnold Liebman, who spoke aboutt Dutch mikva'ot at the AJS session, in her articleEarly American Mikvaot: Ritual Baths as the Hope of Israel.” Religion in the Age of Enlightenment 1: 109-145. To be reprinted in American Jewry: Transcending the European Experience, ed. Christian Wiese and Cornelia Wilhelm. London: Continuum, 2013.  Liebman also frequently writes about mikva'ot on her blog.

Archeology of mikva'ot is important to better understand the changing role of purity rituals in Amerasian immigrant communities, and also the adaptation to new materials and technologies in the construction and countenance of mikva'ot, especially in settlements where there was little or no rabbinic supervision, and also where different customs - Ashkenazi and Sephardi, for instance - might need to co-exist.  Most of the information that is readily available comes from newspaper accounts of excavations - and the information is sometimes vague and/or contradictory.   One wants know more about the physical and social context in which there mikva'ot were built and used; the size, shape and materials employed in their design ad construction; and how local water sources were used and perhaps developed to serve mikva'ot.  Were other non-ritual water features also included nearby - for hygiene or recreation?

The AJS session was a fascinating one, and I hope the organizers and presenters can work on publishing a volume with detailed and reliable information about the excavations and related topics.

Santa Ana de Coro, Venezuela

According to the Prensa Latina news agency, the Venezuela find was made during the remodeling of the building which now serves as the Art Museum Alberto Henriquez located in the Senior House, built in 1774 and bought by David Abraham Senior, a Jewish merchant from Curaçao in 1847, who turned one room into a synagogue.   The building later became known as the Coro Synagogue  (photos here) .  The house was bought by the government in 1986 and opened in 1997 as the "Casa de Oración Hebrea" (Hebrew Prayer House).  The synagogue/museum  belongs to Universidad Francisco de Miranda. 

Archaeologists from the School of Anthropology at the Central University of Venezuela are excavating the mikveh site under the auspices of the Venezuelan Ministry of Culture and coordinated by the Office of Planning and Design for Heritage Areas at Coro and La Vela, or OPEDAD.

Read more: 

Old Chesterfield, Connecticut

At the AJS session, titled "Ritual Bathing Practices between Town and Country: The Emergence of the Modern Miqveh." a presentation was made about the recent discovery of a late 19th-century mikveh at the agricultural community of Chesterfield, Connecticut, by Prof. Stuart Miller of the University of Connecticut. The mikveh was found at the now abandoned Jewish agricultural settlement of Chesterfield, one of several in the area founded by the Baron de Hirsch foundation in the late 19th century to siphon off Eastern European Jewish immigrants from the tenement slums of the city to a new life on the land.  Many of these settlements were founded in Connecticut and New Jersey, and a few survive in altered form with extant synagogues (in New Jersey these can be found at alliance, Rosehayne, Norma and elsewhere).  This is the first time, however, that a mikveh has been found at one of the agricultural colonies, and it alters somewhat our conception of the level of ritual observance in these communities.  The mikveh, which is made on concrete but included wood stairs, was excavated last summer by Prof.  Miller, who is Academic Director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at UConn and an expert on ritual baths in ancient Israel.  State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni was the co-leader of the project. 

You can read about the Chestefield mikveh here

Allen Street, New York City

Another paper was given Celia Bergoffen about the discovery and excavation the 20th-century mikveh excavated in 2001 on Allen Street on an urban lot adjacent to the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York's Lower East Side, that was subsequently destroyed when a new building was erected on the site.  That mikveh, which may date to 1887, when the bathhouse opened, provide important information about the urban mikva'ot which served the growing Eartern European Jewish immigrant population, including the hydraulic technology and the attention to halachic requirements for mikva'ot construction and maintenance. 

You read more about New York's  Allen Street mikveh excavation here.


Both of these papers referenced the discovery of a mikva'ot beneath the Lloyd Street Synagogue (former Baltimore Hebrew Congregation) in Baltimore, the earliest of which dates to ca. 1845 and was excavated in 2011.  The 1845 mikveh seems to have been in the basement of a house adjacent to where the congregation built their synagogue in 1845.  When the synagogue expanded in 1860 they demolished the house and filled in the mikveh.  It is not known what - if anything - local Jews used for a mikveh after that date.  Later tile-wall mikveh basins, were added in 1905, when the synagogue was purchased and remodeled by the orthodox Shomrei Misheres Congregation. 

Read more about the Baltimore mikveh excavation here.

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