Early American Mikvaot (Ritual Baths)

There is probably no less understood element of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jewish life in the American colonies than the ritual bath or mikveh. The ritual bath was an essential part of early modern Jewish society, and indeed remains so today for orthodox Jews today. Over the past several years, I have studied numerous early American mikvaot. The findings from this research are being published this month in the journal Religion in the Age of Enlightenment (AMS Press) in an article entitled, "Early American Mikvaot: Ritual Baths as the Hope of Israel."

I began to investigate early American mikvaot during a research trip focusing upon the early Jewish community in Newport, RI; my fascination with the subject is both academic and personal. As an academic, I am deeply interested in the daily lives of early American Jews, and mikveh provides important insights into the habits and behaviors of early American women. My intrigue with early mikvaot was also arises out of my own experiences as a Jew. As an orthodox woman in a small city, I have sometimes served as a volunteer balanit (mikveh attendant). When I left to do research one summer in Newport, I told the other mikveh attendants I would find out about early mikvaot. This turned out to be more challenging than I'd thought. Although I was told by tour guides in Newport that women in colonial times probably immersed in the ocean, this struck me as incredibly unlikely. In the summer, the Narragansett bay would hardly be the most modest place to immerse; in the winter the temperature drops well below zero, making ocean immersion also extremely uncomfortable if not deadly. Would early American Jews have cared enough to build a mikveh?

Textual evidence suggests yes. Mikveh use by women was required by Jewish law and was seen as essential to the continuance of a Jewish community. As one Jew in eighteenth-century Philadelphia noted, negligence of the mikveh by women was “highly criminal,” and if such negligence was deemed widespread, other communities might not only “pronounce heavy anathemas against us,” but also might “avoid intermarriages with us, equal as with [a] different nation or sect, to our great shame and mortification” (Marcus 1958: 135). From this colonist's point of view, lack of regular use of the mikveh by women had a negative impact on the family as a whole since offspring “born from so unlawful cohabitation are deemed bene niddot [children conceived during the menstrual period], which makes this offense the more hoeinous [heinous] and detestable, in as much as it effects not only the parents, but their posterity for generations to come“ (Marcus 1958: 135). Indeed the mikveh is considered so essential to Jewish life that some Rabbinical authorities gave it higher precedence than building a synagogue or buying a Torah scroll (Lesches 33).

Archaeological evidence also supports the theory that early American Jews built mikvaot. On the downside, there is little evidence from the United States. Although a spring runs under the Touro Synagogue and there are underground cisterns next to the synagogue, most mikvaot from early U.S. Jewish communities were built in what were (or became) dense urban centers. As neighborhoods changed and mikvaot were abandoned, later structures were built on top of them. Not surprisingly then, most remains of early mikvaot in the Americas are in the Caribbean—the most famous examples being in St. Eustatius and Willemstad, Curaçao (right). Other important mikvaot include the first American mikveh in Recife (Brazil), two mikavot in Paramaribo (below), and the recently rediscovered and excavated mikveh in Barbados (image at top). Archaeological digs of the early synagogue in Jamaica may have located a structure there as well that was a mikveh. As I argue in my RAE article, the unique features of these structures should be understood in relationship to the early mikvaot in Amsterdam.

Mikveh at Neve Shalom Synagogue Complex (Paramaribo, Suriname).
Quite possibly the oldest bor al gabei bor (one pit on top of another pit) mikveh in the Americas.
Recently renovated.

Interested in learning more about the Amsterdam mikvaot? There is a great article online by Jerzy Gawronski and Ranjith Jayasena. For more on early American mikvaot check out the first issue of RAE. Interested in supporting mikvaot in some of Americas oldest Jewish communities? Consider Chai Membership for Suriname or donate to the construction of the new mikveh in Newport, RI. In the meantime, enjoy the photos posted here!

Works cited
Lesches, Schneur Zalman.Understanding Mikveh Montreal: Rabbi S.Z. Lesches, 2001.
Marcus, Jacob Rader. American Jewry. Documents Eighteenth Century.

Photo creditsTop photo of the Barbados mikevh by and courtesy of Karl Watson, 2008. Features archaeologist Michael Stoner. Fisheye effects added by Laura Leibman.

Second Image of an excerpt of a letter from Rabbi Karigal (Barbados) to Aaron Lopez (Newport), asking "me advise como está el Baño" (can you tell me how is the mikveh going) suggesting a mikveh was being (re)built in Newport. From the Collection of Menashe Lehman, printed in “Early Relations Between American Jews and Eretz Yisrael.” Algemeiner Journal 3 March, 1992 : B3.

All other photos by Laura Leibman.


Jewish Heritage Travel: The Gomez House

One of the great gems of Jewish American architecture stands just north of New York City near the Hudson River in Marlboro. Built in 1714, the Gomez Mill House was originally the trading post and home of Luis Moses Gomez. The house is the oldest Jewish dwelling in the United States and is a fine example of Dutch colonial architecture. Like many other early Jewish homes throughout the American colonies, the Gomez Mill House contained both living space and work space, a tradition that can be seen in other early iconic Jewish buildings like the Penha house in Curacao.

The Gomez House likewise reflects the opportunities available to Jewish settlers in the colonies. Although a refugee of the Spanish Inquisition, Luis Gomez was able to purchase the land for the house because he had obtained denizen papers from Queen Anne of England. In addition to the Mill House, Gomez owned a home and prosperous store in Manhattan. Gomez's denizen rights also allowed him to purchase the land that would serve as the first cemetery for Shearith Israel, for which he served as the parnass.

Today the Mill House has been lovingly restored by the Gomez Foundation for Mill House. Included in the house are examples of early American furniture and early Jewish ritual artifacts, including a Dutch hanukkiyah. Also on display are the denizen papers that allowed Luis Gomez to make his fortune. The grounds are lovely, so you may want to pack a lunch. Directions from Manhattan are posted on the house's website.

Educators and those interested in the history of American domestic architecture may find the section on Dutch Colonial Architecture in Rachel Carley's Visual Dictionary of American Domestic Architecture (pages 33-39) helpful to compare to the floorplan and design elements found at the Mill House. Those interested in studying the furniture may find Early American Furniture: A Practical Guide for Collectors by John Obbard will enrich their understanding of the early American aesthetic.

The Mill

The Mill House, First Story Dates to Era of Gomez Ownership

Fireplace in the Front Room of Gomez House, Dates to Era of Gomez Ownership. Fireplaces were a key element of Early American architecture and provided not only a source of heat, but also a place to cook. In some early houses, fireplaces were large enough to sit inside.
Denization Papers Given to Luis Moses Gomez by Queen Anne

All Photos by Laura Leibman, 2007.