Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Visit to Mayyim Hayyim

Last November, previous Strawbery Banke archaeologist Sheila Charles invited me to join her and her sisterhood group from Temple Beth Abraham for a field trip to Mayyim Hayyim, a modern community mikveh in Newton, MA. Lisa Berman, Mayyim Hayyim's Director of Education, gave us an excellent lesson on mikveh specifications and traditions in the Paula Brody & Family Education Center, and then gave us a tour of the facilities.

Mayyim Hayyim's founding board, assembled by author Anita Diamant in 2001, took on the dual responsibility of educating the American Jewish community about the ritual of mikveh immersion, and of raising funds to build the institution.  Mayyim Hayyim opened in 2004 and now provides over 1400 mikveh immersions a year, along with 110 educational programs a year.  It is a beautiful, welcoming, modern space, within a renovated Victorian house.

Lisa spoke to our group of visitors about a variety of topics, exploring the traditional background of mikveh immersion.  Mikvot are associated with the concept of ritual purity and the healing power of water.  At Mayyim Hayyim, there are two mikvot and four preparation areas, where people are able to clean and prepare themselves for ritual immersion.  The immersion pits are each four feet square.  This allows for enough space that during immersion, an adult person is able to fully immerse her body without touching the sides or floor, and allows for the mikveh to hold at least 250 gallons.  Participants descend seven steps into the mikveh.

Honoring the Jewish law that says a mikveh water source must be natural (e.g. a spring, ocean, lake, rainwater, etc.), these modern mikvot are filled with warm tap water, and then "kissed" (hashakah) by rainwater that is collected outside in reservoirs on either side of the building.  The reservoir (bor) in the photo to the left sits just outside one of the mikveh rooms.  The rainwater is added via the red spigot visible in the photo above.  The creation of "living water" (mayyim hayyim) within the mikvot requires that at least enough rainwater to fill an olive (ke’zayit) is added to the tap water.

Visiting Mayyim Hayyim was a wonderful educational experience and certainly helped Sheila and me understand the ritual background of mikveh immersion along with the practical specifications of a modern mikveh.  It will be interesting to see how the early 20th century mikveh at Puddle Dock compares to the early 21st century mikvot at Mayyim Hayyim!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sanborn Maps: A friend to Historical Archaeologists

Sanborn maps are a great tool for historical archaeologists. Sanborn is a company founded in 1866 by Daniel Alfred Sanborn, a surveyor from Somerville, MA.  The company began making fire insurance maps in 1867 with the objective of estimating and recording fire insurance liability in urban and developing areas of the United States.  Sanborn produced over 660,000 maps of over 12,000 cities and towns, charting the growth and development of those places over the course of 140 years.

The maps were published in atlases with a decorative title page, usually with impressive typography, like this 1920 cover page from Portsmouth, NH (below).  The maps were at a scale of 50 feet to an inch, allowing for detailed outlines of buildings and outbuildings, property boundaries, street names and addresses, descriptions of building uses, and naturally, locations of fire hydrants and fire departments.  The atlases also featured indices of streets, public buildings including schools and churches, and information about the population and economy.
The Sanborn maps are useful to all kinds of people.  For historical archaeologists, they are a great resource for viewing neighborhood change over time.  In the image below, I've collected portions of the Portsmouth maps from 1878 through 1941 which show the neighborhood block where we'll be digging this summer.  The house at 90 Jefferson Street appears in the center of the block on the 1904 map, replacing Augustus K. Brown's barn.  As you can see in the maps, buildings (especially outbuildings) came and went over time.  Today, only the Marden-Abbot house (in the NW corner) and the Lowd House (in the SE corner) still stand.  It is interesting to correlate these maps to historic deed descriptions and directories.  This summer, we will also get the chance to ground truth the barn foundation and property line.  

Below is a portion of the 1910 Sanborn map georeferenced over recent aerial imagery of Strawbery Banke Museum. In this type of overlay it is clear that there have been many changes to the landscape of the Puddle Dock neighborhood in the last century.

Interested in searching for a historic Sanborn map of your neighborhood?
The Library of Congress has a collection of Sanborn maps searchable and available online.
Many NH Sanborn maps are available online at the Dartmouth College Library.  
David Rumsey's excellent Map Collection has scans of a rare 1905 San Francisco Sanborn Atlas, which shows how the atlases were arranged.
The New York Public Library has been engaged in a very cool NEH funded project to scan and georeference nearly 8,000 Sanborn maps of NY and NJ.
There is also a searchable database of PA Sanborn maps and a lot more information on the Penn State University Libraries website.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Archaeological Excavations at other Mikvot

Archaeologists have excavated mikvot at other sites on the East Coast.  Three important mikveh excavations have been in Connecticut, Baltimore, and New York City.

In Connecticut, researchers were investigating Old Chesterfield, an 1890s farming community of 500 Russian Jewish immigrants who relocated from NYC.  Recent excavations revealed a stone and wood-lined mikveh.  This mikveh is perhaps the only rural mikveh ever investigated by archaeologists in North America.  It is featured in the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site.  For more on the Chesterfield mikveh, click here.
The Chesterfield mikveh

In New York City, during 2001 restorations of the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, archaeologists revealed a mikveh from the early 20th century.  The mikveh measured 6 by 7 feet and included six marble steps and white tile.  Its discovery raised exciting questions about the practice of ritual immersion among early 20th century Jewish immigrants in NYC.  The synagogue is now fully restored and is a National Historic Landmark.  For more on the Eldridge Street mikveh, click here.

In Baltimore, excavations at the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue in 2001 and 2008 revealed a five foot deep wooden tub dating to 1845, making it the oldest mikveh ever uncovered in the United States.  Archaeologists found that the mikveh and bath house had been torn down in the 1860s when the synagogue expanded.  There are two tile lined mikvehs that were built later, after an Orthodox congregation bought the synagogue in 1905.  The Lloyd Street Synagogue is now part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.  For more on the Lloyd Street mikveh, click here.
Esther Read, an archaeologist and professor at University of Maryland, excavating the Lloyd Street mikveh.

Two of these mikvot are in very urban areas, and the Chesterfield mikveh is in a very rural area.  The Puddle Dock neighborhood falls somewhere between New York City, Baltimore, and Chesterfield, CT on the urban/rural scale.  It will be very interesting to compare the mikveh we hope to uncover here at Strawbery Banke Museum with these other archaeologically explored mikvot!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

What is a mikveh?

A mikveh (also spelled mikvah) is a Jewish ritual bath. Mikvot are typically used by converts to Judaism, for brides, and for women observing the practice of monthly immersion after menstruation (Niddah). Mikvot have also been used by men before Shabbat or before holidays, and may be used today by anyone commemorating a transition or occasion.  Jewish law also requires that any metal or glass utensils or kitchen vessels made or owned by a non-Jewish person, must be immersed in a mikveh.  This is a form of conversion for the utensils. 

The water source for a mikveh must be a naturally occurring source of water: either underground/spring water, or rainwater, melted snow or ice, which must flow into the bath. A mikveh must be built into the ground or into an integral part of a building -- it cannot be a vessel that could be removed, like a tub or barrel.  The mikveh must be made of earthenware, stone, concrete, cement, asbestos, or plastic -- materials which are not prone to biblical uncleanness. The minimum amount of water is 200 gallons (according to the Torah, at least 40 Sa'ah).

Ida Zeidmann, who lived at Puddle Dock in the early 20th century, was interviewed in 1977 by Mary Pietsch.  Ida spoke about the Jewish community at Puddle Dock. When asked about baths, she answered, "Jewish people have a custom. Before the girls marry, and once a month, they were to go... similar to a Baptismal... They built a little cement insertion, they'd walk down some stairs. It was on Jefferson Street."  Ida must have been talking about the mikveh at 90 Jefferson Street!

Mikveh image by Margarita Korol