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

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 amount of the water in a mikvah must be free flowing, mayim hayim (living water). The source that provides pure water is a ma'ay an, or spring. This cannot be drawn water, or water carried in a container. Where no spring or underground river provides ritually pure water, rainwater, snow, or ice may be used. The water may fall directly into the mikvah pool, be channeled into the basin via conduits along the ground, or led down a straight pipe from the roof. In antiquity, pools and channels were cut directly into the rock to a collection or settling pool that overflowed through a connecting pipe or opening into the bathing pool. (10) In modern mikva'ot, rainwater is collected in a small cistern--the bor. This may be built next to the immersion pool and communicate with it via an opening not less than approximately 3.0 inches in diameter. The pure water in the bor mingling with the tap water in the mikvah makes the latter kosher (the ozar hashakah method). The bor may also be separated and slightly elevated above the immersion pool so that its waters flow into the mikvah through a pipe running under the floor (the ozar zeri'ah method). The two systems of rendering water ritually pure are often combined to back each other up.

Different fixture types are permissible but metal pipes, used in the past, are today avoided in favor of plastic or ceramic pipes. Until about fifty years ago, drains were common, although they would increase the risk of leakage, which would render the mikvah invalid. (11) According to Rabbi Nuchum Rosenberg, an expert on mikvah construction and history, drains were not an issue in the "old country" because Jews channeled pure river water to their immersion pools by pipes running directly from the river into the mikvah. Since river water is a ma'ayan, any outflow from the mikvah would not be equated with leakage from a vessel, and would therefore not render the mikvah ritually impure. To address the problem of potential leakage, in the early 1950s, Rabbi Nissan Telushkin recommended not using drains but rather pumping water out of the mikvah with a siphon. (12) Telushkin brought to America the ideas contained in the commentaries on Jewish law by Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz (1878-1953), known as the Chazon Ish. Through study of the laws governing the mikvah, Karelitz designed what would become the modern zeriyah pool, which Telushkin advocated incorporating in mikvah construction. Thus, according to Rosenberg, the first mikva'ot with zeriyah pools in America would have been built from the 1950s on.

Mikva'ot in Synagogues

Given the mikvah's central role in Judaism, it is not surprising that in New York, up to the early twentieth century, mikva'ot were often located in synagogues--the community's spiritual centers. Indeed, the history of synagogue mikva'ot in New York City goes back to the Colonial Period. The first mikvah known was erected by Congregation Shearith Israel in 1759 in the yard of the Mill Street Synagogue (erected in 1730 on what is now South William Street). (13) The synagogue and the street were named after the mill that formerly stood on the property, built here to take advantage of a natural stream to turn the mill wheel. Probably long before the construction of Shearith Israel's first recorded mikvah, earlier generations of congregants used the mill stream for their ritual immersions. Shearith Israel sold the property in 1833 and erected a new synagogue at 60 Crosby Street, but built no mikvah there or at any of its subsequent addresses. (14) B'nai Jeshurun, which split from Shearith Israel in 1825, purchased and remodeled the First Coloured Presbyterian Church at 119 Elm Street, and built a mikvah in 1833. (15) These sites have not survived.

By 1884, there were reportedly fifteen mikva'ot in New York City connected with synagogues. (16) An advertisement in the Jewish Gazette, published on May 7, 1880, discloses the existence of a mikvah in the synagogue at 38-40 Henry Street associated with Congregation Shaare Zedek. (17) It was reportedly located in the synagogue's basement. (18) Another was in the beit midrash (house of study) of the Russian-Polish Beth Hamedrash congregation at 78 Allen Street. The congregation moved into a former Welsh church at that address in 1856 and built a mikvah in the courtyard behind the three-story building. (19) From at least 1880 on, the shamash (caretaker) Yitzhak Natelson owned and operated the mikvah, which was certified kosher by one of the congregation's founders and its first rabbi, Abraham Joseph Ash. (20) Members of a later branch of Beth Hamedrash, Khal Adat Jeshurun with Anshe Lubz, built the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Since we know from archaeological excavation that Natelson's second mikvah, at 5 Allen Street, was built by the ozar hashakah method and also certified by Ash (see below), it is likely that the construction of the earlier installation followed the same plan. The synagogue at 78 Allen Street was destroyed in 1932 when Allen Street was widened, and any archaeological remains were probably obliterated by subsequent construction on the truncated lot.

The synagogue at 80 Forsyth Street, erected in 1874, was occupied by Kol Yisrael Anshe Polen at least as early as 1882, when an advertisement in the Jewish Gazette dated January 6 mentions its two mikvah pools. Another ad, dated May 19, 1882, states that the mikvah was "in the house" of the congregation. Since the building took up the entire lot, the mikvah must have been in its basement (21) The only New York City business directory listing at this address, noted in 1899, was for a lavatory bath owned by Isaac Seikowitz. (22) The business directory clas sifications of baths as "lavatory," "medicated," "Russian," "swimming," "Turkish," or "vapor" began in 1897). (23) Interestingly, an Israel Seikowitz ran the bath at 78 Allen Street, the earlier home of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. (24) The building at 80 Forsyth Street still exists but has been converted into apartments.

Although the pool has not survived, we know something about the construction of a mikvah built by Anshei Sfard. In a letter dated 1887, Rabbi Moses Weinberger described a mikvah installed the previous year under the beit midrash of this "honorable society" consisting of "two trenches one next to the other, with a dividing wall between them that is breached at the top in such a way that when one side is filled, the other fills up through the breach." (25) This is clearly the ozar hashakah method of building a mikvah. The congregation met at 99 Attorney Street, and Moritz Goldberger ran the bathhouse. (26) In 1889, Anshei Sfard sold him the parlor and basement floors of the building. (27) This building also still exists, but the interior was completely gutted and the space now serves as a recording studio and performance venue.

Synagogues on the Lower East Side continued to build their own mikva'ot even after other types of facilities began to appear in the neighborhood. Several synagogue mikva'ot built after 1890, for instance, could also be traced. Congregation Ansche Chesed--an offshoot of B'nai Jeshurun--erected a Gothic revival style synagogue in 1850 at 172-176 Norfolk Street. This was the largest synagogue of its day before the Eldridge Street Synagoguge outdid it, and is the oldest surviving synagogue building in New York City. The congregation built a mikvah before 1886, when it sold the synagogue to Congregation Shaari Rachmim. (28) In 1890, First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek Verein, then occupying the space, applied for a permit to erect a building next door at 178 Norfolk Street for dwellings on the first to fifth stories and bathing in the basement. (29) In 1892, they wanted to "take out the partitions for the apartments in the rear of the first story" to create a single room "for a dressing room of the bath establishment in the basement." (30) In a second application, the congregation sought to make "a connection from the present bath establishment of 178 Norfolk to the basement of the synagogue to provide a dressing room with plunge." (31) The baths served 315 "paying male members" and, hypothetically, a further estimated two thousand individuals affiliated with the synagogue. (32) The bathhouse's address, first listed in Wilson's Business Directory in 1892, thereafter alternates with the synagogue's address at 176-178 Norfolk Street. Sometimes it is listed as a Turkish bath, other times, as a Russian one. A 1903 map notes "Baths in Bst." at 178 Norfolk Street and depicts the short connection between the buildings, which stood only about 2 feet apart. (33) The rather shallow plunge had a 1.33-foot high brick wall around it on top and measured 2.33 feet on the bottom, "well laid in cement and plastered in cement to make it water tight." A 0.66-foot thick brick wall enclosed the dressing room. In this instance, the synagogue apparently took the entrepreneurial lead, building its own bathhouse around its old mikvah. Unfortunately, the renovated basement of the synagogue preserves no trace of a mikvah or a connection to the adjacent building.

Business directories and Sanborn maps also record "baths" in synagogue buildings without specifying whether these included a mikvah, but it is likely that this was the case. For instance, from at least 1884 to 1885, Congregation Chevra Kadischa Talmud Torah met at 622 East Fifth Street in a three-story building with a basement containing "lavatory" baths---the usual designation for baths associated with synagogues from 1897 on. (34) The designations "Synagogue" and "Baths" both appear on the 1903 Sanborn map. It is not known whether there was a mikvah, but since the baths were in the same building as the synagogue, it would certainly be a practical arrangement. The same probably holds for congregation Linath Hazedek Anshei Sakolka, whose synagogue was at 193 Henry Street. In the year of its establishment, 1889, David Abramson's baths opened at same address. (35) Since the building took up almost the entire lot, the baths must have been in the basement. (36) From 1897 to 1907, this facility was listed under "lavatory" baths except in 1900 and 1905 when it was designated "Russian." After 1897, the business directories classified most of the baths associated with synagogues as "lavatory," e.g. 32 Orchard Street, 70 Willett Street and 62 Attorney Street. All these were marked "synagogue" on the 1894 Sanborn map and all were listed as housing "lavatory" baths. (37) The "Hebrew School & Baths" at 100 Canon Street, also contained "lavatory baths" from 1900 to 1903.38 The school was part of synagogue Gemilath Chesed Kehila (organized in 1882). (39)


In Europe, mikva'ot had been installed in synagogue basements or yards for centuries and in America, where space allowed, this practice continued. But in the densely occupied Lower East Side, where city blocks were almost completely covered by buildings, ordinary tenements had to serve multiple functions, including ritual.

Mikva'ot associated with Shteiblach

Communities of Jews who came from the same village would often form small prayer societies or congregations. They met, for the most part, in rented spaces in the tenements rather than in former church buildings or purpose-built synagogues, which they could not afford. These tenement buildings might also contain baths in their basements, but whether the baths also included mikva'ot or whether they had any direct connection with the congregation upstairs can rarely be ascertained. In general, the number of independently run baths on the Lower East Side increased markedly from the 1880s on. According to the directories, these were often owned or operated by individuals with Jewish names who might have made some provisions for ritual immersion, but again, this cannot be confirmed.

The numerous small congregations or shtieblach, were of many types, "incorporated, and unincorporated, with and without their own buildings ... with and without preachers.... grouped in accordance with the social status of their members (some are conducted and maintained entirely by workmen), or in accordance with Landsmannschaften [immigrants from the same villages, towns or cities], or ... with the texts of their prayers and their religious observances." (40) The small congregations, lacking their own mikvah could have used a private facility, and paid a fee (synagogue mikva'ot were free). (41) The mikva'ot might be located in bathhouses on the same lot, or in the same building as the congregations.

Congregation Chevra Poel Zedek Anschei Illia (from Vilna province, Lithuania) provides an example of this phenomenon. Before moving into its magnificent synagogue at 126-8 Forsyth Street, this Landsmanshaft congregation met in a series of rented spaces on the Lower East Side (ca. 1884-1894). The dinner journal in honor of the congregation's fortieth anniversary recalled that when they were on the second floor of 20 Orchard Street, there was, "underneath ... another Jewish institution which was like a kosher mikveh." (41) The latter was listed under "lavatory" baths in the business directories from 1885 to 1887.

Congregation Anshei Breinsk Shebeth Achim is listed at 23 Hester Street in 1901-1903, but in later years, both B'nai Jeshurun Anshei Koni and Chochmath Adam Anshei Lomza v'Gotch also met at this address. (43) A photograph of Hester Street circa 1900 shows a circular sign hanging on the building advertising both "Mikveb Kesherah," in Hebrew, and "Baths" in English. (44) From 1897 to 1903, the latter were listed under "lavatory" baths, except in 1898, when they were "Russian," and in 1901, when they were listed as both. (45)


CITY/SCAPE: Cultural Resource Consultants excavated one such independent mikvah in the yard of a former three-story building, built before 1831, at 308 East Third Street (Figure 2). Their documentary research had revealed that Congregation Moshcisker Chevrah Cur Arye (organized in 1899) was also located at this address in the early 20th century. (46) But while there was a Turkish bath next door at 306 East Third Street, there was no listing for a bath at 308 East Third Street, in the same building as the synagogue. (47) Moreover, Sanborn maps showed an alley alongside the building housing the mikvah, leading to the yard, but no structure actually in the yard. There was therefore no expectation of finding a mikvah only perhaps the building's cistern or privy. Although the archaeologists did recover most of the pool, they were not able to clarify how or if it was connected to the building on the front of the lot, which was demolished circa 1980-85. (48) Nor was any physical connection found between the mikvah and the neighboring building at 306 East Third Street.

CITY/SCAPE's excavation uncovered the entire floor and part of the surrounding walls of the mikvah pool. The top however was missing, and only the lowest four steps and the bottom edge of a fifth were preserved in the southeast corner of the mikvah, which was built "against the concrete wall" separating this lot from 310 East Third Street. (49) The staircase was 1.17 feet wide and the 0.5 feet high steps had white marble treads. The pool's size, 10 feet by 7 feet, with a preserved depth of 4.83 feet, is suitable for a men's mikvah although women could have used it too. There was a metal drain in the southwest corner. The walls were finished in white brick tiles and the floor in small, hexagonal white tiles with a decorative border strip of square, dark brown, light blue, and tan colored tiles. At the floor's center, in hexagonal tiles, was a blue, six-pointed star enclosing two concentric circles, the outer yellow, the inner and its central point, blue (Figure 3). Six yellow and blue arrows pointed at the inner corners of the star. The Star of David and the pool's location suggest that it served as a mikvah, whether or not its construction was kosher. The structure was not preserved in situ, but a portion of the mosaic, including the central Star of David, was removed and is now on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

Bathing, Hygiene and Independent Mikva'ot

Much of the stigma attached to mikva'ot during this era--whether located in synagogues or operated independently--resulted from the inability or unwillingness of the mikvah operators to perform their duties. The difficulty in it supplying sufficient ritually pure water to keep the mikvah kosher and the occasional venality of the mikvah operators was compounded by the overwhelming demand on the facilities resulting from the density of population on the Lower East Side. Moreover, since most of the facilities were not directly connected to synagogues but independently operated, there was no ongoing Rabbinic oversight. Weinberger described the problem:

... we have neither wells nor running streams. All the water comes through pipes and it must be rendered kosher through snow, ice and rainwater [...] ... in this great matter [of keeping the mikvah kosher] ... we must rely on the evidence and trustworthiness of one person: the bath attendant. In New York the bath attendants are not all righteous people. Moreover, there are days when it is impossible to rely even on the righteous and innocent among them, for example before the holidays--especially the high holidays--when their burdens and work are great. The few poor rabbis ... make the mikvah kosher initially, and get paid. After they have certified it, they have nothing more to do with it.

Weinberger, People Walk on Their Heads, 117

Aside from the lack of rabbinic oversight and the questionable probity of some operators, there was the pressing need for adequate bathing facilities for the Lower East Side's burgeoning Eastern European Jewish population. Beginning in the 1880s and until the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, Jews came to the United States in great numbers, especially from Russia and Poland. During the period ca. 1885 to 1892, 147,029 Jews immigrated to the United States via New York City, where many remained. (50) Cramped three-room apartments often housed several families as well as lodgers who slept in bedrolls on the floor. There were no bathrooms--or even indoor toilets, necessarily--and bathtubs were rare. "The only way in which occupants of tenement houses can bathe is by using a tub of some kind, filled from the faucet in the kitchen or from that in the hall, or with water carried up from the yard." (51) In 1894, the Tenement House Committee found that of 255,033 residents inspected, only 306 had the use of bathrooms in their buildings. (52) Their findings led to the Tenement House Act of 1901, which required one toilet for every two apartments in existing tenement houses (38, section 100), and one for each individual apartment in any tenement house "hereafter erected" (35, Section 95). (53) Private bathrooms, however, did not become the norm until the 1920s. By that time, an emergent middle-class was leaving the tenements and moving to the developing outer boroughs, now accessible via the new subway system. (54) Concurrently, the idea of building one's own mikvah at home became popular, but that subject is beyond the scope of this article. (55)


Because of living conditions in the tenements, using the mikvah became synonymous with bathing. All tenement basement plunge pools came to be known as "mikvehs," whether sanctioned, unsanctioned, or used purely as baths, and the term also applied to the bathhouse as a whole. (56) The mikva'ot might be located on "ground floors and cellars ... in loft buildings, in yards and ... in stables. A separate coal furnace ... supplies] hot water for the mikvehs, tub baths, and shower baths, if present." (57) These were usually "cast-iron tanks," (58) "up to 26 by 14.5 by 5 feet in size" but "emptied regardless of size as often as the proprietor decides ... crowded to their capacity ... and without effective sanitary supervision." (59) Many facilities were alarmingly unhygienic, with insufficient water, showers, or baths, with customers not bathing before immersing, or proprietors not regularly emptying and cleaning their mikvah, all contributing to the insalubrious conditions. (60) One woman said that the pool she visited prior to her marriage in 1935 was "so dirty that I paid them a sum of money to empty out the mikvah and clean it up and put in fresh water for me." (61)


In 1915, the pools were considered a "serious menace to the health of the people using them." (62) But while they were run as businesses, they also claimed religious status, which exempted them from city regulations. In response to the outcry from public officials, in 1915, the Kehillah and the Vaad Harabbonim established a Mikveh Owners' Association. (63) Members agreed to make bathers "take preliminary soap baths." Further rules specified: "No waste water ... be allowed to drain into pool," and "Clean and adequate toilet accommodations ... [must] be provided, and no one [should be]... allowed to commit a nuisance in a pool." (64) The description of the installations, cited above, together with these rules, suggest that baths, showers and toilets were not always available and that mikvah pools might be used for bathing and worse. It is not surprisingly that mikva'ot were "not too inviting." (65)


Judge Bookson remembered a small reception area with a few wooden chairs where women waited their turn to use an untiled, concrete pool in a space lit by a single naked bulb. (66) You couldn't tell what color the water was, he said, whether clean or dirty. Those who ran the mikva'ot were "very poor people" but there was a "perk ... a free apartment in the mikvah building," which was "also good for availability," since the attendant, living on the premises, could open up late at night if necessary.

Was the smaller pool in the cellar of 209 East Seventh Street this type of mikvah? Not listed in the business directories or associated with any congregation, it may have been one of an unknown number of basement pools that operated "under the radar"--perhaps not even known outside their immediate neighborhood (Figure 4). The pool was installed circa 1902 in a six-story tenement building extending on two lots that accommodated thirty families. (67) An alterations application for a bathhouse to occupy the space of the two basements specifies "nine bathrooms and two plunge baths ... one 6x6 ft and one 6x7 ft to be built of 12" brick walls laid in Portland Cement mortar." During renovations, members of the 209 East 7th Street Homestead Association discovered one pool under their concrete cellar floor (Figure 4). (68) It was filled with earth, which was not excavated. Only the top edge of the pool's lining of white, brick-style tiles was visible. The dimensions were 8 feet north-south by 6 feet east-west, and the preserved depth was 3 feet. The pool was recovered with a concrete slab and it is no longer accessible. There was no sign of the planned second pool.

In response to the mikvah's associations with insalubrity and contagion, Benjamin Koenigsberg championed the construction of a new "modern" facility. This mikvah, the earliest still functioning one in Manhattan, is the Mikvah of East Side, built in 1940 in the former Arnold Toynbee House, which the Young Men's Benevolent Association erected in 1904 as a community center. The facility was restored and rededicated in 1996. With its new, modern aesthetic, this "ritualarium"--as a mikvah were then called--was meant to attract women who had lapsed in their observance, put off by the grimy conditions and lack of privacy of the basement mikva'ot. Located on the first floor of the building, the mikvah comprises three pairs of bathrooms each sharing one immersion pool measuring approximately 4.0 feet by 6.5 feet by 4.0 feet deep. The pools are rendered kosher by both ozar zeri'ah and ozar hashakah via two holes in the mikvah walls near the top. One, leading via a channel, to the ozar zeri'ah, is sealed with a plastic cork when not in use. The pools have no drains and are emptied by siphons. A pipe for collecting rainwater runs from the roof down the rear wall of the building. The present arrangement deviates from the original 1940 plan, which included a "Men's Mikvoth" on the basement level. (69) Never built, this section would have had its own entrance and would have contained two 10-foot by 10-foot pools, side-by-side, with lockers opposite and, in the rear, cubicle showers, toilets, and sinks. The plan is historically very important because it records the intersection of the decline, in Manhattan, of the traditional, communal mikvah in favor of the small, private, women's mikvah.

Mikva'ot in Bathhouses

The third type of mikvah on the Lower East Side was the one housed in Russian baths. Open to anyone, regardless of synagogue affiliation, the bathhouses were superior to the independent mikva'ot because they had proper bathing facilities where patrons could wash thoroughly before ritually immersing and so keep the mikvah pool cleaner. But while all Russian bathhouses contain cold plunge pools, these were not necessarily ritually sanctioned, and there are only a few instances where it is possible to verify the existence of a kosher mivkah in a bathhouse. This is why the mikvah in the Allen Street baths was such an important find.

Although Russian baths were first listed in the New York business directory in 1848, they became much more common in the late nineteenth century, especially on the Lower East Side, with the arrival of Jews from Eastern Europe. Russian baths commonly catered primarily to men and restricted women's hours to one or two days a week; perhaps the basement mikva'ot were meant to make up for this deficit. Russian baths still exist, and the methods and practices associated with them have remained essentially the same. In a Russian hot room, radiant heat is created by stones placed on or in a stove-oven, and steam is created by bathers pouring water over themselves or over the stones. The old Turkish baths utilized dry heat, like modern saunas. In a Russian bath, bathing consists of a sweat and a soap scrub-down in the hot room, followed by a massage and a final invigorating plunge into a cold pool. Food and cots for napping were also available, and in the past, some bathhouses also offered overnight accommodations for men only, in upstairs dormitories.

Some Russian baths containing mikva'ot were nicely appointed. L. Diamant's Turkish bathhouse at 240-244 Eldridge Street advertised twenty marble baths as well as a kosher mikvah. But only Wednesday was "Ladies' Day." (70) The Russian bath at 9 Essex Street, operated by the Bader family from around 1927 to 1947, also contained a mikvah. Ann Bader, the owner's daughter, recalled that the bathhouse was in the basement and on the ground floor. The first floor was a "Syrian" shul. Her family lived on the second floor, and the third floor was used for storage. (71) There were separate bathhouses for women, in front, and for men, in back. The latter was a three-story building adjacent to the yard, reached by a passageway that ran along the side of the building on the front of the lot. It contained a dormitory and, in the basement, a steam room, a massage table, and a swimming pool, this last available to women only on Tuesdays. The mikvah was on the women's side, as well as a steam room, a marble slab massage table, private showers, a bathtub, a bidet, and a toilet. There was one assistant, a "very Orthodox" masseuse who normally wore a sheitel (wig) but covered her head in a turban when she worked. Ann Bader's mother and sisters did cupping and gave beauty treatments. Her mother also ran a poker game at which the women gambled for small amounts of money. Friday nights were especially busy with men and women coming to prepare for their weekend dates.

Despite the presence of the poker games and the masseuse, the mikvah was kosher and "built to specifications." Aside from rabbis, who immersed themselves before the holidays, men did not regularly use the mikvah. However, it was used to kasher pots and silverware. The mikvah., which was not in its own room, was reached "up five steps" next to the shower and the massage table and, as Bader recalled, "everyone walked around nude." There was, however, a "little room for women who were shy ... the first time, so that you could walk behind there to put on your robe."

Morris Kittner ran the Allen Street Baths in the 1930s, and his son Ben worked there from around 1938, manning the cash register and giving customers their soap rubdowns. This was the gangster era, and Kittner remembered certain "disreputable characters" sending him on errands to buy sandwiches and cigarettes. Jews and non-Jews alike frequented the baths, and there was also "a good contingent of policemen" who "checked their guns and their badges" before going down to the steam room. The family lived on the third floor, above a second-floor dormitory. Here too, Wednesday was "Ladies' Day." The bathhouse was on the ground-level and first floors. Customers checked in on the first floor, at the office, and got their towel from the cashier. There were lockers in the back, and one could buy food that Morris' mother prepared. The Turkish and Russian rooms were downstairs, in the back of the building, past the swimming pool and the showers on the opposite wall. The Russian bath was heated by a tall, stone-built oven, and it had three tiers of benches. The mikvah, also in the basement, was in a room by itself near the front.

A 1924 lease itemized the bathhouse's furnishings: "1. 26 bath tubs. 2. One wooden tank. 3. two pools or plunges. 4. two furnaces (one for steam and one for hot water) 5. 157 lockers. 6. 6 wooden benches in hot air room. 7. one marble bench. 8. chairs. 9. four marble tables. 10. two marble slabs. 11. hot air stove. 12. ten wooden benches. 13. two gas ranges." (71) A 1929 lease lists twenty-two bath tubs--slightly fewer than in 1924, but otherwise the same equipment. Morris Kittner's second lease, dated 1933, only one 8as range, but adds a fire alarm system and a "Turkish room and equipment." (73)


The East Tenth Street Baths, established in 1892 and still in business, are on the ground floor and basement of a tenement building, laid out like the baths on Allen Street. The Russian hot room has a stone-built furnace in the corner and three tiers of benches. Plastic buckets, which bathers can fill with cold water from faucets in the wall behind the benches, are available for dousing oneself in order to prevent fainting from the extreme heat. On exiting the steamy hot room, bathers plunge into a cold water pool. This writer interviewed two people who claimed that the pool was once a mikvah, but the owners could not confirm this. (74) The pool has been renovated twice since the 1980s, so any opening to a bor would have been tiled over.

Of all the loci in which mikva'ot were found in the period under discussion, the inclusion of consecrated pools in secular, commercial bathhouses is the most challenging to modern notions of Orthodox practice in its free intermingling of ritual purification, bathing, grooming and socializing.

The Allen Street Baths and its Mikvah

In 1886, the Beth Hamedrash congregation moved from 78 Allen Street into its splendid new building at 19 Eldridge Street and became known as Khal Adath Jeshurun with Anshe Lubz. In conjunction with this move, Yitzhak Natelson opened a second mikvah, combined with a Russian bath, at 5 Allen Street. This was a private business, neither funded by, nor officially connected to, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, although as the shamash of the congregation, Natelson had a ready clientele. Yitzak Natelson died in 1903, and his son Nathan sold the property in 1907, but the bathhouse continued to operate under various owners or lessees--among them, Morris Kittner--until the building was demolished in 1958.

Natelson proudly advertised two mikva'ot in the Jewish Gazette on September 24, 1886, declaring that both Rabbi Josef Ash (1821-1887) and Rabbi Yehoshuah Siegel (1846-1910) had certified its purity. To underscore that this would be strictly maintained, Natelson mentioned his wife, Gittel, who also made wigs for Orthodox women, implying that she would be the "mikvah lady" presiding over the women's immersions. He also enumerated all the bathing facilities in which patrons could cleanse themselves before immersing, thus ensuring that the mikvah remain spotless. This is a translation of the ad, which was written in Yiddish:
   Moved! Moved! Moved!

   Mikvah kasherah

   This is what you should tell to the house of Jacob (to the women)
   you should tell this to the Jewish community (to the men) Mrs.
   Gittel Natelsohn the sheitel maker the wife of Reb Yitzak
   Natelsohn, shamash of the beit Midrash Allen Street who had the
   mikvah in the Allen Street shul moved it to 5 Allen Street between
   Canal and Division where he can accommodate everybody to the
   highest and finest place (i.e., satisfy to the fullest). I have two
   new large [...] mikvahs installed with 14 bath tubs and everything
   is completely kosher in the best way as declared by Rabbi Josef Ash
   and Yehoshuah Siegel. Everything with the most beautiful [...] to
   get from early in the morning to late evening. This is the only
   place in New York where it's good and cheap served. Gittel
   Natelsohn the wig maker. I. Natelsohn 5 Allen St., NY.

Below the Yiddish section, the advertisement closed with two lines in Hebrew that read: "The mikvah at Allen Street that belongs to Rav Yitzak Natelsohn, shamash of the beit hamedresh Allen Street was made according to the shulhan aruh the best of hechshers," (75) The reason for switching to Hebrew for this "addendum" is not known: perhaps it added authenticity.

The bath was housed in a four-and-a-half story building, erected in 1860 on the front of a lot that measured 25 feet by 88 feet, with a rear wing 14 feet wide by 28 feet deep. The Sanborn maps indicate that the latter was extended to the lot line between 1911 and 1923, and a one-story structure containing a boiler was erected in the northwestern corner of the lot with a vault--probably for the furnaces--built immediately east of it. A tax photograph from the 1940s shows a flight of steps to a first-floor entrance and one (or two?) at street-level with signs announcing (as at 23 Hester Street), "Mikvah Kasherah" in Hebrew, on the left, and "BATHS" in English, on the right. (76)


The basement pools at 5 Allen Street were preserved because the building was not demolished in a manner consistent with the building code, which requires basements to be properly filled in and packed down. In this instance, when the building was demolished, in 1958, the detritus was simply allowed to fall into the void of the basement and its installations. This unsafe, illegal method of tearing down a building, was, however, good for archaeology because it preserved the tiled bathhouse floor, which lay a mere 3.5 feet below street level (Figure 14).

The back wall of the former building stood 46.0 feet west of the lot line on Allen Street (Figure 5). Its brick walls were 1.5 feet thick. The floor at the southeast end was not preserved, but many fragments of marble slabs were found in this area, west of the 1.8-foot thick brick wall built over the east edge of a swimming pool. We excavated below the floor level to approximately ten feet below grade without reaching the foundations of the southern outer wall. The cellar floor was therefore more than 7 feet below the bathhouse.

The swimming pool, built along the south side of the bathhouse, measured 10 by 20 feet and was 6.1 feet deep (Figures 6 and 7). Its walls were finished in white, brick-shaped tiles measuring 4 inches by 6.5 inches, with a band of narrow, 2-inch by 6.5-inch bluish-green tiles running around the pool 1.7 feet below the top edge. Unlike the pool at 308 East 3rd Street, with its central star, neither the colors nor types of tiles have any evident symbolic connections. Nor is it clear whether the plumbing arrangements, as far as could be observed, were meant to fulfill ritual requirements, and if so, in what manner, or whether they were installed for practical reasons only. Two pipes, each 2.5 inches in diameter, cut through the pool's east wall above the blue band, one in the second row of tiles below floor level and 2.12 feet from the pool's southeast corner, the other in the third row of tiles and 1.12 feet from the corner (Figure 6). Because they were inserted after the tile work was completed, they may represent a later modification, for instance, to supply the pool with ritually pure water. There was a third pipe on the opposite, west side of the pool, in the third row of tiles below the top and approximately 1.08 feet south of the pool's northwest corner (Figure 7). This pipe is closer to the location of the boiler, which was added in a later period, and may have been intended to conduct warm water into the pool. Both these suggestions, however, are purely speculative. The purpose of these pipes is unknown. Seven steps in the southwest corner measuring 2.9 feet wide, 1.0 feet deep, and 0.7 feet high were capped by white hexagonal tiles. The risers and sides of the steps were covered with white, brick-shaped tiles. Three emplacements for the posts of a brass stair-rail were preserved--one at the edge of the pool, one on the third step from the top, and one on the lowest step. We found two finials from the stair posts made of a disk and cylinder riveted onto the top of the post. The edge of the pool above the steps was finished in white hexagonal tiles matching the steps below. The rest was capped by a row of white glazed bricks laid on edge, as headers. The floor of the pool was decorated with hexagonal tiles laid in concentric hexagons of alternating tan, gray, and brick red. Two circular metal drains set practically side-by-side were cut through the floor tiles near the west end of the pool, not quite below the above-mentioned two pipes in the pool's east wall (Figure 8).

The mikvah appears to have been in its own, discrete room--a concession, perhaps to those desiring privacy. This was determined by the treatment of the wall above the mikvah, which was blue-painted plaster with a wood wainscoting painted or darkened to black (Figure 10). All the other sections of wall preserved in the bathhouse were covered with white tiles. Situated 15.7 feet west of the lot line on Allen Street, the mikvah was surrounded by sections of blue and white checkered floor on all but its west side, with 0.4 feet of the checkerboard-patterned floor separating it from the north wall (Figure 9). This also distinguished it from the large pool, which was built flush against the south wall of the building. The east and south sides of the floor around the mikvah were treated in a more ornate manner than the floor around the large pool, with three or four rows of small square tiles in alternating rows of light blue and white. In addition, there was a railing around the mikvah, as evidenced by the bases of three of its posts, which were preserved on the pool's decorative border, one lining up with the east edge of the steps, a second at the southeast corner, and a third in the middle of the pool's east side (Figure 5). This could have been added for safety's sake, or simply for additional embellishment, in keeping with the attention to detail and finish seen elsewhere in the construction. The mikvah's interior dimensions were 5.9 feet east-west by 6.6 feet north-south and 5.15 feet deep--more than ample to meet the ritual requirements. Unlike the large pool, the mikvah's six steps, at its southwest corner, had expensive marble treads (Figure 9). The stairs measured 2.6 feet wide, 0.9 feet deep and 0.8 feet high. The interior of the mikvah pool was covered with white, brick-shaped tiles, but the floor was laid with pure white hexagonal tiles only, and, unlike the large pool, the inner edge of the mikvah's border of white glazed bricks laid on end was gracefully rounded as though to protect the bather from encountering a sharp corner. Cut into the pool's east wall, 1.4 feet below floor level, was an opening 0.5 feet square. Its importance was signaled by the narrow white marble slab framing it on top. The opening contained a round metal pipe that led into the bor (Figures 10 and 11). Another pipe, without architectural embellishment protruded from the south wall of the mikvah, 1.0 feet below the top and 0.8 feet east of the stairs (Figure 12). Its purpose is unknown. Could it have connected the mikvah to the large pool? As usual in pre-modern mikva'ot, there was a metal drain in the bottom of the pool at the foot of its east wall, approximately 1.5 feet north of the pool's south wall.

The bor, a plain concrete cistern located on the east side of the mikvah, would have been originally covered by the checkered blue-and-while tiled floor (Figure 13). It measured 3.8 feet east-west by 4.6 feet north-south, its southern edge lining up with that of the mikvah. A circular opening in the side of the bor, 1.4 feet below floor level, held the 1.25-foot long pipe leading to the mikvah. A second pipe protruded from the south wall near the top of the bor. Unfortunately, the floor between the mikvah and the larger pool was not preserved. It was therefore not possible to determine the purpose or direction of the pipes in the mikvah's and bor's south walls. The area between the bor and the lot line could not be excavated due to technical difficulties.

In addition to the different wall treatment noted above, the mikvah was separated from the showers by a narrow partition wall, 0.5 feet thick and 0.8 feet from the mikvah's western edge. It was built of hollow brick and faced with plaster. The white glazed brick wall of the shower room was decorated with a row of blue tiles near the bottom.

No other walls of the mikvah's room were extant, nor any walls of the shower area which, given the restricted space, was probably open to the pool. Fragmentary showerheads and two pipes protruded from the white tiled wall west of the mikvah's painted plaster wall. Although the leases mention bathtubs, the excavation recovered evidence only for showers. In any case, unlike the facilities available in the cellar mikva'ot, in this luxurious bathhouse, there were ample accommodations for cleansing, prior to ritual immersion.

West of the swimming pool we encountered a tiled floor containing a large drain, and two pipes, one along the wall and one in the floor. This small section, possibly for a toilet, was between the main building and a narrow, three-story wing at the rear, not excavated, but shown on insurance maps. Only the front of this rear section was explored. Here, we uncovered a built-in, tiled bench (Figure 14), probably belonging to the hot rooms, which would have been in this part of the building, near the boiler. Behind the main building and north of the rear wings was a cellar-level vault that we did not excavate.

The goal of the archaeological testing was to determine the presence or absence of a mikvah and the integrity of any architectural remains. The results, surpassing everyone's expectations, called for a full-scale excavation to investigate the arrangement and purpose of the pipes leading from the mikvah, the bor, and the swimming pool, as well as the location, if any, of other partition walls, and the northeast corner of the site. The principal question was whether the swimming pool was Natelson's other "large mikvah," which was rendered kosher by the same bor as the small mikvah through the pipes in the bor's south wall, or by a second bor that we did not find. Unfortunately, no further excavation is possible, since the site was sold in 2008, and a Howard Johnson hotel was built over it.


While the list of mikva'ot discussed above is by no means complete, it reveals the variety of sites used for ritual immersion. Mikva'ot were installed in synagogue basements or in adjacent bathhouses owned or operated by a synagogue; in tenement buildings housing shtieblach, with or without a formal connection between the congregation and the bath; in independently run bathhouses in tenement basements with no known connection to a congregation, and finally in Russian or Turkish bathhouses. The excavation at 5 Allen Street revealed how a kosher mikvah was built in New York at the turn of the century, and suggests that other Russian / Turkish bathhouse mikva'ot, advertised as kosher, were built to the same specifications using the ozar hashakah method, as was Anshei Sfard's mikvah at 99 Attorney Street. With the possible exception of the pool at 209 East Seventh Street, we do not know how the independent basement mikva'ot were built--only that they were sometimes poorly maintained. Even if they had been built by the ozar hashakah method, the rabbis would not have certified pools that had been defiled by use as bathtubs.

What explains this multiplicity of loci and so, also, habitudes? Surely it reflects the Jewish community's diversity, a mosaic of immigrants from many towns and villages who established a plethora of congregations and societies. Architecturally, the contextual medley may be understood as the product of adaptations to a limited and severely stressed urban framework. Both baths and mikva'ot had to be accommodated in a very limited space. Jews "could not get along" without their weekly "sweat," and the mikvah plunge was integrated into their bathing routine. (77) The directory classifications of synagogue mikva'ot, mostly as lavatory baths, occasionally as Russian or Turkish baths, point to the importance that congregations attached to the showers, bathtubs and hot rooms that were provided. For people with no bathrooms in their overcrowded apartments, these facilities were the main attraction, providing one with the ability, first, to bathe one's whole body in hot water, and second, to finish off with the mikvah plunge.

Immersing oneself in an elegant bathhouse was a pleasure, but these tended to be male institutions that restricted the hours for women. On the other hand, it is likely that women were the main customers of the obscure tenement basement mikva'ot, where bathing or ritual immersion in water "thick and slimy ... covered with the scum from the bodies of the bathers," could be quite distasteful. (78) No doubt it was a relief when one no longer had to use them and could perform these duties in private. The creation of the Mikvah of East Side epitomizes the change in women's consciousness and expectations arising not only as a negative response to existing circumstances, but also as a positive desire for modernization in keeping with the spirit of the times. (79) The basement mikva'ot, however, survived into the 1950s--according to some of this writer's interviewees--along with the last of the bathhouses (with or without mikva'ot). The bathhouses were of course not dependent on the neighborhood's shrinking Jewish population, but falling demand for sanctioned mikva'ot would eliminate the incentive to keep them kosher. Perhaps this was the fate of the mikvah in the East Tenth Street baths. The synagogue mikva'ot presumably continued to function until declining congregations were unable to pay their upkeep or sold their buildings. Most of the old synagogues have been demolished or converted to other uses.

Improvements in transportation, labor conditions and the erection of modern housing developments within an easy commute of Manhattan, lured many upwardly mobile Jews to the city's outer boroughs and suburbs. Their departure, from the 1910s on, together with the Immigration Act of 1924, which stemmed the tide of new arrivals, caused the Lower East Side's Jewish population to drop. At the same time, there were sweeping changes in the urban architectural fabric. Because legislation could improve the existing buildings only so far, 43,200 tenements were demolished. (80) Thenceforth, apartments were built with their own bathrooms, putting an end to the customary weekly visit to a bathhouse and all the other social and ritual practices that went with it. For Orthodox and traditional Jews, the focus then shifted to ritual immersion in a mikvah, this becoming the preeminent feature of the bathing facility, and the modern mikvah supplanted the bathhouse mikvah.

Was there really a drop in the observance of ritual immersion, as some Orthodox parties in the 1920s lamented, or simply a dispersal of Jews and their institutions together with a change in the mikvah's venue? With no mikvah listings prior to the late twentieth century, the likelihood that some facilities may have been known only to their patrons, the existence of kosher mikva'ot in bathhouses, and the lack of mikvah attendance records anywhere, how could one possibly gauge a rise or fall in Orthodoxy based on the number of mikva'ot--assuming one was able to count them? In the absence of standardized contexts, the mikvah is fluid, so to speak: it cannot be considered as a diagnostic feature on its own, devoid of its architectural and social setting, and so it cannot serve as a valid indicator of Orthodox ritual practice or the lack thereof. The falling number of mikva'ot on the Lower East Side from the 1920s on, we propose, was an effect of the gradual disappearance of the synagogues and tenements in which they were situated, and of private bathing facilities generally, occasioned by changes in housing and the Jewish exodus from the neighborhood. In sum, this study illustrates how oral histories and archaeological remains, amplifying documentary evidence, can give voice and substance to those tradition-bound cult practices, woven into everyday life, that were Oppenheim's concern.

(1.) Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 175.

(2.) Jenna Weissman Joselit, New York's Jewish Jews: The Orthodox Community in the Interwar Years (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 115-116.

(3.) The Lower East Side is here broadly defined as the area bounded by Fourteenth Street on the north, the Bowery on the west, Canal Street on the south and the East River.

(4.) Sylvia Foont gave this account when Celia Bergoffen interviewed her in 1996. She was then 87 years old. Foont's parents owned Russian baths on East Seventh Street, then known as Sheriff Street; her uncle owned a Russian bath on [East| Tenth Street. On Sheriff Street, there was a restaurant, a swimming pool, and six slab tables for massages. In 1931, the Foont family moved to Bensonhurst. Judge Paul P.E. Bookson (1933-2005), interviewed by Bergoffen on November 7, 1996, said he knew of no mikvah in a Russian bath. According to one Orthodox rabbi, an expert on mikva'ot, a "ladies'" mikvah "would certainly never be directly connected" with a bathhouse, because "people with bathhouses don't build mikva'ot-, they're different types of people..." (Bergoffen interviewed the rabbi, who requested anonymity, on December 12, 1996). On the other hand, Elliot Eisenbach (b. 1938) stated, "All Turkish and Russian baths had mikvahs." Elliot Eisenbach, interviewed by Celia Bergoffen, November 10, 1996.

(5.) Mrs. Moses Hyamson, "Ritual Baths (Mikvaoth),"Jewish Forum (January 1927). For discussions on the decline in mikvah use from the 1920s on, see: Joselit, New York's Jewish Jews, 116, and Joshua Hoffman, "The Institution of the Mikvah in America" in Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, ed. Rivkah Slonim, (Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), 84ff.

(6.) Celia J. Bergoffen, The Proprietary Baths and Possible Mikvah at 5 Allen Street, Borough of Manhattan, New York, Phase IA Archaeological Assessment Report (1997). Subsequently, Rabbi Aaron From, Rabbi Nochum Rosenberg, Shmuel Pultman, and Ben Kittner kindly contributed much valuable new information from which this study greatly benefitted. Aaron J. From, interview with Celia Bergoffen, October 10, 1996. Nochum Rosenberg, telephone conversation with Celia Bergoffen, August 29, 2002. Shmuel Pultman, interview with Celia Bergoffen, October 2, 2002. Ben Kittner, telephone interview with Celia Bergoffen, August 19, 2002.

(7.) Without mikvah listings, the number of businesses operating in any given year, at the turn of the century, must remain indeterminate. But there is a current mikvah directory: Cordula Mermelstein and Jack Abramowitz, The Orthodox Union Mikvah Directory New, Expanded Edition 5y68/1008 (New York: Orthodox Union, 2008).

(8.) The writer is grateful to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry and Rabbi Nochum Rosenberg, who provided the information on which this section is based as well as: Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried's Code of Jewish Law (Kitzur Shulhan Arukh), trans. Hyman E. Goldin (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1991), and Aryeh Kaplan, Waters of Eden: The Mystery of the Mikvah (New York: Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, 1976). Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, telephone interview with Celia Bergoffen, December 12, 1996.

(9.) This is based on personal communications from Rabbi Isaac Singer and another rabbi, who wished to remain anonymous. Rabbi Isaac Singer & anonymous Rabbi, personal communication with Celia Bergoffen, December 12, 1996.

(10.) See "A Rare Ritual Bath (Miqwe) from the Second Temple Period was Revealed in Jerusalem (April 2013)," Israel Antiquities Authority Press Announcements Archive, accessed August 2015, id=240&id=1997&hist=1.

(11.) See note 8 above.

(12.) This is according to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry. See also note 8 above.

(13.) David de Sola Pool and Tamar de Sola, An Old Faith in the New World: Portrait of Shearith Israel 1654-1954 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), 44.

(14.) N. Taylor Phillips, "The Congregation Shearith Israel: An Historical Review," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, no. 6 (1897): 135; Hyman B. Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York 1654-1860 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1945), 297

(15.) Sandee Brawarsky, "A History of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, 1825-2005,", accessed August 2015; Longworth's American Almanac, New-York Register and City Directory (New York: Thomas Longworth, 1834-1835). The mikvah was built with $460 raised through public subscriptions. See, Israel Goldstein, A Century of Judaism in New York: B 'nai Jeshurun z 825-1925- (New York: Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, 1930), 84; Grinstein, Rise of the Jewish Community, 297.

(16.) Charles F. Wingate, "The Cradle of Cholera: Life in the Hebrew Quarter," Neiv York Daily Tribune, December 7, 1884, 13; Andrew R. Heinze, Adapting to Abundance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 57.

(17.) This is according to Shmuel Pultkin. In 1879, there were brick buildings on the front and rear of the lot, but between 1885 and 1893 the former was extended almost to the rear lot line, Atlas of the Entire City of New York ... (New York: Geo. W. Bromley & E. Robinson, 1879), pi. 5; Robinson's Atlas of the City of New York (New York: E. Robinson, 1885), pi. 5; marked "synagogue" on the Atlas of the City of New York (New York: E. Robinson, 1893), pi. 10.

(18.) Grinstein, Rise of the Jewish Community, 297.

(19.) Annie Polland, Landmark of the Spirit: The Eldridge Street Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 19-20.

(20.) The Jewish Gazette December 3, 1880. I am indebted to Shmuel Pultman for all the references to advertisements in The Jewish Gazette and for their translation.

(21.) E. Robinson, Atlas of the City of New York (New York: E. Robinson, 1884), pi. 9.

(22.) Trow's Business Directory of Greater New York (Five Boroughs Combined), 1899-1900.

(23.) Judge Paul P.E. Bookson (see note 4, above) recalled a "pine room" in one bathhouse, where bathers could inhale the aroma produced by "pieces of pine." Could this have been one of the business directory's "medicated" baths?

(24.) Variable spelling of names was common.

(25.) Moses Weinberger, People Walk on Their Heads: Moses Weinberger's Jews and Judaism in New York, trans. Jonathan D. Sarna (New York: Holmes & Meir), 5, 117-118.

(26.) The first Trow's New York City Directory listing at this address was in 1888-1889. For the baths, see Trow's (formerly Wilson's) Business Directory of New York, 1886, and Oscar Israelowitz, Lower East Side Tourbook, fifth ed. (Brooklyn: Israelowitz Publishing, 1996), 63. Israelowitz also lists at this address Adath Israel Anshei Galicia (established in 1887), Harry Schneiderman, ed. American Jewish Year Book, vol. 21 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1919), 454, and Oestreicher Ungarn Anshei Sfard, incorporated in 1894. "Landsmanshaftn and other town and country-related organizations incorporated in New York County 1848-1920 in the AJHS collection of New York County incorporations," Jewish Genealogical Society (JGS), accessed August 2, 2015, .

(27.) Index to the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide (New York, vol. XLIV, 1889), 1038.

(28.) New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation List 187, LP1440, February 10, 1987.

(29.) New York City Block and Lot File, block 355, lot 44, Application for erection of a building, August 1890, plan no. 1500.

(30.) Block and Lot File: New York City, Application to Alter, Repair, Etc. AL 293/1893, 178 Norfolk Street, March 3, 1893.

(31.) Block and Lot File: New York City, Application to Alter, Repair, Etc. AL 472 / 1892, 174-176 Norfolk Street, March 20, 1992.

(32.) Richard Wheatley, "The Jews in New York," Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 43, no. 3 (January 1892): 337.

(33.) Insurance Maps of the City of New York Borough of Manhattan (New York: Sanborn Map Co., 1903), 2, pi. 4.

(34.) Trow's City Directory 1884-1885; Trow's Business Directory lists the baths from 1898 to 1902; Sanborn (1903), 2, pi. 13.

(35.) Schneiderman, Yearbook, 472; Trow's Business Directory, 1889.

(36.) Insurance Maps of the City of New York (New York: Sanborn Perris Map Co., 1894), 1, pi. 26, depicts a four story building with a one-story wing at the rear.

(37.) The 1911 Trow's General Directory of the Boroughs of Manhattan lists Chebra Anschei Zitomerin (founded 1890, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, 1917s 355), at 32 Orchard Street, and Congregation Anshei Reish at 70 Willett Street (organized 1889), "Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers Project Survey of State and Local Historical Records (1939) Church Records Jewish -Synagogue," Jewish Genealogical Society, New York Database, accessed August 2015, landsmanshaft/synagogues.htm.

There is no listing in the city directories for a congregation at 62 Attorney Street (and no reference to one in Israelowitz's tourbook), but the 1894 Sanborn map, 1, pi. 25, notes "Synagogue & c" (?) on the rear-most of the two five-story buildings that stood on this lot.

(38.) Sanborn 1903, 2, pi. 7.

(39.) The Jewish Communal Register of New York City 1917-1918 (Kehillah of New York City), 205.

(40.) The Jewish Communal Register, 112. Nine surviving shtieblach give their section of East Broadway its nickname, "Shtieblach Row," Gerard R. Wolfe, The Synagogues of New York's Lower East Side: A Retrospective and Contemporary View (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 92-93.

(41.) Wingate, "Cradle of Cholera," 13.

(42.) Synagogue Dinner Journal of Chevrah Poel Zedek Anschei Illia 40th Anniversary 1884-1924, Chevrah Poel Zedek Anschei Illia Collection, Yeshiva University Archives.

(43.) Trow's City Directory; Israelowitz, Lower East Side, 73. Small congregations moved frequently.

(44.) Abraham J. Karp, ed., A History of the Jews in America (Fairfield Conn.: Hugh Lauter Levin, 1994), 219. I thank Shulamith Z. Berger, archivist at Yeshiva University, for this reference.

(45.) Trow's Business Directory, 1897-1903.

(46.) CITY/SCAPE: Cultural Resource Consultants, Stage 1A Literature Review & Sensitivity Evaluation of Archaeological Potential Block 372, Lot 26, 306-311 East Third Street, Borough of Manhattan (2000), 18; Schneiderman, Yearbook, 473.

(47.) New York City Business Directory 1911; CITY/SCAPE Stage 1A, 23.

(48.) CITY/SCAPE, Stage 1A, 19, 10.

(49.) CITY/SCAPE: Cultural Resource Consultants, Stage 2 Archaeological Investigation, Congregation Moshcisker Chevrah Gur Arye Mikvah, 308 East Third Street (Block 372, Lot 27), Borough of Manhattan (2003), 7.

(50.) American Jewish Yearbook, 1, (1899-1900), 283-284. This source provides an estimate of the total Jewish immigration to the United States through New York from 1885 to 1899 of 417,010, constituting 69 percent of all Jewish immigration to the nation in this period.

(51.) Report of the Tenement House Committee (Albany: James B. Lyon, 1895), 47.

(52.) Ibid.

(53.) William John Freyer, The tenement house law of the city of New York, with headings, paragraphs, marginal notes and full indexes, (New York: The Record and guide, 1901), 38, Section 100 and p. 35, Section 95, respectively.

(54.) Along with economic factors, the creation of new subway lines made development of the outer boroughs possible: Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 47, 121-122.

(55.) Bergoffen, Proprietary, 60-62, and figure 13, announcement for Rabbi David Miller's The Secret of the Jew.

(56.) W.A. Manheimer, "The Sanitary Condition of Mikvehs and Turkish Baths," Collected Studies 9, Bureau of Laboratories, New York City Department of Health, 1916-1919), 407; W.A. Manheimer, "Mikveh Baths of New York City," The Survey (New York: Laboratory Department of Bacteriology, Columbia University, April 18, 1914), 77.

(57.) Manheimer, "The Sanitary Condition of Mikvehs and Turkish Baths," 409-410.

(58.) Manheimer, "Mikveh Baths," 77.

(59.) Porter, H.F.J. "The Menace of the Bathing Pool," The Survey (July 27, 1912), 589.

(60.) Wingate, in "The Cradle of Cholera," page 13, cites the United Hebrew Charities Report of 1882, which "emphasized the [neighborhood's] miserable water supply."

(61.) Sylvia Foont (see note 3 above).

(62.) "Mikveh Baths," Weekly Bulletin of the Department of Health City of New York, New Series, III, May 23, 1914, no. 20, 164.

(63.) "Sanctioned Mikveh Bath Owners Organize," Survey (August 28, 1915), 482.

(64.) "Mikveh Baths," Weekly Bulletin of the Department of Health, City of New York New Series, IV, August 28, 1915, 281-282; The baths cost five cents (see Manheimer, "Mikveh Baths," 77), "and it was five cents more for a shower." Since people usually did not have an extra nickel, the showers were not used, see Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side 189-1925 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985), 140. Seeing "little benefit from the considerable expense of sanitizing [the members] ceased to pay their quarterly dues," and the association disbanded within a couple of years, (Manheimer, "Sanitary", 407).

(65.) Benjamin Koenigsberg, "The Newest Mikvah in New York City," Orthodox Union, VII, no. 4 (1941), 16.

(66.) See note 4, above.

(67.) I am grateful to Dan Yafet, one of the members of the 2.09 East 7th Street Homestead Association, for showing me the site. Dan Yafet, meeting with Celia Bergoffen, September 24, 2004.

(68.) Application for Erection of Buildings, March 15, 1897; Application to Alter, Repair, Etc., Plan No. 1817, December 26, 1902, to install baths in the basement. Water closets were installed: Application to Approve Plans for Light and Ventilation ... (illegible day and month) 1897, but the number was insufficient: Notice of Pending Violations and Classification for Alteration Examination and permit, Alt. 4344, November 24, 1941, citing the order March 29, 1937 for: "Additional water-closets not provided so that there shall be at least one water-closet within the building for the exclusive use of each family and apt." Block 390 Lot 50 File, New York City Department of Buildings.

(69.) Plan for a mikvah at 311 East Broadway, October 2.5, 1939, revised January 18, 1940; Box 33, Collection B. Koenigsberg, Yeshiva University Archives.

(70.) La Amerika, February 17, 1911, 4. I wish to thank Aviva Ben-Ur, associate professor of Jewish history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for this reference and its translation.

(71.) This is from Ann Bader's recollections of the late 1930s quoted in Suzanne Wasserman, "The Secret World of the Shwitz," B'nai Brith International Jewish Monthly (January-February 1996), 28, and Ann Bader, interview with Celia Bergoffen, January 15, 1996.

(72.) Liber 3446 page 91, October 14, 1924.

(73.) Liber 3701, page 149, January 19, 1929; Liber 3875, page 93, October 26, 1933. Morris Kittner took out his first lease on July 29, 1930, as recorded in Liber 3775, page 55.

(74.) Ruth Rubinstein said she had witnessed a conversion there. Baruch Feder remembered a "mikvah swimming pool" and a "hole in the side to the right of the steps." Baruch Feder, interview with Celia Bergoffen, February 2, 1997. The writer visited the baths in 2001, but did not see any opening in the pool's walls.

(75.) Shmuel Pultman. "The History of the Eldridge Street Synagogue Khal Adas Jeshurin Anshei Lubz, Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Ash, and Rabbi Yehoshua Seigal," unpublished manuscript, 2002. Advertisement for the Mikvah at 5 Allen Street, The Jewish Gazette, September 24, 1886.

(76.) New York City Municipal Archives, reproduced in Polland, Landmark, 2.9.

(77.) Maurice Fishberg, "Health and Sanitation of the Immigrant Jewish Population of New York," reprinted from Menorah, August and September 1902 (New York: Philip Cowen), 14.

(78.) Manheimer, "Mikveh Baths," 77.

(79.) Joselit, New York's Jewish Jews, 120.

(80.) Plunz, A History of Housing in New York, 123.

Caption: Figure 1. The lot at 5 Allen Street prior to excavation. Photo by author..

Caption: Figure 2. The mikvah at 308 East Third Street. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 3. The mosaic star in the floor of the mikvah at 308 East Third Street. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 4. The basement mikvah at 209 East Seventh Street. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 5. Plan of the mikvah at 5 Allen Street. Plan by author.

Caption: Figure 6. The east side of the swimming pool in the Allen Street Baths. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 7. The south and west sides of the swimming pool in the Allen Street Baths. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 8. The mosaic floor and drains in the swimming pool in the Allen Street Baths. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 9. The mikvah in the Allen Street baths looking west. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 10. The mikvah in the Allen Street Baths looking east. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 11. The opening to the bor in the Allen Street Baths mikvah. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 12. A pipe in the south wall of the Allen Street Baths mikvah. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 13. The bor on the east side of the Allen Street Baths mikvah, originally under the floor. Photo by author.

Caption: Figure 14. The bath house floor west of the swimming pool, a bench, and the vault (right), Allen Street mikvah. Photo by author.
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Author:Bergoffen, Celia J.
Publication:American Jewish History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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