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 [End Page 163] 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 [End Page 164] 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...