Digging up a part of Jewish history

Archaeologists find what is thought to be Md.'s first ritual bath

November 11, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Archaeologists working in Maryland's first synagogue have unearthed a mikvah, or ritual bath, at least 150 years old, offering a glimpse of Jewish life in 19th-century Baltimore.

The mikvah was discovered under two existing baths in the basement of what is now Lloyd Street Synagogue in East Baltimore. The synagogue was built in 1845 as the first home of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

"Since this was the first building built in Maryland as a synagogue, this is a very important find for understanding the history of Judaism in Maryland," said Esther Doyle Read, director of the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology, who supervised the project.

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation has long since moved and become a Reform synagogue, a member of the more liberal branch of Judaism that has shed many rituals, including immersion in the mikvah.

"But in 1845, this congregation was very traditional," Read said. "This helps us to understand the daily lives of the members of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in the 1840s."

Immersion in a mikvah - a large tub - is a ritual of purification. Men and women must immerse themselves as part of a traditional conversion to Judaism. Some Orthodox men immerse themselves each week before the Sabbath.

But the mikvah is used most regularly by married Jewish women, who, according to the laws of family purity in the Torah, cannot engage in sex with their husbands during their menstrual periods and for seven days after. Before having sex with her husband, a woman must immerse herself in a mikvah's waters and recite a blessing.

Archaeological review

The archaeological work at the Lloyd Street Synagogue is part of a multidisciplinary examination of the building, including an analysis of its architecture, paint, masonry and documentary evidence.

Avi Y. Decter, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which owns the Lloyd Street Synagogue building, said the mikvah is probably the first one built in Maryland.

The 1845 mikvah, discovered about two weeks ago, lies below two others that were used as late as 1959.

`A stroke of luck'

"It's very exciting to look down and see a century of history opening up before your eyes," he said. "Finding it was just a stroke of luck. We had no idea we'd find evidence of it."

But clues existed.

The building was used by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation until 1889, when it was sold to a Lithuanian congregation and became St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church.

In 1905, it was sold to an Orthodox Jewish congregation, Shomrei Mishmeres Hakodesh. The congregation sold it to the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland in 1960.

Use of the original mikvah was documented in synagogue records. It was in a rowhouse behind the synagogue. When the synagogue was expanded in 1860, the mikvah rowhouse, along with a small schoolhouse, was razed and the cellar filled with debris.

Perplexing question

The two existing baths in the basement of the Lloyd Street Synagogue date to no earlier than 1903, clearly built by the second Jewish congregation. So that left a question: What happened to the original mikvah?

A scouting expedition was launched.

Underneath the green linoleum floor, Read and her crew chief, Peter Middelthon, found a section of brick flooring that was buckling, as if the dirt under it had given way.

Drawing on experience

When they started digging, they uncovered what appeared to be a wooden tub. Artifacts in the dirt - bits of broken tea cups, dinner plates and other ceramics - date from 1845 at the latest.

"Now we had a good date," Read said. "We sat down and discussed everything we could think of that would be set in a basement floor that's made of wood.

"The only thing we could come up with besides a mikvah was a privy," Read said.

Middelthon, who has years of experience doing archaeological work around old Baltimore houses, quickly shot down that notion. It couldn't be a toilet, he said, because "people in Baltimore don't put them in the house."

`100 percent convinced'

Read says she is "100 percent convinced" they have found the original wood mikvah from the 1845 congregation.

Unfortunately, only a small portion of it has been exposed.

"I haven't gotten to the rest of it," Read said. "I ran out of grant money."

The Lloyd Street Synagogue, which is part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, will be open today, and Read will discuss the excavation of the mikvah from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for children.

oRThose who want to volunteer with the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology can send an e-mail to baltimorearchaeology@ hotmail.com.

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