Jewish ritual bath found in Baltimore may be oldest in U.S.

'Mikveh' uncovered under Lloyd Street Synagogue

  • Peter Middelthon, crew chief and archaeologist, left, stoops next to an unearthed brick hearth at left, while Esther Doyle Read, lecturer at UMBC Ancient Studies Department, and the project archaeologist, stands inside an 1845 mikveh - a ritual bath- beneath the Lloyd Street Synagogue. They recently uncovered more of the mikveh which was discovered in the 1990's.
Peter Middelthon, crew chief and archaeologist, left, stoops… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
February 13, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

Archaeologists peeling back layers of history beneath the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue in East Baltimore have uncovered what is believed to be the oldest Jewish ritual bath complex in the United States.

Hints of the presence of the 1845 bath, or "mikveh," were first detected during excavations in 2001. But further digging this winter has revealed about a quarter of a five-foot-deep wooden tub, and linked it to a related cistern found in 2008, and to remains of a brick hearth once used to warm the bath's water.

"The idea of a ritual bath complex helps fill out the history of Jewish religious practice in this country," said Avi Decter, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, of which the old Lloyd Street Synagogue is now a part. "This is a very ancient practice, going back thousands of years."

The 1845 mikveh is just a few feet away from a pair of more modern, tile-lined baths, built and used by the Shomrei Misheres Orthodox congregation that used the building after 1905.

The Lloyd Street archaeological excavations are being led by Esther Doyle Read, a lecturer in ancient studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and her students. They are funded by the museum, the Maryland Historical Trust and UMBC.

Read said mikvehs were a central part of Jewish life at the time, where men came for ritual purification before Friday prayers; women came for ritual cleansing after their monthly periods, and converts were purified before entering the faith.

"It was a very busy place for this small community of German immigrants," Read said.

Barred by Maryland law from incorporating and owning property until 1828, she said, Jewish congregations would typically meet in private homes, where they would build their mikveh in the basement.

The mikveh excavated this winter appears to have been one of those. It was in the basement of a rowhouse facing Morton Street, near the intersection with Lloyd Street. Records show the mikveh house was already present in 1845, when the congregation built their synagogue on an adjoining lot facing Lloyd Street. The neoclassical building was designed by Robert Carey Long Jr.

No mikvehs have been found at any older synagogue in the United State.

When the congregation expanded its synagogue to the rear in 1860, it tore down the old mikveh house, filled in the bath and buried it beneath their new addition. (The dig has turned up a wealth of artifacts in the fill dirt — broken wine bottles, crockery, buttons and other domestic items — none dating later than 1860.)

The current excavations are taking place beneath what is now the basement floor of the 1860 addition. Read and her students first uncovered a corner of the mikveh there in 2001.

"We found an area that had wood in it that began to drop rapidly below the level of the basement floor," Read recalled. Suspecting what the wood might represent, she halted the dig. She needed to consult with the museum and with experts in wood preservation.

"It fit the scenario of a deep hole in the ground. It had what appeared to be wooden pipes [to carry water into the bath,]" she said. But "we didn't know the condition of the wood … and we needed to stop and make a plan for preserving any wood or waterlogged artifacts, and how to fund it."

That process took years. In the meantime, Decter said, "The southeast corner of the building was settling, manifesting in cracks in the mortar joints. And in the interior of the sanctuary you could see cracking in the plaster work."

Groundwater was suspected. Central Avenue nearby was once a creek, and the site of the old rowhouse was a marsh before it was developed.

The plan was to conduct more archaeology in that section of the building to save whatever might be there, and then to inject grout into the foundation to harden it and shore it up.

The archaeologists eventually found the problem — a brick-lined cistern that had been capped and buried beneath the wall of the 1860 addition to the synagogue.

"There was a slab sitting on top of the cistern, which was absolutely empty except for a little water at the bottom," Decter said. And it could no longer support the structure above it.

What began as a headache for the museum turned out to be a vital piece of the mikveh puzzle. Jewish practice required that mikvehs be fed by "living water," that is, water from a stream, or rainwater, fed through the bath in a steady flow. The cistern evidently served that purpose.

And it all fit an historical pattern, Decter said. "The week we discovered the cistern, there was an article in a professional archaeology magazine about the excavation of a [1723] synagogue in Amsterdam. And it had the same three elements" — the bath, the cistern and the hearth.

Similar mikveh complexes have been found in Germany and the Netherlands dating back at least to the 1500s, Read said. "The first congregation here was German, and they brought that cultural template to America."

She said it's not known where the Lloyd Street congregation built its new ritual bath complex after the 1860 expansion buried the old one. They later sold the building to St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, a congregation of Lithuanian immigrants. The Catholics later sold it to the Shomrei Misheres congregation, who built the two surviving tile mikvehs.

"Only in America," Decter said. "In Europe, Jewish and Christian congregations did not exchange buildings. But here in the United States, we take over each other's buildings regularly. … It's a very powerful story for us."

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

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