Jewish women in New Haven started plunging into purification waters more than a century and a half ago and have continued to do so in different non-descript locations. But where, and when?
David S. Fischer was determined to find out.
Fischer was editing the ninth volume of a series of historical books called Jews In New Haven. He wanted to include the findings in the volume. The ritual bath — known as the mikvah — plays a central role local Jewish communities. Women use it for ritual cleansing after their monthly menstruation periods before having sex again with their husbands. Converts become official after dipping in the mikvah. Men use it before holidays and after nocturnal emissions. The evolution of mikvahs therefore belonged in New Haven’s Jewish communal story.
Fischer published Volume IX without the mikvah chapter. So when he prepared Volume X — which has just been released by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven — Fischer decided to get to the bottom of the story.
It would take some digging.
Fischer, who’s 87, is a retired oncologist. In chasing the mikvah mystery, he turned out to be a talented historical detective as well.
“This was a challenge,” he said. “There was so little written information.” He pieced together facts and hints buried in older editions of Jews In New Haven (JINH) along with oral history and other documents.
The records of the original mikvah were scarce. The Jewish Historical Society came across and translated German-language records of Congregation Mishkan Israel, New Haven’s first Jewish congregation. Records from 1949, housed at the New Haven Museum, showed that the congregation set aside up $600 to build a mikvah.
Mishkan Israel didn’t end up building the mikvah. Women who belonged to Mishkan Israel formed an independent group called Ahavos Achas (“sisterly love”) to revive the project on their own. A University of Pennsylvania history professor named Beth Wegner wrote a scholarly article 26 years ago for an earlier JINH edition that included the information that the women scraped together $600 for the project. The Jewish Historical Society’s Patricia Ilingworth found minutes (in the New Haven Museum archives) of an Ahavos Achas meeting reporting that the women purchased land purchased for $25 on Goffe Street in 1863.
Fischer’s still not sure when it closed. But he came across a reference in a different previous JINH article referring incorrectly to a later mikvah as the “first” in town, located on Oak Street. Not much is known about that mikvah. But Fischer concludes it operated in the 1890s, because of a reference in a separate 1979 JINH article about the old Rose Street Shul (on a street in the Hill destroyed by urban renewal, a congregation that would later split off into the Westville Synagogue and Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel). The article refers to a midwife and “keeper of the mikvah” names Rachel Hurwits (aka “Bobbe Rasha” who was reported to have donated the shul’s first torah scroll. Fischer then found a passing reference in a 1947 article about New Haven’s Jewish community, published in Commentary magazine, to an Oak Street resident “Tamara die Baederka, the bathhouse woman who ran the mikvah, the ritual bath for women.”
So Fischer concluded that at least one mikvah operated on Oak Street. He was unable to determine whether those references were to the same site, or whether multiple existed to serve what was then a bustling Jewish part of town.
It took some oral history to track down how that mikvah was no longer operating by the 1930s and how a third mikvah came to be on Day Street in the Dwight neighborhood. Fischer learned of an event that took place one day in 1933 at the Orchard Street shul (which still exists and has been revived). An Orthodox congregation, it had only men speaking from the bimah on the first floor; women stayed upstairs in a separate section.
But during one Sabbath service, “just as the Torah was placed on the shulchan (reading table), Bubbe Ida Batt walked up to the bimah and asked the congregation not to proceed until there was a promise to build a mikvah because there was no functioning mikvah in New Haven at the time.
“The stunned Rabbi and congregants agreed to raise money to build a new mikvah as soon as possible. Then the service proceeded with the Torah reading.”
Fischer learned the story from Batt’s grandon, Jay Kroopnick. He confirmed it with the Rabbi Albert Feldman, who ran Westville synagogue for 50 years, who had hearded it from numerous witnesses.
Digging through the Jewish Historical Society’s volumnious archives, Fischer also articles of incorporation for the 1937 formation of a New Haven Mikvah Society, as well as record of a vote to pay $500 and obtain a $1,500 mortgage to begin ubilding the mikvah on Day Street in 1937.
By the 1970s, Jews had largely left the Day Street area. Some women didn’t feel safe traveling to the mikvah there. A move began to build a new mikvah nearer to where the observant Orthodox community had settled on the west side of town, in the Baever Hills, Edgewood and Westville neighborhoods. In 1977, the New Haven Mikvah Society bought a building at 86 Hubinger St. and began building what would become the fourth community ritual bath, which remains the main community mikvah to this day.
But not without controversy, as Fischer discovered in his research for the article. A classic Jewish community dispute broke out — drawing on different perspectives over whether community decisions should reflect the most restrictive or the most majority-based demands — over how to design the new mikvah.
The new design copied the Day Street baths’ design: two side-by-side pools. But members of the Chabad community — a Lubavitch Hasidic Orthodox sect that has gradually grown to dominate Jewish life in the Norton Street area — pushed for a design that put one pool on top of the other. That’s because the international leader of their sect from 1892-1920, Lubavitch Rebbe Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, preferred that design.
The non-Chabad Orthodox organizers of the new mikvah insisted on sticking with the original design. It cost less. Besides, they argued, the Chasidic women used the Day Street baths with the same design. The Chabad side argued that since they had a preference over the design — while the other side would be comfortable bathing in a mikvah with either design — it made sense to change to the pool-on-top-of-pool design.
The society stuck with the original design for Hubinger Street. The builders installed a bronze plaque, still there to this day. It commemorates the efforts of the organizers of the Day Street baths, which the plaque inaccurately (Fischer points out) refers to that location as New Haven’s first mikvah.
Meanwhile, Chabad built its own mikvah, New Haven’s fifth, at 16 Colony Rd. Since then, they have built a sixth, for men’s use, at 300 Norton St.
Fischer was asked why he devoted so much time to collecting and tracking down these stories from New Haven’s Jewish past and to keeping the JINH going.
“It’s important to know were we came from and what we’ve done before,” he responded, “we we know what to do know and in the future.”
People can purchase copies of Jews in New Haven Vol. X by calling the Jewish Historical Society office (203 392-6125) Tuesdays through Fridays between 9 a.m. and noon; visiting the office (270 Fitch St.) in person during those times; or filling out and mailing in (with payment) a form found at this web address.
Click on or download the above audio file to listen to the full interview about Jews In New Haven Vol. X with editor David S. Fischer.