Reading a Mikveh

Interior of the Nidhe Israel Mikveh (ca. 1650s) in Bridgetown, Barbados. Photo by Stevan Arnold, Jewish Atlantic World Database, 2010

Interior of the Nidhe Israel Mikveh (ca. 1650s) in Bridgetown, Barbados. Photo by Stevan Arnold, Jewish Atlantic World Database, 2010

Mikva’ot are an important resource for understanding Jewish women’s lives and rituals.  Although certain features of mikveh are constant over time, other “stylistic” elements change and reflect evolving ideas about purity, gender, and the purpose of the ritual.

Visual designer Albert Kiefer has posted a fabulous digital simulation  of the medieval mikveh in Venlo (Netherlands) based on the archaeological report and observations of Daniël Pletinckx.  The simulation is a great example of how digital technology can help students (and us!) think about space.  I will definitely use this in my graduate class in Utrecht this Spring, and I’d thought I’d suggest some ways that this visualization could help with teaching mikva’ot in the Jewish studies classroom.  Visualizing one possible way that people could have moved through the space can help students think more closely about ritual and practice.

First watch the video if you haven’t already:

Het Mikwe van Venlo; een historische reconstructie from Albert Kiefer on Vimeo.

Before watching the video, I would prepare students by (1) making sure they know what ritual baths are used for and (2) giving them a visual sense of how baths looked in general during this and other eras.  It is worth talking at least briefly about how views on purity changed after the Temple was destroyed, and the chapter by Tirzah Meachem in Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law is a useful starting point for this discussion. I talk also talk somewhat generally about the purpose of  mikveh in my article on mikva’ot in early America and in the first chapter of my book Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism. Another good starting point for a general discussion about the religious work of immersion appears in the collection Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall (Brandeis University Press, 1999).

To give students a visual vocabulary for mikva’ot, I would pass out photos of medieval mikva’ot and either ones from antiquity or a later era to have them start to notice similarities and differences.  What features should they expect to see in the Dutch mikveh?  Given the era, what do they not expect to see?  Here are some examples of comparison mikva’ot:

Sample Mikva’ot in Antiquity Sample Medieval Mikva’ot

Next, I would show the video and ask students to write down any questions they have about the design.  I would have them raise these questions in a group and then brainstorm about what they’d need to know to answer them.  Some things they might be curious about are the alcoves, the see-through “windows,” the two halves of the mikveh and why it was designed that way, etc. I would also point out that the simulation is an argument about what they found as it argues one moves through the space in a particular fashion.  I would ask them to come up with other ways people might have moved through the space and how that changes our understanding of the design features.  Women weren’t the only people to use mikva’ot.  Who do they think used this bath and why?

Other Resources: