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:

Material Culture in Latest Issue of AJS Review

I was excited to see two fabulous new essays on material culture in the latest issue of the AJS Review (Volume 36 / Issue 02 / November 2012).


Gravestone of Mata Wimpfen (1711) in Betahaim, Hamburg Altona, Koenigstrasse. Photo by Kent Coupe 2011 (Jewish Atlantic World Database).

The first is an essay on seventeenth-century ritual baths in Altona, Germany. In “To Immerse their Wives”: Communal Identity and the “Kahalishe” Mikveh of Altona, Debra Kaplan (Yeshiva University) “examines the construction and reconstruction of these policies regulating women’s use of mikva’ot, offering insight into how designated communal institutions were developed in the early modern period as well as how these institutions were used both to finance the community and to forge communal identity.”  This rich and exciting article greatly expands our understanding of how mikva’ot were used during this era and would make a wonderful teaching companion to The Memoirs Of Gluckel Of Hameln, trans. Marvin Lowenthal, particularly the section in which Gluckel talks about family purity. I don’t have any images of mikva’ot from Hamburg Altona, but click here to see images of gravestones from members of the Hamburg Altona community.


Detail from the ceiling of the Chodorow synagogue. Courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth and

The second is an essay by Bracha Yaniv of Bar Ilan University called “The Hidden Message of the Hares in the Talons of the Eagle.” Yaniv resolves a long-standing controversy regarding the depiction of “an eagle grasping in its talons two hares trying to escape outward” from the interior of the wooden synagogue of Chodorów, today in the L’viv (Polish, Lwów) region of western Ukraine. This fascinating article provides an excellent example using detailed textual analysis to answer questions about iconography.  The elaborately decorated synagogues of Eastern Europe contrast sharply with the “plain style” early synagogues of the Jewish Atlantic World, though as several scholars have noted previously, the share an interest in mimicking the Temple.

Although it does not invoke objects, I would be remiss if I did not note the fascinating article “Their Eyes Shall Behold Strange Things”: Abraham Ben Elijah of Vilna encounters the Spirit of Mr. Buffon by Iris Idelson-Shein (Tel Aviv University) in the same issue of the AJS Review.  This article complements work by Jonathan Israel and David Sorkin who have argued that we should think of a “family” or “plurality” of Enlightenments that range from the radical, antireligious Enlightenment of Spinoza, to a “genuinely religious” and providential Enlightenment. [1] Idelson-Shein’s discussion of Jews and their relationship to “savage” peoples is a useful addition to histories of the development of notions of race and ethnicity during this era.

[1] Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: the Renegade Jew who Gave Us Modernity (New York: Schocken Books, 2006).  Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment (New York: Oxford U. P., 2001), 159, 445-562. David Sorkin.  The Religious Enlightenment (Princeton:  Princeton U. P., 2008), 1-5.

Screen Captures

One of my much beloved colleagues recently expressed surprise that I knew how to do a screen capture, so in the spirit of sharing tips, I thought I would make quick post on a couple of easy ways to capture images and video.

If you are using Firefox, the easiest way to capture images is through a free add-on called Abduction! – Webpage Screenshots Screen Capture 3.0.16. Click “Add to Firefox” and follow the instructions.

Here  is a YouTube video explaining how it works:

Sometimes the selected area function is a bit sticky, but in general the add-on works great.

For capturing video (“screencasts“) of what I am doing on the screen, I use Jing, another free software. (You can also use Jing for capturing images, though the Firefox plugin is faster.)  I use Jing for creating webinars.

I use webinars both on my database website for guiding visitors, and in the classroom for teaching technologies to students: I can demonstrate in class a million times how to add a named anchor to a wiki page on our class moodle and get very few results, but if I link in comments to a webinar I made on the topic, the students actually seem to be able to replicate the process.  (Realistically webinars are how I usually learn technology these days as well:  when I couldn’t figure out my kids’ new MEEP! from the paper instructions, I went to YouTube.  Three hours later–voilà!). Likewise when I wanted to explain to students the fastest way to find the gravestones they wanted in the Farber Gravestone Collection and how to integrate the images into their page, I used a webinar. That way if they forget what I said after class ends, they can go back and see it happen again and again.

If you need help with Jing, there are numerous tutorials.  I have found the sound quality from recording on my laptop isn’t so great, so I recently got a Blue Snowball and this has improved the sound quality dramatically.  In case it isn’t obvious, I use a Mac, but I know Jing works for regular PCs as well, as I believe my father used it for his NESCent Academy Workshop in Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics, (August, 2012) in Durham, NC.

THATCamp AJS 2012: Making Jews in the Digital Humanities

I recently proposed a session in which THATCampers could discuss the relationship between Jewish Studies and recent debates about race and ethnicity in digital humanities.  I am particularly interested in talking about how certain platforms (digital archives, gaming, blogs, online genealogy sites, social media?) present either opportunities or pitfalls for thinking about the social construction of Jewishness.


Rosh Hashanah greeting card from the early 20th century, Hebrew Publishing Company, between 1900 and 1920. Wikipedia Commons.

On the positive side, I am curious about how digital humanities offers opportunities to discuss the boundaries of our discipline and who gets included and excluded from the rubric of “Jewish Studies.”  I mainly work, for example, on the Sephardic Diaspora in the Americas, so I tend to think about how scholarship can either reify or reject mythical views of authenticity of a “pure” Jewishness that is thought to have existed before the Sephardic displacement into the Americas or in medieval Iberia prior to forced conversions.  How might software (such as Omeka) that encourages visitor participation, for example, allow people visiting online archives to contest the definitions of either “Jews” or “Jewishness” in meaningful ways?  Likewise, how can we use online gaming to help raise questions about identity?  (Here I am thinking about games like Trading Races and AllLookSame.)  Does the digital world offer new ways to challenge students to think about the history of how Jews created their identities in relationship to and in dialogue with others?

I’d also like to talk about potential pitfalls of the digital world with respect to identity making.  To what extent extent are “charged assumptions” about race, ethnicity, or Jewishness replicated in either the digital world through systems, codes, or tools (See Koh Slide 31)?  How does digitizing Jews relate to larger debates about Race in the Digital Humanities and what it means to “digitize” race or ethnicity?

Click here for more on THATCamp AJS 2012.

Mapping Family Diasporas in iPhoto

On the Family History and Migration page of Why Use Material Culture in Your Classes? I mentioned that one could have students use iPhoto to visualize the trajectories of different key families in early America.  In this post I want to explain how to use iPhoto to make maps.  At the risk of being obvious, you will need a mac and a version of iPhoto that has the mapping function (e.g. iPhoto ’11 or–I believe–’09). Below is an example of what you will be creating.  Photos around the map are optional, but it helps to decide ahead of time if you want them.

Jesurun Family Migrations

Mapping Family Migrations in iPhoto

To create this map, first search for a family you are interested in the Jewish Atlantic World Database. In this example I used the Jesurun family.  Click on one of the images.  If it is a single image there will be linked keywords to the right of the image.  If it is a compound image click on “about this image” at the top left and the keyword list will appear on the right part of the screen.  Now click on the keyword for the family name (e.g. “Jesurun Family”) to make sure you have all the correct images despite any variants in spelling.  (You could have also done this using the browse by family name function). Make a list of the locations the family lived in.  If there is a clear trajectory the family took, place dates next to the places to indicate the chronology.  You will want to enter the places in this order the fifth step.  You will notice in the map above however, I did not include arrows as the family dispersed to several locations simultaneously.  If I wanted arrows for this map, I would need to add them in manually.  Note: since it is not always clear where families migrated from (or family members arrived from more than one port) this step may make your students’ lives more complicated than you intend.

Second, you have some choices to make.  Do you want photos around your map?  If so, download the images from the family that you would like to include with your map. If you click on an image from your search list, at the top center of the screen there is an option for “download this image.”  Save the downloaded images to a folder on your desktop.  iPhoto will give you an option of how many images you want to include around your map.  The options are 0, 2, 3, 4, or 12 images.  There is no need to download more images than you want to use.

Third, open up iPhoto (’11) and create a New Album.  Imported the images you downloaded into the album in iPhoto.  If you don’t want any images, skip this step and proceed to “fourth.”

Fourth, make sure you don’t have any images in the album highlighted and go to the menu at the top of the screen and open FILE > NEW BOOK. Click CREATE (bottom right).  [If you don’t want to use images, don’t click on an album, just go to FILE > NEW BOOK. It will ask you if you want to create an empty project.  Click CONTINUE then click CREATE (bottom right). ] Click on a random page and then click LAYOUT (bottom right).  On the pull-down menu to the right click MAP.  Now chose which version of the map layout you want (a map only or map with some variation of pictures with it) and click on it.  This should create the map on your page.  Now click on the page you created.

Fifth, click one more time on the map so you can format it.  After you click on the map, a menu will appear on the right column: go to LOCATION click the + sign and add one at a time the “Places” your chosen family lived.  If you wanted to include arrows indicating movement, add them in the chronological order.  Once you have added all your locations you can change the look using the STYLE options at the top.  Check LINE to include straight or curved arrows.  You can also unclick boxes under SHOW if you don’t want certain information included on your map (for example countries may have changed, so maybe you don’t want “region text”). Unfortunately you can’t get rid of the national boundaries, but that might be something to discuss with students. You are almost done!

Sixth, once you map is the way you want it go to FILE > PRINT.  Under PAGES select SINGLE and the page with the map.  At the bottom LEFT select PDF> SAVE as PDF, give it a title.pdf and save to your desktop.  Once it is saved, open it in Acrobat, Preview, or Photoshop and resave (or “export”) it as a jpg.  If you wanted arrows but didn’t add them before, add them now manually.  You are done!

Note that this process minus the first step can also be used to create a general map of migrations e.g.:


Migration map with arrows using iPhoto.

In my mind, the above map is deceptive, however, as it suggests people went in a clear order through ports, whereas in reality some people came to Barbados directly from Amsterdam or Portugal or London (or returned to Amsterdam from Barbados).  I would be tempted to have each student do a map based on an individual’s migrations/travels and then have the students compare the trajectories all the individuals to see if any larger patterns emerge.  That is, maps with arrows are probably a better starting point for a conversation with students about migration patterns rather than an endpoint.

Questions or Comments?  Post them below.