The Disappearing Mikveh

Art Gallery and Education Center, Youth

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

What makes any space Jewish in particular? Imagine an abandoned synagogue in Europe, now preserved for travelers and tourists. Is it a Jewish space if it isn’t being used for tefillah (prayer)? What about a ritual object? Is a kiddush cup really a kiddush cup if it is thrown into a pile of ownerless cups and never used?

Recently, a student of mine made me think more seriously about whether history and long-ago intent are enough to render something Jewish, and whether our ritual objects and communal spaces require more than that to render them complete.

This question came up recently when I ran a program for a middle school group at Mayyim Hayyim. For the first twenty-five minutes, we learned about the origins of mikveh immersion and how the mikveh is constructed according to halacha (Jewish law). Then the students split up into pairs, scavenger hunts in hand, ready to explore our two mikva’ot. The scavenger hunt wrapped up, and we sat together on the warm floor between the two mikva’ot. This is when I like to give students a chance to debrief everything they discovered. That evening, I did my best to answer their many thoughtful questions.

“Can a swimming pool be a kosher mikveh?”
“Where does that natural water source come from and why?”

When we were beginning to conclude our time together, a student asked a question that felt much heavier than the ones before it. “If everything Jewish about this place disappeared, would it still be a mikveh?” The word “disappeared” hung in the air. I pressed the student for more details. She added, “If nobody used this space, if everything Jewish about it was gone, but the pools were still here…”

I began by reiterating that the construction of the mikveh is very specific to Jewish law. There is almost nothing “accidental” about how it is engineered and maintained. Looking over at the student, I could tell there was something more she was curious about.

At that moment, I realized that I was holding a laminated photo of the oldest known mikveh in  Europe. It was discovered recently in what used to be the Jewish quarter on the island of Ortygia in Italy. Currently, it is located in the basement of a hotel.

Usually, I use this photo to demonstrate the different ways that a mikveh can be constructed. I also want students to have a sense that this ritual has been a central part of Jewish life for thousands of years. That afternoon, I found a new purpose for it. I began again:

“I’m not sure if this will answer your question exactly, but I want to share this photo of a very old mikveh on an island in Italy. At one point, this mikveh was used by many Jews, and often. In the year 1492, the Spanish king forced the Jewish people off this land. Over time, this mikveh was buried under rocks and sand. One day, someone decided to build a hotel on this property. Twenty-five years ago, they renovated the hotel and discovered the mikveh in the basement. Today, people visit it from all over the world. Some are Jews who want to understand their heritage, some are tourists who are just curious, but either way, it’s not being used for the purpose of its construction. It was built according to Jewish tradition to be used for immersion, but history has changed its purpose. You might say that everything ‘Jewish’ about this mikveh has disappeared, except for the occasional Jewish tourist. Do you think it is it still a mikveh if there are no Jews using it?”

The students were mixed. The mikveh echoed with definitive answers and doubting murmurs. Amidst their responses, I was surprised to notice how keenly I felt the story of the Italian mikveh. The student’s question brought to life a historical memory for me – of country after country where Jews had been forced out, leaving behind abandoned synagogues and ritual objects. I thought back to the time before my own family left Soviet Russia, and the many ways that they were prohibited from using the Jewish spaces available to them, or the ones they fashioned secretly behind closed doors.

I looked out into the group of thoughtful 6th graders and encouraged them to continue the conversation long after their visit. I ended the program by sharing with them what it means to me that Mayyim Hayyim is open and available to the whole Jewish community today. The imagery of abandoned mikva’ot dissipated and our collective pride was palpable. Although for many Jewish people, mikveh may still be thought of as a distant, historical memory, Mayyim Hayyim proves that this ritual is alive and well and as relevant as ever.

Leeza NeglevLeeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.

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