Hebrew farmers share their history
Montville - Two scholars gave a presentation at the Chesterfield Firehouse Sunday on their excavation of a mikveh, or ritual bathing house, built sometime in the early 1890s by a Jewish settlement in Chesterfield.
State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni and Stuart S. Miller, a professor of Hebrew history and Judaic Studies at the University of Connecticut, presented their preliminary findings on the bathing house at the annual meeting of the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emmanuel Society. The organization is comprised of descendants of a small group of Russian Jewish dairy farmers who started a community in Chesterfield in the late 1800s.
Bellantoni and Miller conducted the excavation over the course of three weeks this past summer with the help of seven students, who received course credit from the University of Connecticut for their work.
Bellantoni said that they held the excavation in hopes of uncovering materials that would help them better understand the site.
By conducting the excavation and analyzing the artifacts, the two are "adding to the knowledge that might be there beyond just documents and photographs and oral tradition," he said.
Miller explained the historical and religious significance behind the bathing house, which in Chesterfield was located in the basement of a building that housed a family on its main level.
The mikveh was used for women a week after the end of their menstrual cycles, explained Miller, a practice that was required by Jewish law before a couple could continue marital relations.
Rabbis in Europe had been concerned that Jewish women who immigrated to the United States would not continue this tradition, said Miller, and published quite a bit of literature explaining the details of the ritual.
The bathing house was also occasionally used for other purposes, such as immersing certain types of vessels before they were used for kosher purposes.
One of the most significant findings during the excavation was that parts of the mikveh were lined with wood, a feature Miller said he's certain is original.
That was a shocking finding, said the scholar, because the Talmud forbids the use of wood in a mikveh because it can hold impurities.
The discovery led to Miller learning that Eastern European Jews traditionally used wood in their bathing houses, which surprised him.
Bellantoni also learned a great deal from the experience - which was his first time working at a Jewish heritage site, he said.
"I learned a great deal from Stuart [Miller]," he said. "This summer for me was tremendous learning opportunity ... by the time we got done with that week of intense work, I was calling it 'my' mikveh ."
Bellantoni said that, using hand tools like a flat-edged trowel, the group discovered a number of artifacts in and around the bathing house.
He said they found unquestionable evidence that the house above the mikveh had been burned, though it is uncertain whether the fire was started intentionally.
His team found the sole of a shoe, several old bottles and a number of ceramics at the site.
They also found children's toys - a toy tractor, a toy pistol and a token from the Norwich Bulletin, which Bellantoni suspects is from a paper boy's route.
They also found a fire box made of bricks in the center of the structure. Although they noted that the bricks were dated 1914, they were not able to look inside the fire box due before the time allotted for the excavation was used up.
Cows, chickens and possibly other animals were butchered behind the building that held the mikveh, said Bellantoni.
They uncovered a number of animal bones in the yard there, and will be examining the butchering cut marks on them to determine whether they were slaughtered in a kosher fashion.
It is still unclear when the mikveh was built. It dates back at least to 1910, because a newspaper article from that year references it. But a letter found by Miller at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford indicates that the bathing house had existed since the Chesterfield Jewish settlement was founded in 1891.
"I personally have a hard time accepting they went from 1891 to 1910 without a mikveh," said Stuart.
Bellantoni noted that, as with all science, excavations often raise more questions than they answer.
"This is an evolving story," said Miller. "You never know with an excavation what exactly you're getting into."
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