Female (Mis)Behavior, Class, and Religious Authority: Bath Attendants in Early America

 Laura Arnold Leibman

Nidhe Israel Mikveh, Photo S. Arnold, 2010
Ritual baths or mikva'ot (s. mikveh) are key to Jewish life and to communal boundaries--a community can even sell a Torah scroll to build a ritual bath.  Moreover, ritual baths are an important element of Jewish women's history.  Since the fall of the Second Temple, mikevh has become primarily a women's ritual: women are the main users of the baths, and also the people who oversee women's ritual immersions.  What can baths tell us, then, about the everyday lives and challenges women faced in early America?

I first spoke about early Jewish American ritual baths in 2008 at the Association of Caribbean Historians conference in Suriname.  Little was know then about early Jewish American use of ritual baths, so I lovingly laid out the hallmarks of the baths in a piece that would later become my Religion in the Age of Enlightenment article "Early American Mikvaot: Ritual Baths as the Hope of Israel" and then the first chapter of Messianism, Secrecy, & Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life.  In this post, I move beyond an architectural analysis to talk about the women who worked in the baths, and present new information about who bath attendants were, what led them to take the such positions, and what we can learn from their lives.

When I gave my talk about ritual baths at the conference in Suriname, at least some audience members felt something was missing from my architectural analysis, but given the sources I had then located, I was somewhat at a loss at to how to fill in the blanks.  One audience member asked me why I wasn't speaking more about the specific women who ran or visited the baths rather than merely detailing the structure of the baths themselves. I explained that while occasionally European women's diaries like The Memoirs Of Gluckel Of Hameln (trans. Marvin Lowenthal) would mention ritual baths, we have very few diaries written by colonial Jewish women that could record such details.  Moreover, mikveh use isn't the sort of thing that usually comes up in letters.  Because it is a mitzvah for couples to have sexual relations after women visit the bath, letting people other than one's spouse know when a woman visited a bath was (and in certain circles still is) considered taboo, or at least impolite.  Hence it is extremely rare to know anything about the women who oversaw ritual baths in early America, let alone their clients.  As much as I wished a woman had kept records about the baths, I hadn't seen good sources.  I remained haunted by the question, though. Who were the women of the ritual baths I studied?

In the six years that followed that conference, I have been keeping track of references to early Jewish American bath attendants and bathers.  Just as the most beautiful early American ritual bath is in Barbados (image at top), so too one of the best sources on this topic is the Nidhe Israel Synagogue record books from the Barbados Jewish community. 

Nidhe Israel Synagogue Yard. Photo L. Leibman 2010
Synagogue is pink building in rear.
Although it was normal to have a ritual bath in early American synagogue complexes, the Barbados synagogue complex was unusual in that not only contained the synagogue, school, mikveh and cemetery, but also three domiciles: that of the rabbi or hazan (reader, spiritual leader), that of the mikveh attendant, and that of the Shamash (caretaker) – three spiritual lynchpins of the community.  This meant Barbados bath attendants were physically housed at the community's center.

The house of the mikveh attendant was directly above the bath.  Moreover, the congregation kept exceptional minutes.  Not only are the synagogue meetings and finances detailed, the records are shockingly honest when things go awry, and things do go awry at some point in any community of human beings.  As a result the congregation's records can help us answer key questions such as: what do we know about the women who held the position of bandeira (bath attendant)?  Why did women become bath attendants? What was the social status of the job? Was this a prestigious position?  How much did it pay?  What were the perks? What else can we gleam about bath practices in early America?  Thanks to the Barbados records we have the answers to these questions.   At least in the early nineteenth century, being the mikveh attendant in Barbados fell to women of limited means.  Becoming a bath attendant gave them a house, an income, and a place at the center of the community.  This was an exceptional position for a poor woman. In Barbados the synagogue was run by elite, wealthy men of the congregation.  Thus, for poor women, being a mikveh attendant not only offered financial stability, but also made them the congregation's eyes and ears.  It was an unusual opportunity, but one as we will see that came at a price.

As with many religious records, we learn a lot about women who ran the baths not because of all the hundreds of times they did things right, but because of one instance in which one of the attendants violated religious law and the synagogue policy regarding the bath.  As I noted in Messianism, Secrecy, & Mysticism, details about who ran and visited the Barbados bath emerge most clearly in the synagogue minutes of April 1814, when a sexual scandal rocked the synagogue complex of Barbados’s Nidhe Israel congregation.  In addition to the Jewish occupants of the synagogue complex, several women of color lived in or worked in the yard as servants.  By 1814, the caretaker (Shamash) had taken it upon himself to house his free colored mistress in the compound.  Moreover, apparently either the Shamash or his beloved decided it would be good for her to immerse in the bath.  Equally interesting, the bath attendant had allowed her to do so, even though the woman who wanted to immerse wasn't Jewish, and hence shouldn't have been allowed to use the mikveh according to Jewish law.  (Racial status isn't a barrier to mikveh use, but religious status was and usually still is today.)  The synagogue board found out, and stepped in to return the bath to normative practice.  Thus, we learn not only the name of the bath attendant who was fired for her actions (Mrs. [Sarah] Massiah), but also the woman who replaced her (Mrs Lobo). The Shamash was also disciplined.  We also learn Mrs. Lobo's salary - fifty shillings a month, not a particularly large amount, but as much as the lesser male synagogue employees made.  Since publishing my book I have been increasingly interested in why the board picked Mrs. Lobo--or any attendant--for the position.

By the early nineteenth century, being a bath attendant was tied to class and finances rather than religious privilege.  The wars that ravaged the American colonies during the mid-to-late eighteenth century disastrously impacted the Caribbean economy in general and Jewish merchants in particular. Whereas the Barbados Jewish community had previously been made up of numerous wealthy merchants, landowners and manufacturers, by 1791, most were “little more than retailers” (Arbell, Jewish Nation of the Caribbean, 215). Religious communities were responsible for taking care of their own poor, and the synagogue struggled to meet the needs of the increasingly larger number of Jewish poor on the island, many of whom were women. Thus in Barbados in the early nineteenth century, the position was usually "given" to impoverished women who were otherwise a financial burden on the community.  Mrs. Lobo fit the bill.

21st Century Structure Built Above Bath. Location of Former
Mikveh Attendant House. Photo L. Leibman, 2010
Mrs. Lobo also had much to gain from the position. By serving as the mikveh attendant, Mrs. Lobo obtained a place to live, a steady (if moderate) income, and a central location in the island's religious life.  She appears to have taken steps to make herself agreeable.  For example, she made new towels for women to use when they immersed at the bath house and was properly compensated for them by the synagogue's treasury.

Despite her efforts to revamp the ritual bath, the community was in decline and eventually Mrs. Lobo needed other income to support herself.  Thus, by 1824, Mrs. Lobo was also earning her keep by taking "care & keep[ing] Clean" the hazan's house "& its Furniture as well as her present residence next Door."  As a perk, she was "permitted to reside in the Hazan’s house" which from the account books appears to have been better maintained and better furnished than her own.

The woman whom she replaced, Mrs. Sarah Massiah---widow of Simon Massiah--is an even more intriguing figure.  Like Mrs. Lobo, she was not in good financial standing.  As early as 1792, she was receiving funds to support herself from the synagogue.  Given her financial situation, her willingness to let the Shamash's mistress immerse in the bath might seem a bit surprising.  Yet it is also in keeping with her prior behavior, as we find her willing to "look the other way" when men behaved badly previously in the synagogue records. In 1812 when another controversy erupted in the synagogue yard regarding a synagogue official (Mr. Abendana) and a woman of color who worked in the yard, Mrs. Massiah was called as a reluctant witness. She was circumspect about what she knew.  She admitted that the woman in question had followed the man around the yard and that other servants had gossiped about the issue, but would not admit to having seen or heard anything improper. Her testimony contrasts sharply with that of other synagogue yard resident Judah Massiah who, while now blind, eagerly explains that before he lost his sight, he had been an "Eye Witness to such instances of Familiarity as left no doubt on his Mind that a connection Existed between Mr. Abendana & his hired Servant." Mrs. Massiah seems more careful about preserving Mr. Abendana's reputation.

It is also possible that Mrs. Massiah's reluctance to testify and her willingness to allow  the Shamash's mistress to immerse in the bath suggests she was uninterested in ceding control of women's sexual lives to the synagogue governance board.  If so, she wasn't entirely alone.  Shortly before the incident with Mr. Abendana, a Mrs. Gomes was censured by synagogue officials for behaving "in a most scandalous & indecent mann[er]" during which she not only admitted to living apart from her husband but also "declared Mr. Castello had kept her nine Months & that if he left [she] would go on the Town & much more to the same effect."  That is, she would not be returning to her ailing husband but would behave as she pleased, and have sex with whom she pleased. Although the synagogue refused to circumcise her son as a result (because he was a mamzer), Mrs. Gomes open and public defiance suggests at least some women in the community rejected the community's right to govern their sexual conduct and choices. Mrs. Massiah's refusal to testify or restrict mikveh use might be seen as existing along the same lines.  If so, this complicates her role as a bath attendant.

In Hebrew the bath attendant is called a shomeret or guardian, and in Barbados bath attendants were expected to guard the community's moral and social boundaries.  Being a bath attendant meant women lived in the synagogue yard along with other synagogue officials.  They became the eyes and ears of the congregation and were called upon to testify to the sexual conduct and misconduct of other synagogue officials.  Although poorer members of the community, bath attendants had the opportunity to censure and regulate the sex lives of powerful men. Yet despite (or perhaps because of?) their economic dependence on the congregation, not all bath attendants seemed to step easily into this role. Studying the lives of the women who lived the synagogue yard can help us better understand the challenges women faced in the colonies and their shifting role in Jewish American religious life.



Carol Faulkner said…
This takes the "female world of love and ritual" to another level! Is there any evidence of same-sex desire (or fear that it might develop)?
Unknown said…
Great question Carol. I have never seen anything about same-sex desire (or fear of it), but again the sources are a bit sparse. There are some interesting discussions about gender, mikva'ot, and women's rituals happening at Mayyim Hayyim. They might be a good resource for this question: http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/.

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