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Conversation with Professor Stuart Miller — Connecticut excavation sheds light on early 20th-century Jewish life

By Cindy Mindell

HARTFORD — A University of Connecticut professor and a state archeologist made national and international headlines last week with an unexpected discovery in Chesterfield, a former Jewish farming community in eastern Connecticut.

Professor Stuart Miller

Professor Stuart Miller

Stuart S. Miller is professor of Hebrew, history, and Judaic studies at UConn Storrs. He also is the academic director of UConn’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and chair of the Hebrew and Judaic Studies section in the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. He earned his Ph.D. with distinction in Near Eastern Studies and History at New York University in 1980 and joined the UConn faculty in 1982.

Miller specializes in the history and literature of the Jews in Talmudic-period Israel. He has written extensively about the ancient city of Sepphoris (Tsippori) and served as Talmudic historian to the Sepphoris Regional Project, a major excavation sponsored by Duke University which consisted of a consortium of five colleges and universities, including UConn.

The rural community of Chesterfield is located in the town of Montville. From the late 1800s, the area was home to a handful of Russian-Jewish families who had relocated from New York City’s Lower East Side to make a living as poultry and dairy farmers, assisted by the Baron de Hirsch Fund in New York. The 500-person “shtetl,” incorporated in 1892 as the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society, was essentially defunct by World War II, leaving behind the remains of a synagogue and a creamery.

They also left another structure, undiscovered until Connecticut state archeologist Nicholas Bellantoni considered excavating what he believed was the home of the shochet, the community’s ritual slaughterer. He invited friend and colleague Miller to join him at the site, only to find that the basement of the house contained a nearly perfectly preserved mikveh.

Miller spoke with the Ledger about the significance of the discovery and how it has already changed the scholarly conversation on early 20th-century American Jewish life.


Q: Describe exactly what it is that you’ve found.

A: The mikveh is intact, it’s magnificent, and from a religious law point of view, it’s a marvel. It is, to my knowledge, one of the very few remaining from this time period in the U.S., and is very likely the only one from a Baron de Hirsch-sponsored Jewish agricultural community. That alone makes it a marvel. Of course, there is more. When we excavated last summer, it very quickly became clear that we had the complete mikveh – even its wood lining was surprisingly well-preserved. Also, we were able to trace the pipes that conducted water to the mikveh so we understand fully how it worked. It is truly a marvel because it gives us insight into how a mikveh was built in the countryside during this period. We are now able to study its workings in relationship to others that are described in contemporaneous rabbinic writings and in comparison to the ones we know existed in Baltimore and the Lower East Side, two of which have also been excavated.


Q: Does the mikveh resemble anything you’ve seen elsewhere in the U.S. or Israel?

A: What struck me when I first saw the structure sticking out of the ground was the stone. Unlike the Allen Street mikveh on the Lower East Side, built roughly at the same time, that was excavated by Celia Bergoffen a number of years ago, and all the functioning, contemporary mikvaot that I am familiar with in the U.S., all of which are tiled, this mikveh, at least before we excavated it, looked more like the ones whose excavation I have been involved in at ancient Sepphoris in the Galilee. The ritual baths in ancient Israel are stone; that is what I was seeing. Little did I suspect that we would soon discover a wood lining. I subsequently learned that the use of wood was common among some Ashkenazi Jews who followed their rabbinic authorities, whose opinions I am now studying.


Q: What is the water source for the mikveh?

A: At first, I thought the water might be supplied by pipes coming from the roof, which is a common practice. Once we ruled that out, we traced the pipe some 50 feet in the direction of several brooks and ponds. So we are confident that the water is coming from there. We are talking of a possible second season of excavation. If we do continue, following the pipe and determining exactly which body of flowing water it leads from will be given high priority. This method of supplying water is halachic, that is, the mikveh is kasher, although here too, this is not the way mikvaot are constructed today.

We have a whole bunch of other issues in understanding how ancient ritual baths, like those at Sepphoris – which are about 1700 to 2200 years old – were supplied with water. In my forthcoming book on Jewish ritual baths, I suggest that many of the methods used in ancient Israel were not necessarily in keeping with what we today or even rabbis in Talmudic times would consider halachic. Different times and places witnessed different practices, some of which were acceptable to the rabbis, some of which were not. Still other building techniques, such as the wood used at Chesterfield, were acceptable to select leading authorities, making it perfectly kasher.

Determining where the water comes from is sometimes very difficult, especially in antiquity. Determining the water source at Chesterfield is much clearer than at archaeological sites in Israel. The source of water for many of the ritual baths from ancient Sepphoris, where we have by far the largest collection of such baths that were in use for centuries after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., is at times unclear. In fact, the same can be said of the ritual baths from Herodian Jerusalem and Masada.


Q: You say in the article that “scholarship in ancient Israel can be applied much closer to home.” Can you explain what you mean?

A: My forthcoming book is all about how we read archaeological and literary sources in their own right and in light of each other. Much of my published work deals with precisely this issue. That is, all too often today in Israel you will hear the tour guide say “What I am showing you is precisely what it says in the Talmud.” Well, even historians and archaeologists are guilty of that and sometimes of making connections that should never have been made. The two Talmuds – Yerushalmi and Bavli – cover very long periods of time and contain views spanning many centuries. One has to understand the relevant narrative in the Talmud very well, to have examined the manuscript evidence, and have worked out any seeming contradictions before coming to conclusions about the significance of a Talmudic passage for understanding “material finds.”

Similarly, one has to thoroughly understand what is going on, archaeologically speaking. The artifacts that are uncovered have to be dated and understood in context, in their own right, before we start looking at what, say, the Tanach, the later rabbis, or even historians such as Josephus (first century C.E.) have to say. In the case of ritual baths, we first have to figure out what precisely we are looking at without jumping to conclusions based on what we might have read or think we understand in rabbinic sources. But by the same token, often the archaeological finds help us understand precisely what the rabbis were talking about.

All this is very technical, difficult work. But it’s what makes my work interesting and exceedingly exciting – I get to spend lots of time with the Yerushalmi Talmud, written in the Land of Israel, other related rabbinic writings, Greek sources, and then have this reality check when I get to unearth and examine “material finds” that represent how people really lived. They were not following a manual, so when they built mikvaot, the final product, so to speak, did not always reflect precisely what, in many cases, were theoretical rabbinic positions, or positions, as in the case of the wood, that may not have been ideal according to some, but which were perfectly acceptable.

Wood can be problematic from a Talmudic and halakhic point of view but there were Ashkenazi Jews who did use wood in their mikvaot, and remember, at Chesterfield, the original settlers were from Russia.


Q: What does the presence of the mikveh teach us about these Jewish communities and their religious life?

A: We have a romanticized view of the original immigrants particularly from Eastern Europe who came through Ellis Island. And while we do know that the first waves were not as observant as many of those who arrived after the tragedy of the Shoah, they were still much more traditional in perspective than the German Jews and even the Sefaradim who preceded them.

Reading Irving Howe’s World of our Fathers, one would never know that religion played much of a role in the lives of the Jews of the Lower East Side at all. But while historians have more recently paid closer attention to religious life among the new immigrants from Eastern Europe, this is not the case, at least not to my knowledge, when it comes to those who settled in the rural agricultural communities. And while we know that many of those who established farms in New Jersey and Connecticut had synagogues, still the impression people have is that they were built mostly to preserve a sense of tradition and especially community.

What I am suggesting about Chesterfield is that a mikveh that was built by the community at the turn of the 20th century – that is, not long after the community began in 1892 – is an extraordinary testimony to the original hope of preserving Jewish tradition. We don’t usually associate this level of observance with this period and certainly not with the agricultural settlements of the time. Although what is extraordinary about the community at Chesterfield is that it is one of the very earliest in Connecticut, and its mikveh was built at a time when urban rabbis were decrying the lack of observance of marital purity laws, I do think that what I am saying applies in some sense to later periods as well. The Chesterfield Jewish community was in decline well before 1930. The synagogue was maintained right on up to the 1970s, but the “community” was long gone before World War II.

But some of what I am saying also applies to religious life in the post-World War II rural communities. I don’t think religious life in these communities has gotten enough attention either. For example, I now know that there were two mikvaot in Colchester from what appear to be two different periods, but, as far as I can tell, not as early as what we are looking at in Chesterfield, which, in contrast, has been preserved, and now, excavated. Even if those mikvaot in Colchester no longer exist and cannot be excavated, they also tell us something about an attempt to preserve Jewish tradition in the countryside.


Q: What’s next for the Chesterfield site?

A: Nick [Bellantoni] and I would like to complete the excavation of the basement of the shochet’s house. There is much there to explore including the heating of the room and plumbing. We also would like to do some soundings at the synagogue remains. But tracing the mikveh pipe will certainly be given priority. And then there is the creamery, but that will have to wait. We are talking about returning in summer 2014. In the meantime, Nancy Savin, president of the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society, is working with her organization and with representatives of UConn’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center on an exhibit for 2015, which she hopes will then be taken on the road to some major cities and other venues in the country.


Miller and Bellantoni’s find has inspired “Ritual Bathing Practices between Town and Country: The Emergence of the Modern Mikveh,” a dedicated session at the Association for Jewish Studies’ annual conference in December.


Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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