Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
Mikve: Women Thursday, Women's Day, December 2000
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 48 in.
"They built a new mikve on Ivansker veyg in the twenties. In the back of the mikve was a well. This well had a wheel pump rather than a handle pump. I once helped pump water into the mikve and got in for free. It was fun to pump the water. The women went to the mikve on Thursdays and the men on Fridays. I think women could also go to the mikve on other weekdays to purify themselves after their menstrual cycle. Once a woman was purified, she could have sex with her husband. I was told that a religious man would sit outside the entrance to the mikve, holding out his hand. When a woman had purified herself and was leaving the mikve, she would gently touch his finger. Maybe this would help her conceive. They used tell a joke about this custom. The rebitsn went to the woman at the head of the line to touch the man and said, "Please let me go ahead of you. The rebe is waiting." The woman at the head of the line, answered, "Oh, yea! The whole city is waiting for me." She was a prostitute.
You brought your own soap and towel. The mikve provided a bucket. The mikve proper was a small square pool about four feet deep, with steps leading down into it. A wood burning oven, right in the mikve, heated the water. This tall barrel oven extended from the bottom of the pool to about two feet or more above the water. The shames added fuel to the oven through a little door above water level. A chimney led from the oven to the outdoors. When you soaked in the mikve, you had to be careful not to go too near the hot oven. The oven was next to the steps.
Before soaking in the mikve, you washed yourself. You filled a bucket with hot water from the mikve and dowsed yourself while sitting on the white tile floor, a little stool, or a bench. You took another bucket of hot water and soaped yourself. Then you filled your bucket with hot water again and rinsed yourself. Once you were clean, you stepped down into the mikve for a hot soak. I went to the mikve a few times, but I didnít like what I saw. I saw a lot of deformities. One man had a hernia the size of a watermelon. He couldn't wear trousers. He had to wear a skirt. There were men with scabs. These people often had nicknames based on their deformities. Simkhe Parakh (Simkhe the Scab) was so named because his head was covered with a huge solid scab. Avrom biye, Avrom the Lump [Harshl: Duvid Lip--check], had an enormous purple growth, the size of an egg, bulging from the side of his head. He sat opposite my grandfather in the besmedresh during prayers. He was an egg wholesaler. He lived on the Shmule gas, a few doors east of my father's store. I knew his son, who was called Khaml piter (Khaml Butter), for no apparent reason. Seeing men with such deformities wasnít a pleasant thing. So Maylekh and I would pay the shames to bring buckets of hot water from the mikve to fill a bathtub with water. The mikve had bathtubs in a separate section, but no running water. There was a drain for getting rid of the dirty water. It ran into the yard. That was our weekly wash.
Sometimes I went with my grandfather to the steam bath, rather than to the mikve. The steam bath was on Lagover veyg on the other side of the river from the mill. They had wood benches and buckets and a hot oven with red-hot stones. You opened the door of the oven and threw a bucket of water on the hot stones. You had to step away very quickly before the hot steam rushed out. We would pour a cold bucket of water over ourselves when we felt too hot. This was a Jewish enterprise. We would take short-handled broom made from oak branches with the leaves still attached, work up a soapy lather, and scrub ourselves with them. There was a shmayser there, a man who would beat you with the oak leave brush for a few pennies."