The Ongoing Mystery of Oxford’s Medieval Jewish Mikveh
Oxford’s important medieval Jewish quarter is one of the best-documented 13th century Jewish communities that we have. Still, and remarkably, we have not yet been able to establish where the mikveh, the ritual bath, was located. Fragments of a small ornamented Norman-era building which came to the surface in Magdalen College’s St. John’s Quad in 1820, near the site of Oxford’s first medieval Jewish cemetery gave rise to the desperate and somewhat illogical idea that these might have been the remains of the mikveh. Whatever this building had been, since contact with the dead is just one of the ritually unclean circumstances for which usage of a ritual bath is prescribed, the last place that it would be found is in or next to a Jewish cemetery. [see P.S.Manix, “Beneath Our Feet: Oxford’s Medieval Jewish Cemetery”, Roke Elm Books (2014) for more details of this argument].
Read more of this fascinating article by Pam Manix, Architectural Medievalist, Click Here
And jumping ahead 600 years, this short article appeared in Menorah, OJCommunity magazine in June 2015 and OJH is grateful to the author and the editor of Menorah for their permission to publish it here.
Was there a mikveh in Oxford in the 1840s?
The first Jewish wedding in Oxford, in 1844, between Nathan Jacobs and Hannah Wolf, created a great deal of interest. In addition to its novelty in the city, it took place soon after the fire in St Ebbe’s in which the bridegroom’s father and sister were killed. Thus the wedding was reported in numerous newspapers, from The Times, to long reports in local ones, such as the Oxford Journal, the Oxford Chronicle & Reading Gazette, and the Oxford University & City Herald. The reports were very similar and may have been based on one reporter or perhaps been copied. But there is an intriguing extra piece in the report in the Oxford University & City Herald.
The wedding took place on Wednesday 28 August 1844. ‘On the Tuesday evening’, went the report, ‘the bride went into the bath, accompanied by her female friends, who made a great noise, – that being part of the ceremonial.’ One wonders what is meant by ‘the bath’. Was it a mikveh, a ritual bath? Was it in Oxford? If so, where was it and how long did it survive? I have seen no other reference to its existence; indeed, David Lewis, in his The Jews of Oxford (at page 36) refers to Hermann Adler writing to the congregation in the 1880s about a mikveh. Obviously there wasn’t one and the congregation replied to Adler, explaining the expense and their lack of funds. The possibility that there was a mikveh in the very early days of the modern community, and for such a small one, is certainly worth remarking.
Harold Pollins, Historian, 2015