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Pure and Complicated

An exhibition devoted to mikvahs taps into Austria’s troubled past—and complex present

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The Hohenems mikvah (Photo © Peter Seidel 2009.)

A new exhibition on Jewish ritual baths at the Jewish Museum in the Austrian town of Hohenems plays with issues of purity in a country where anti-immigrant rhetoric is part of the political debate and the “cleansing” of Jews once meant more than going to the mikvah.

Provocatively titled Ganz Rein! (the phrase means both “quite pure” and “go deeply into”), the show, which will run until October, celebrates the restoration and opening to the public of the Hohenems mikvah, which was originally built in 1829 and is the oldest preserved mikvah in Austria.

The mikvah restoration is the latest step in an ambitious municipal project, begun in the 1980s, to rehabilitate the town’s Jewish quarter and restore the memory of a time when Jews made up an important minority.

Ganz Rein! focuses specifically on the architecture, use, and symbolism of the ritual bath in Jewish tradition, but inevitably it touches on broader concerns. Museum Director Hanno Loewy said while there had been no conscious intention to use the exhibition’s title to evoke the term Judenrein, the infamous Nazi buzzword describing areas “cleansed of Jews,” he admitted that the reference was implicit—there under the surface, like it or not.

At its peak in the mid-19th century, the Jewish community of Hohenems numbered around 650 (out of a population of 3,000). Today, 16 percent of Hohenems’s 15,000 residents are immigrants with a Turkish Muslim background. (The total number of immigrants is considerably higher.) Last month, the far-right Freedom Party—which campaigns under slogans such as “The West belongs to Christians”—received nearly 23 percent of the votes in local elections. And Barbara Rosenkranz, the Freedom Party’s candidate in presidential elections scheduled for next week, has come under heavy fire for ambiguous statements on Nazi crimes and the Holocaust.

Loewy is one of two Jews living in Hohenems today. He said he hoped the mikvah exhibition would spark reflection on current conflicts between ritual and freedom, and religion and secular society. “It’s not a Jewish question,” he said, “but it’s a question of religion, and we have that same question when we talk about the headscarves of Muslims or a lot of the rites and dogmas of the [Catholic] church.” The mikvah, he added, “brings these questions to the most radical extreme because it’s about the body.”

The exhibit includes two very different photographic installations that reflect contrasting ways of looking at the Jewish experience. One is a series of evocative color images of mikvahs by German photographer Peter Seidel. Seidel concentrates on centuries-old ritual baths, long out of use. Worn stone steps and rusty iron railings lead down, down, down to empty chambers or, in some cases, basins that still hold a bit of water. The pictures are gorgeous, but they are strictly architectural. The mikvahs look very uninviting and very devoid of life. Even in the few modern baths Seidel has included, there are no signs of living beings, not even a stray towel or wet footprint.

In sharp contrast, the Mikvah Project, a text-and-image collaboration by the American photographer Janice Rubin and writer Leah Lax, explores the resurgence of “the rite of immersion” as a new form of Jewish spirituality among contemporary women. Rubin’s photographs, many of them taken under water, portray women during ritual immersion. The images—some close-ups but none showing the faces of the women portrayed—depict the “intimate, sensual, enigmatic nature” of a ritual that has been embraced by some Jewish feminists as a personal statement of womanhood.

Accompanying the photographs are excerpts from interviews that Lax conducted with women describing their own, often complex, relationship to the mikvah experience. These mainly positive expressions are juxtaposed with critical comments about the mikvah from interviews with mostly European women carried out by the Hohenems Museum. Together, the comments form what the museum calls a “controversial dialogue” about an ancient ritual that has been at the center of debate over tradition and reform for 200 years. (This dialogue also inspired an Internet radio project linked to the exhibit, www.radiomikwe.at).

The Mikvah Project exhibition has toured to two dozen venues in North America, but Hohenems marks the first time it has been mounted in Europe; from here it travels to Jewish museums in Vienna and in the German cities of Fuerth and Frankfurt.

The exhibition opening marked Lax’s first trip to a German-speaking country. She was, she said, struck by the power of German words she knew were “pareve” or neutral in today’s German language, but that were still to her, as an American, loaded with sinister baggage.

“Everything from anschluss, aktion, schnell, links, rechts,” she said. “These were the first words I identified and they were all creepy to me.” One of these words was “rein.” “When I heard the name of the exhibition, Ganz Rein, I instantly thought of Judenrein,” she said. At first this made her uncomfortable. “But then,” she added, “I took it as a cheeky retort: that yes, it was an intentional play on the word rein, but cheeky in that here you are immersed in that mikvah and you are actually rein—you’re pure, completely pure. Because, of course, a Jew was considered anything but. So, I took it as a very in-your-face response to the association of that word. I decided I really liked the title.”

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I have not needed to visit the Mikveh for the past five years or so, but I am very proud to have fulfilled this mitzvah for over thirty years of married life. I was very sad when I had to stop going, not only because it meant that I was no longer able to reproduce life, but because the mitzvah had developed into a fulfilling and very special moment in time to my self-image as a woman and as a Jew. I embraced it also, as it is one of the view mitzvot given to women alone. The rituals and prayers I value are part of what I think of as the “archeology” of my religion, and viewing the photograph that went along with this article called up resonant associations to Jewish history. It is no accident, perhaps, that the photographs are devoid of life — it is up to each of us to imagine the lives of those who came before us, dressed differently and speaking different languages, but still performing the same mitzvot, praying the same words, fulfilling the same destiny.

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Pure and Complicated

An exhibition devoted to mikvahs taps into Austria’s troubled past—and complex present

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