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Personal Hygiene and Grooming

Religious law calls on Jews to undertake ritual washings or ablutions that range from immersion of the whole body (tevilah) to pouring water over the hands (netilat yadayim), although there is no evidence to prove that the practice of such rituals contributed to higher standards of hygiene among the Jews of Eastern Europe. Still, these laws infused with an aspiration for physical purity had some bearing on the general approach of the East European Jew to his or her level of hygiene and grooming. Thus, according to the Shulḥan ‘arukh, it is incumbent upon a Jew on awakening to purify himself by washing his hands and face and rinsing his mouth. Jews must also flow water over their hands before meals and recite a blessing. Immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) is required to cleanse a man of an impurity such as a seminal issue and, in the case of women, immersion is performed before marriage and after menstruation, among other states of ritual impurity. No ablution, however, is valid unless the person or, in certain cases an object, has been made scrupulously clean beforehand, so as to ensure that no barrier of foreign matter intervenes between the person or object being immersed and the purifying waters. These laws most certainly contributed to the Jews’ perception of what was hygienic, although immediate factors such as the availability of water, cleansers, and medicine, as well as contemporary understandings of what constituted hygiene were certainly even more important to the hygienic life of East European Jewry.

The nonritual bathhouse evolved into an emblem of the shtetl. Although there are nineteenth-century records of running water in the homes of city-dwelling Jews with relatively high incomes, most relied for bathing on the communal institution of the bathhouse, which often housed a mikveh. Men and women bathed weekly (women on Thursday, men on Friday), though perhaps more frequently during the warmer seasons, when they washed in local rivers. Memoirist Norman Salsitz recalls that a group of pious elderly men would head out of town on a Friday afternoon until they reached a tree-lined section of a nearby river. “Here they undressed and waded in, the water enveloping their unclothed bodies except for their covered heads and long beards” (Salsitz, 1992, p. 7).

The bathhouse generated a substantial culture as well as the modest indulgence it afforded its visitors. Bathers typically paid a charge to an attendant who kept the oven hot, the steam from the stones rising, and visitors equipped with little brooms and washcloths. One source describes an attendant delousing the clothing of a visitor. Some sources attest to the presence of a local barber inside the bathhouse, who performed cupping on visitors for an extra sum.

Certain grooming measures took on a religious inflection or acquired the status of custom among East European Jews. There are references to the disposing of finger- and toenail clippings by burning and burial, a ritual performed out of respect for what was once part of a Jewish person’s body. At least among some Orthodox women, it was customary to shave one’s head or cut the hair very short before one’s wedding day, and to shave or cut it on a regular basis as the hair grew back in. These practices are as much about female modesty and the requirement that married women wear a headcovering as they are about hygiene or grooming.

An elaboration of the spiritual significance of mikveh immersion by Hasidim is attributed to the Ba‘al Shem Tov (Besht; ca. 1700–1760), who is said to have immersed himself on Fridays in order to observe the Sabbath in holiness and purity. Here the Sabbath is treated on a par with the Day of Atonement, in preparation for which men are supposed to purify themselves by immersion. However, Hasidim also promoted the more controversial custom of immersion on the Sabbath itself. Aharon of Karlin wrote that “it is worth walking a mile to go to the mikveh on Friday, and it would be worth walking three miles to go to the mikveh on Sabbath morning if one were permitted to walk that far.” The sight of Hasidim immersing themselves at great sacrifice (“even on winter days when the freezing wind blew in through the . . . holes in the walls and one had to descend the eight ice-coated steps leading to the cold well,” as Yekhezkl Kotik wrote of his father [Assaf, ed., 2002, p. 189]) no doubt generated a powerful mythology.

In opposition to the practice, Misnagdim voiced the concern that one who immerses himself on the Sabbath might unintentionally squeeze water out of his hair or towel, an act forbidden on the Sabbath. According to a Hasidic source, however, Hasidim desisted from using a towel.

To appreciate the hygienic circumstances of most Jews, for instance at the end of the nineteenth century, one must first comprehend their living conditions. At that time, it was not atypical for a craftsman’s family to live and work in close quarters that did not lend themselves to the practice of rigorous hygiene. An official statistician in Berdichev surveying the living conditions of the Jews wrote that “several families are often crowded into one or two rooms of a dilapidated hut, so that at night there is absolutely no space whatever between sleepers. . . . The lodgers turn these rooms into workshops in the daytime, refining wax therein, making tallow candles, tanning leather, etc.; here whole families live, work, sleep and eat together in that fetid atmosphere with their tools and materials lying around on all sides” (quoted in Aronson, 1983, p. 229, n. 206).

The fabric of daily East European Jewish life was imbued with a constant struggle to keep clean. Memoirs and literature of this period refer, for example, to the continual menace posed by lice and bedbugs. As folk artist and memoirist Mayer Kirshenblatt explains, “If you hung your coat up in a public place or school, you did not know whose coat was next to yours. Mother was on constant alert. As soon as I got home and she saw me start to scratch, she immediately made me change my undergarments and threw me into the washtub” (Kirshenblatt and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2007, p. 220). Yiddish literature of the nineteenth century mentions the menacing and quotidian nature of these problems. Trying in vain to sleep on a mattress infested with bedbugs, Mendele the book peddler waxes poetic about bedbugs in Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh’s Fishke the Lame: “Is it their fault, poor things, that they stink? Can they help it if it is their nature to bite? Goodness! This is not the first time in my life I had to deal with bedbugs! Where is the Jew who can’t count his dealings with them in the hundreds, nay in the thousands?” (Herbst et al., 1991, p. 222).

Because of the threat of such infestations, laundering and housecleaning on a regular basis were crucial, despite the practical challenges these tasks posed, especially in the winter. Housecleaning typically took place on Friday in anticipation of the Sabbath. After his mother cooked, Kirshenblatt remembers, she would scrub the wooden floor “with a brush and a scouring powder called bielidło. It was a combination of bleach and abrasive” (Kirshenblatt and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2007, p. 208). Salsitz remembers the local river as having been a convenient place for residents to wash their clothes. But the winter cold forced residents to hire a water carrier to bring water to their homes, so laundry could be done on the premises. More common was to wash the laundry at home in a wooden tub with soap and boiling water, wring it out, and carry the soapy laundry to the river to be rinsed, rather than to do all the laundry (soaping and rinsing), especially bed linens and other heavy laundry in one place or the other.

Spring cleaning was universally performed by Jews in the days leading up to the Passover festival—the religious requirement to rid the house of khomets (Heb., ḥamets; leavening) providing an opportunity to sanitize homes. Kirshenblatt provides a detailed description:

All the furniture was taken out into the yard, and everything was torn apart. All the books were taken out and aired: we let the wind blow through them. The beds had to be cleaned scrupulously and the straw mattresses emptied. We poured boiling hot water into all the seams and joints in the bedsteads to kill the bedbugs and their eggs. After we got the flit (DDT), my father would spray everything with flit. That helped a lot to keep the bedbugs under control. . . . [W]e emptied the mattresses of the old straw. . . . By Passover, it would have deteriorated and lost its spring, so most people took their old straw to the bonfire where we burned khomets, or leaven, just before Passover started. We would refill the mattresses with fresh straw that we bought from the farmers, who knew to bring straw to market just before Passover.

Jewish hygiene and grooming generated a forceful discourse among competing perspectives. The Enlightenment gave rise to two points of view concerning Jewish hygiene: one position argued that Jews must adopt the practices of their gentile neighbors, while the other emphasized the strength of Judaism’s own practices of medicine and hygiene. Jews were often singled out as practitioners of bad hygiene by both Jewish and non-Jewish ideologues, although there is no evidence that Jews were any less scrupulous than their non-Jewish neighbors in this regard. Abramovitch, for instance, scathingly depicts the streets of the shtetl on the eve of Sabbath as rivers of sewage. Moyshe Markuze, in his Seyfer refues (Book of Remedies; 1790)—regarded as the first scientific medical text in the Yiddish language—sought to shine a light on what he considered to be egregiously unsanitary conditions of East European Jews, which explained what he believed was an extraordinarily high death rate of both mothers and children during childbirth. Midwifery as practiced by Jews, however, was almost identical to methods practiced by gentiles.

The dependence on home-grown medical remedies, and medical practitioners with widely varying degrees of training and standards, only changed in the twentieth century. Before this time, the cure was just as often the cause of illnesses that spread due to lack of hygienic practices. Kirshenblatt remembers, for instance, that those in his city who suffered from a sore throat would visit a woman, formerly a nurse in the tsarist army, who would use the same swab on all her patients (Kirshenblatt and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2007, p. 232). By the early twentieth century, Jewish leaders were taking steps to improve hygienic conditions. In 1912, the Obshchestvo Zdravookhraneniia Evreev (OZE) was founded in Saint Petersburg, and took on the task of preventing, detecting, and treating disease among the Jewish people, with a special emphasis on the health of Jewish children. For decades, OZE provided an unprecedented range of services aimed at improving the health, hygiene, and quality of life of the most vulnerable members of Jewish society. It established hundreds of Jewish hospitals, nurseries, and summer camps for orphans and needy children.

Suggested Reading

Chaim Aronson, A Jewish Life under the Tsars: The Autobiography of Chaim Aronson, 1825–1888, trans. and ed. Norman Marsden (Totowa, N.J., 1983); David Assaf, ed., Journey to a Nineteenth-Century Shtetl: The Memoirs of Yekhezkel Kotik, trans. Margaret Birnstein (Detroit and Tel Aviv, 2002); John M. Efron, Medicine and the German Jews: A History (New Haven, 2001); Krysia Fisher, curator, “The Society for the Protection of Jewish Health: Fighting for a Healthy New Generation” (New York, 2005), exhibition catalog, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; Marion Herbst, Gerald Stillman, and Marvin Zuckerman, eds., Selected Works of Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Malibu, Calif., 1991); Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust (Berkeley, 2007); Norman Salsitz, A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa (Syracuse, N.Y., 1992), as told to Richard Skolnik; Aaron Wertheim, Law and Custom in Hasidism, trans. Shmuel Himelstein (Hoboken, N.J., 1992).