Jewish culture: The shvitz
Published on Friday, April 07, 2017 By Max Sparber
I have what my girlfriend calls a "Jewish bucket list," which consists entirely of Jewish cultural activities that I want to do, but haven't been able to due to problems with timing or location: Either it is done anymore, or it isn't done where I am.
Now, I've been to a sauna before, and that's really all a shvitz is -- it's Yiddish for sweat, short for shvitzbod, which means sweatbath. I'm from Minnesota, and, thanks to its Scandinavian heritage, there are saunas everywhere, including one that just roams around the city like a food truck full of semi-naked humans. I've even lived in apartments that had saunas in them.
But there are difference between the moderately heated, wood-lined Northern Europeans and the sweat-drenched, highly social Russian baths beloved by old Jews. I had never been to a Russian or Turkish bath, and, by God, I planned to do so.
There is a place that has both, appropriately called the Russian and Turkish Baths, also known as the 10th Street Baths, in Greenwich Village, which dates back to 1892, as the sign boasts. The place is the stuff of legend, some old, such as the popular rumor that Jewish gangsters used to meet here and so the attendants were dead mutes (seemingly confirmed by this New York Times story).
There are newer legends as well, such as the fact that the baths are owned by two men, Boris and David, and the two have nothing to do with each other. You can buy cards to attend the bath, but David's cards will not be honored on Boris' weeks and vice versa. David caters to a younger hispter crowd, and Boris caters to an older immigrant crowd, and the experience must be very different from one week to another, based on Yelp reviews. Those who go on Boris weeks uniformly describe the place as unkempt and the staff rude, but I suppose if you are looking for authenticity, that's going to be an example of it.
There is a documentary about the whole shvitz experience made in 1993 by Jonathan Berman that captures the flavor of the places at the time, mostly focusing on a Coney Island bathhouse but also with a section set in the 10th street structure. The bathhouses were then in decline, hugely reduced in number by indoor plumbing and further suffering from the AIDS epidemic, which had killed or scared away the gay clientèle. (The film makes it abundantly clear that while there were explicitly gay bathhouses, gay men also cruised Jewish bathhouses, and nobody seemed to mind.)
But the few that are left in the film are beaten-up old places filled with corpulent, naked, hugely chummy old Jewish men, who start the experience with a shot of vodka, end it by sleeping on wooden chaise longues and nibbling on Russian food (made in house), kibbutz an awful lot, and otherwise just sweat, or lie back and get rubbed by an even older naked man with oak branches, a massage called platza, the Yiddish word for upper back.
Some of it is still available. You can't start your bath with a shot of vodka at the 10th Street Baths, unless you bring your own, and on co-ed days, when I went, people are younger and in bathing suits, rather than naked. But there are the saunas -- four of them in increasing temperature, including a dry Norther Euopean sauna, a steam-filled aromatherapy bath, a very hot Turkish bath, and an inferno-like Russian bath.
The difference between the baths seems to be the materials used to make them, the amount of steam, and the amount of heat. Some shvitzes also have rooms made of salt. The Russian bath, also called a banya, is essentially a rock cave where the stones are superheated overnight and radiate scorching levels of hear throughout the day. The heat can exceed 199 degree F, and in old pictures you see people wearing wool sauna hats to protect their heads. Nobody wore these when I went in, or, if they did, I didn't see it -- my girlfriend insists attendants in there looked like executioners with hoods on their heads, so perhaps they had hats like that.
They spoke only Russian and so mostly communicated by shoving their clients into position, and paused frequently to dump massive buckets of ice water over themselves. There baths also have an ice cold pool that most waded into, yelped for a few seconds, and then ran out of. This is what I did. And it is what I wanted -- a proper cultural experience should be a little bit of a shock to the system.
The attendants provided platza massages, which are very soapy and use bound leafy branches to scrub the body. I had considered doing so, but instead I watched and generally got the idea. The bath was simply too hot for me to consider lying there for 15 minutes to get massaged with branches. Perhaps in the future, although both the sauna hat and the platza branches (called veniks) are available for purchase online, and I have a shower that gets extremely hot, so I may simply DIY this particular experience.
The 10th Street Baths also have a dining area with Russian food. I ordered red borscht, which is hot and oniony and delicious, and pelmeni, or Russian dumplings, like little peirgoies. The food was uniformly delicious, even if the cook seemed to have wandered over from Boris week and interjected with everyone with a gruff irritability that is either charming or appalling, depending on what you want or expect from food service.
All told, I probably spent about two and a half hours there. There baths used to be relatively cheap, but now charge day spa prices, but even still it seemed a pretty good deal for the amount of time I spent (and the food is cheap). I'll probably try another shvitz when I got to New York -- there's one in Coney Island, just blocks from where my mother grew up and probably studiously avoided. Add that to the bucket list.
That's the secret to this bucket list, by the way. For everything that gets crossed off, something new gets added, sometimes several new things. Culture isn't something you do once and then mark it done. It's something you keep doing, and do more of, and try doing in new ways, and more, and longer.
There is a real possibility I will be living in a Russian baths with three years. I wouldn't put it past myself.
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