“THE SHVITZ”–the story of bathhouses



The Story of Bathhouses

Amos Lassen

I just finished watching a new documentary that is amazing, “The Shvitz” (Docurama) a documentary by Jonathan Berman. This is the story of the bathhouse in America and how it is not our exclusive property. “Shvitz” is a Yiddish word for “sweat” and therefore, quite naturally, “The Shvitz” is Yiddish for bathhouse. For those of you who do not know what Yiddish is, it is a language spoken by the Jews of Eastern Europe which is now a dead language. Many of the words we use today come from Yiddish—schmuck, delicatessen, schnooze (as in “I am going to take a short schnooze”). It seems that we have thought that one of the contributions gay society has made to the civilized world is the bathhouse. Not so. The Eastern European Jews who came to American brought the idea of the sweat house with them and lovingly nicknamed them “shvitzes”.

Life in the “shvitz” was unlike life anywhere else. There was a sense of comradie, a sense of belonging and going to the baths was, in most cases, a ritual usually observed at the minimum of once a week. Unlike gay men, people went to sweat and get clean, to meet with friends and to exchange the news of the world. Nudity was the rule; men would sit for hours, buck naked, and enjoy each other’s asexual company. It is hard to imagine a group of gay men sitting around naked and just talking. For us the bathhouse is a symbol of unbridled sex and orgiastic activity.

Jonathan Bergman has created a look at the bathhouse as we never have known it. This is a funny and lively look at a world that is no more. We go behind the bathhouse doors to explore the atmosphere of the last American steam baths. The cinematography is gorgeous and the cast of characters is not one you will likely forget. There are butches and lawyers, models and rabbis, gangsters and gay and they are all naked. The one thing they all do in common is “shvitz” (sweat).

The bathhouse is largely an Eastern Europ0ean tradition that has by and large disappeared from the landscape of America. Yet there is a secret world of the bathhouse that still exists in large cities where there may be one or two “Shvitzes” left. Now basically coed, they are a remnant of a world that seems to be gone forever. They are the opposite of the high tech spas and fancy gyms that have sprung up with the maturing of the baby boomers who do not want to be identified with the world of their fathers. In the past, bathers would take a break form the routine life and wash away their troubles. They would find conversation, rejuvenation and unlikely friendships. (Unlike gay bathhouses where one can find little conversation, lots of sex, and unlikely friendships that usually dissipate after orgasm). The “Shvitz” reflects the evolution of modern life and is now little more than a passing resemblance to what it was.

“The Shvitz” captures the spirit, the warmth and the togetherness of an age old ritual that is quickly becoming a passing memory. For that reason alone, this is a worthwhile film to see.

Also on the DVD are two short films, “The City” ( a look at the changes in urban life) and “The Third Avenue El” which gives a picture of the modern city that most of us will never have the opportunity to know.

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