TAKING A SCHVITZ: Where Chicago Jews gather to engage in the age-old Jewish tradition of turning up the heat to clear the body and mind

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Who wants to sweat?

Really sweat?

The answer is unanimous in the squat brick building labeled “Sauna,” “Bania” and “Schvitz” on Cicero Avenue in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood. The humidity hits a visitor simply walking in the door. Sticking one’s head into the Turkish bath contained within is akin to dropping a piece of chicken into boiling water.

And the clients of Chicago Sweatlodge simply love it.

From old-school kibitzers to Russian Jewish immigrants to celebrities that include Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jr., all men are created equal at one of the last vestiges of a Jewish-centric culture of bathhouses, fondly known as schvitzes. The removal of three-piece suits and shmatas alike breaks the patron down to his birthday-suit basics as the bearers’ bodies heat up to their outer limits.

Modesty is not the policy despite a sign in the hallway: “Please Wear Your Wrap…We don’t want to scare the newbies.” Chicago Sweatlodge is truly a boys club as schvitzers walk around or sit naked, without pretense. This is the last place possible for the new-age term of “body shaming.” All sizes and shapes purge themselves of natural clogs and seriousness.

The greatest appeal of the successor to traditional bathhouses on Division Street and other old neighborhoods is not the Venusian level temperatures in the two saunas, but the fellowship and bubbe-meises told.

You’d figure the latter is in play when Fred Schwartz, overdressed by the Sweatlodge’s standards with two strategically-placed towels, sits down in the well-appointed eight-table dining room and taps into his storyteller’s talents that are a staple in and out of the heat.

“When they were filming the ‘Blues Brothers’ here (in 1979), my cousin, Joyce Sloan, was a producer at Second City,” said veteran schvitz attendee Schwartz. “I met John Belushi and the whole team. I took them with me to Division Street Bathhouse. So they started coming to the bathhouse. Belushi starts coming every day.

“There was an old Jewish guy at the bathhouse, Moe Gelfand. He didn’t take any heat. He just sat there, and sold jeans and socks like on Maxwell Street. He sees Belushi waiting out in the front of the place. ‘What are you doing out here?’ he asks Belushi. Seems his driver was late. ‘I’ll drive you (to the movie shoot), Johnny,’ Moe tells him. Long story short, Belushi hires Gelfand to be his driver  — in his ’72 Nova – during the movie.

“He’s driving Belushi around for months. But one day he can’t find Belushi and Belushi owes him some money. So he walks into the bathhouse and says, ‘I’m done with Belushi. He’s passe, he’s a hophead, he’s water under the bridge. I’m done with him.’ So at the end of the day, Belushi owes him $50 and it’s the end of the chauffeur job.”

Similar old Russian, Ukrainian and Polish stories are exchanged at the Sweatlodge, begun in 2007 by Leon Toia, a former co-owner of the Leona’s pizzeria chain. Amid cultural changes and population shifts that crimped traditional bathhouses closer to downtown, Toia figured the demand for a schvitz was still steady. And with the heavy immigration from Eastern Europe, where the bathhouse culture is ingrained, Toia figured right.

The Sweatlodge has up to 25,000 individual visits per year with many hundreds of regulars, estimated manager Bill Trotter. He added the oldest customer may be “a 95-year-old Jewish guy named Joe who comes in on Monday with his grandson who’s in his 30s.” Red Rose, another regular, journeys through heavy city traffic from 103rd and Pulaski, arriving in late morning and staying through early evening.

The place is a true United Nations.

“We have only two employees whose native language is English,” Trotter said.

The routine is beloved. Customers boil themselves in either the Turkish or Russian baths, heated up to 180 degrees. Then they dip themselves in ice-cold water. Rinse and cleanse is the concept. They might repeat it multiple times. In between, the schvitzers can obtain a massage applied by an Eastern European practitioner.

But the fellowship, the conversation, the tall stories, the locker-room talk that no doubt is politically incorrect glues the whole thing together. Patrons sit nude in a lounge outside the saunas or sate their palates in the dining room. They can avail themselves of numerous imported beers and a modest menu. The soups, including a filling seafood concoction, are an entire meal of their own.

Like baseball, schvitzing is best passed down from father (or grandfather) to son.

“I was being schlepped since I was 4,” said Schwartz, who went to the hothouses on North Avenue and under the Sunset Bowling Alley on Western Avenue north of Touhy in West Rogers Park.  “I absolutely hated it. I was being dragged there once or twice a week by my father (Sam Schwartz) and grandfather (Morris Schwartz).

“As soon as I was old enough, I stopped going, because I couldn’t figure out what these fat, old, ugly Jewish guys were doing naked, sitting in a room getting hot. A lot of card games, good deli food in the old days. But then as an adolescent, I sort of re-discovered it with my own group of friends. I now come religiously. I’m 63 years old.

“It’s an equalizer. You come here, you’re butt naked with gangsters, judges, attorneys, bankers, laborers. Equal ground. It’s a big camaraderie.”

In the lounge, Skokie resident Mickey Rotman cooled off between schvitzes.

“I’ve been going to one schvitz or the other for 60 years,” he said. He recalled how the Sunset Bowl schvitz was “strange because we were told the heat from the schvitz warped the bowling alley.” Nearby attractions were Talbott’s rib joint – now an Irish pub — and a liquor store.

Rotman commuted straight up Western to the schvitz. He lived by Irving Park Road in North Center. “I was the only Jew in the area,” he said. “Your friends are here. I liked the feel of the heat. And if you’ve never had a back rub from the Russians, you don’t know what you’re missing.”

Sitting across the aisle from Rotman were Vince Divarco and Marcus Dodd. Kosher, non-kosher and in-between backgrounds always mesh here.

“I’m half-Italian, half-Yiddish,” said Divarco, mimicking the ethnicity of a Runyonesque bookie character from West Rogers Park who used to sit high up in Wrigley Field right-field bleachers in the 1970s. “I go back to Western Avenue, North Avenue, Division Street since I was 8 years old. I definitely say I’ve got 55 years in.”

Dodd, a six-year veteran at the Sweatlodge, is an African American – and almost an honorary Jew.

“One of the reasons I like to come is everyone brings their different backgrounds, part of their culture, here,” he said. “I’ve actually learned many things about Jewish tradition. I’ve been invited to Passover Seders. They bring their Jewishness to the forefront here.”

After Jesse Jackson, Sr. made his infamous remark about “Hymietown,” he showed up at his favorite schvitz prior to Sweatlodge’s opening. He heard about it from his Jewish fellow schvitzers, but not in the way you’d expect.

“We just ribbed him about it,” said Rotman. “We teased him and he took it. Why he said it I don’t know, and I don’t care. He’s a nice man. And I agree with him on 95 percent of what he says.”

The cross-pollination of cultures is reflected in an annual tradition at the Sweatlodge. “Schvitzmas” is celebrated when Jewish customers bring their favorite foods to the dining room at holiday time in December.

Camaraderie at room temperature is one thing, but tolerance of temperatures hotter than anything recorded at worldwide weather stations was still a puzzlement to a visitor who spent $135 of his bar mitzvah money for one of two Whirlpool window air conditioner units in the spring of 1970.

Apparently the warmth of personalities extends to extreme physical stamina, especially in the contrast of boiling heat and the “arctic” water for the freeze-down.

“I don’t think you have to learn to love the heat,” Rotman said. “It’s hot in there and it feels good.”

Said Schwartz: “Clearly it’s a way of cleansing the skin, and relaxing your body and your mind. Turn the valves down and let it go. It’s a healthy, inexpensive way of trying to take time.

“Anybody we bring here, they say they got a steamroom at my health club, what are we coming here for? They either come and they’re addicted — they come for the rest of their lives – or they never come back. It’s a love-hate thing. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”

Sweatlodge manager Trotter said hotboxes traditionally were looked at as a means of improving health in far-less medically knowledgeable eras.

“What happens is when you go into the heat is everything expands,” he said. “Then, when you jump into the cold water, everything contracts. It’s good for circulation. I think it’s also what you’re used to. Often times, someone will come into the sauna, they can’t sit in there as long as (the regulars).

“In the heat, your body is tricked in a way to thinking you have a fever. So you’re immune system kicks in just a little bit. I’ll have people coming in with a cold trying to bump it out. More than that, the heat is good for all the organs in your body. Everything expands.

“You’re in control the whole time. There are three levels of benches in there. The higher you are, the hotter it gets. After you’re in the heat and in the water, the feeling you get is tremendous.”

Trotter said the typical Sweatlodge regular repeats the process of heat-and-cold along with backrubs “five to six times” per visit.

Turkish Wet Stone Sauna is full of water and humidity, set at 180 to 190 degrees. Turkish sultans regularly used it for themselves. Occasionally, they mandated their numerous wives also use it, too.

The absolute contrast is the 42-degree pool.

“You notice it when you hit the water,” said Trotter. “But you’re in and out. It’s a pool you stand in. My experience is when you get done and sit in one of those chairs, it knocks you out. It’s a really great nap.”

Meanwhile, the Russian Dry Cedar Sauna operates a bit differently. A traditional type of bathing in Eastern Europe, Russian villagers built “banias” near their houses. First and foremost, banias were used as bathrooms. But even as more modern bathrooms appeared, people still were using banias constantly.

“They have oak leaves tied into branches,” said Trotter. “Somebody will lay down and another will tap the skin with the branches, which opens the pores.” Although the majority of Eastern European customers patronize the Russian bath, some have done the crossover routine into the Turkish sweatbox.  

One group of customers the Sweatlodge has not locked up are women. Trotter said the facility has tried special women’s days to limited success. With growing workout regimes like “hot yoga,” women have plenty of alternatives. And it doesn’t seem like a “Jewish” thing.

“The old Division Street bathhouse’s women’s side was not used,” said Trotter. “I haven’t had a lot of Jewish women ask (for schvitz time).”

The traditional Jewish groups come most frequently on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Saturday morning, older Russian Jews predominate. At other times, several generations of Russians come in, breaking in their children to the schvitz in the traditional manner.

Apparently, the immigrants won’t be the only ones continuing the schvitz into the coming decades. Trotter has noticed a group of millennial guys increasingly coming at regular times to the location, which is centrally located for the former group from Logan Square and the traditional kibitzers in the northern suburbs.

“To them, it’s a new thing,” he said of the “newbies.” “They’ll spend the whole day here. They like the culture. They like the camaraderie. They don’t really find it (elsewhere) in the culture.”

The slickly-produced commercials plug gyms that turn out to be cold-blooded. The person working out next to you on the elliptical won’t say a word. But sweat even more at the schvitz, and you’ll have new friends coming out of your pores.

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