The Bathhouse Beckons

By E.B. Solomont

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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There is little downtime for a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, especially one who is married to another dancer and has a toddler at home.

So when ballerina Irina Dvorovenko and her husband, Maxim Beloserkovsky (also with the American Ballet Theatre), last year discovered an elegant new banya, or Russian steam bath, in New York City, they became quick devotees.

Now, as they prepare for the spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which began May 14, the couple is calling the banya, Okeanos, to book treatments during every spare moment they have. During the course of the season, Dvorovenko and Beloserkovsky have 64 scheduled performances, which can be grueling for a dancer.

Reached during the practice season, when she and her husband typically train eight hours a day, Dvorovenko described the physical and mental strain of ballet. “It’s a very difficult profession,” she said. She laughs when she recalls the couple’s initial visit to Okeanos last year. While she felt like she had been on vacation for several weeks, she said, her husband uttered only “several words.”

“It was absolutely,” she quoted him as saying, pausing to omit a word not suitable for print, “beautiful.”

Okeanos, located on East 51st Street, is the Rolls Royce of banyas in the city. Inside, masculine blue walls evoke an elegant boating theme. Plush white leather armchairs are scattered about for patrons who pad around in thick robes and slippers. A bar, stocked with vodka and blini, fills a client’s gastrointestinal cravings. The spa also features a cigar room and such services as massage therapy and facials.

Four years ago, Okeanos owner Andre Izrailov, 31, was a client at another banya in the city when he realized he would be interested in an upscale bathhouse, if one were to exist. “The gaps need to be filled,” he thought.

After college, Izrailov had gone into managing his family’s medical practice, along with his sister, Angela Israilova, who is now Okeanos’s spa director. Today, Okeanos is a family affair: Izrailov’s partner, Simon Mirzokandov, is married to Izrailov’s cousin.

But banya itself was always family oriented for Izrailov. “This was a great way of being with your father,” he said, referring to his first banya experiences in Russia, as a young child. “This is how my love for sauna came about.”

Izrailov, who is Jewish and, he said, fairly observant, celebrates the Sabbath to a certain degree. “The word pleytse itself is Yiddish for ‘shoulder,’” he said of the traditional banya treatment whose name reflects the experience’s historical Jewish threads. Among Russians, banya is “like a religion.”

As a guest of the spa, I received a massage and pleytse treatment. Pleytse is a kind of massage that uses leaves soaked in aromatherapy oils. In my case, an Okeanos employee named Sam drizzled the oils from the leaves over my back and then gently brushed them along the length of my body. With increasing tempo and strength, he scrubbed my skin, at times whacking me with the leaves.

The process is said to release toxins from the body, and for centuries Russians have been making weekly trips to banyas for this purpose. More than 100 years ago, bathhouses peppered parts of New York City as a testament to the many Jewish immigrants who enjoyed a good shvits, Yiddish for “steamroom.”

Few remain today, but as points of comparison there are a handful of bathhouses around the city, including some in Brooklyn, that cater to a mostly Russian clientele, and others in Manhattan whose longevity has elevated them to near-icon status.

Among the latter is Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street in the East Village, which opened in 1892. On its Web site, the bathhouse is billed as a “place to experience an unexpected paradise.”

On a recent visit, a friend who shvitses there regularly told me, “I heard that they renovated.” Downstairs, in a dank basement where the cold plunge and the saunas are located, I looked for signs of modernity and found few. I did see people ambling around in various states of undress, among them a Hasidic Jew, dressed in an open robe, and a few young women in bikinis.

This was a no-frills experience, and for relief from the heat I poured a cold bucket of water over my head. Despite my reservations about the overall cleanliness of the place, nothing had ever felt that good.

At Sandoony USA, located on McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn, the banya experience is more of this century. For this adventure, I went alone because my friend had pleaded sick. A desk clerk mistakenly addressed me in Russian, but was otherwise friendly and directed me toward a gleaming white pool deck and the saunas.

As I pondered the menu at Sandoony’s café (herring, Ukrainian borscht, beef stroganoff), a regular invited me to share his tea. Soon he was leading me into a steamroom, where his friend, an older man named Boris, offered me a pleytse. Minutes later, when I was delirious with heat, Boris took me by the hand and pushed me down the stairs into the cold plunge. My brain screamed as my skin hit the water. Then, relief. We did this several more times until I was dizzy and called it a night.

In a subsequent telephone conversation, I told Okeanos’s Izrailov about my banya research. I had become a devotee, although Okeanos, which is part club and part spa, barely resembled any of the other places I visited. Izrailov explained the thought behind his spa, which is named after the Greek god for water and evokes something like a ship sailing through different seas (or, metaphorically, cultures). “We wanted to have a story behind it, because New York is a cultural place,” he said. “If it is accepted here, it’s accepted anywhere.”

E.B. Solomont is a freelance writer living in New York City.


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