If you’re a Cleveland Jewish man and have never been to The Schvitz, you are a disgrace. Real Cleveland Jewish men will regularly malign you, impugning your Jewish bona fides.
The Schvitz is at East 116 Street and Luke, off Kinsman Road (a lousy neighborhood). The Schvitz has no sign.
The Schvitz’s official name is something like the Mt. Pleasant Russian-Turkish Baths. Some people call it the Bathhouse. Some people call it the Temple of the Holy Steam.
Most people call it The Schvitz. It has photos of Mussolini, Dayan and Patton on the walls. That’s it for decorations.
There are three acceptable responses to “Have you ever been to The Schvitz?” a) I held my stag there. b) I was there with my father. c) My grandfather took me there.
The Big Five Russian or Turkish-style schvitzes are in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland. I got this list from Billy Buckholtz, the pleytse guy at the Cleveland schvitz. Billy’s grandfather was the original pleytse guy. ( Pleytse is the rubdown traditionally done with a broom of soaked oak leaves. Buckholtz uses a seaweed broom and horsehair brush.)
Cleveland isn’t coed. Most of the other schvitzes are. The Detroit schvitz even used to have an orgy night. The Cleveland schvitz never went coed (aside from a short experiment in the 1970s), because the neighborhood is so bad. Why encourage women to come to Kinsman?
In The Schvitz’s heyday, it catered to immigrant factory workers who dropped in after work “to get the creosote off their skin, knock down a few shots and get a pleytse,” Buckholtz said. “The immigrants didn’t want to wait in line with their eight kids for the only bathtub at their house.” Billy told me all this at a Yiddishe Cup gig at an art gallery, not at The Schvitz.
I’m not crazy about steam.
I get periodic Schvitz invitations from the Brothers in Perspiration, an ad-hoc group of Cleveland Heights Jews. The email subject line reads, “Have a serious jones for the stench of sweat, mildew, steak, cigar, garlic?” That sounds good, except for the cigar, sweat, mildew and steam.
I’m due back at The Schvitz. My bona fides. My bona fides….
Bert Stratton is the leader of Yiddishe Cup, a klezmer band.