When Michael Stamler, 23, goes to the gym, he’s got a lot of tapes to choose from to get himself in the mood.
“Perl,” for example. Or, if “Perl” doesn’t quite get his juices flowing, he can turn to “Viener.” If “Viener” doesn’t get him pumped, Stamler can always listen to “Krohn.”
“Perl,” “Viener” and “Krohn” aren’t hip hop, R&B or electronica artists; they’re rabbis. These Orthodox sages of Brooklyn, reading and expounding on Torah or Talmud in Stamler and other gym-goer’s headphones, really get the endorphins going.
The tapes of the three rabbis, and others, are stacked up on a shelf at the Kosher Gym on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, available to anyone who wants to work out to them. They are not the only fare at Kosher Gym. “There’s also Jewish techno,” Stamler said. “It’s like, ‘Duh, duh, duh, we love God.’”
Kosher Gym is actually two gyms: A men’s gym in a tremendous yellow and black building in the Midwood section of Brooklyn (“A blind person could see it from 20 miles away it’s so yellow,” said one of the employees) and a women’s gym in a less ostentatious building a block away. Since its inception five years ago, it has attracted thousands of observant Jews from all over Brooklyn who feel a need to lose weight. Modestly.
“The reason [most people come] is they don’t want to be with females,” said Joey Weinstein, the brown haired, buff fellow behind the counter at Kosher Gym, who wouldn’t look out of place at any gym around the country if not for the black velvet yarmulke on his head. “You go into a [normal] gym and the females, they’re basically naked.”
Weinstein continued, “How can you work out like that?”
Likewise, the women who attend the all-female Kosher Gym on the next block don’t need to worry about wearing their skirts or wigs in order to be dressed modestly when they’re working out.
At four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, there is a sprinkling of men lifting weights and bench-pressing; one man with a long gray beard, a yarmulke, black pants and white button-down shirt gets on the treadmill and, instead of listening to the rabbis on tape, decides to watch Fox News on one of the oversized television screens.
Not everybody wears button-down shirts when they workout. Stamler, whose beard is only about a month old (following a Jewish tradition, he hasn’t shaved since the counting of the “omer” began during Passover) wears a t-shirt, orange shorts and a skullcap.
“I usually come three or four times a week,” Stamler told the Forward after he had finished lifting a set of weights. He patted his stomach. “I had to lose my stomach. I just got married and my wife is cooking up a storm.”
In addition to the lines of weights and treadmills, the downstairs has a sauna and a locker room. There are empty studios where the men attend karate classes, yoga classes and every other kind of class one would expect to see at New York Sports Club. The front counter, where Weinberg checks members in, is stocked up with power bars, peanut butter granola bars, and energy shakes (all kosher, of course).
Down the block, the women’s gym is equally well equipped and modest, and has attracted throngs of weight-conscious women.
The Orthodox world — although many in it are reluctant to admit it — is susceptible to the larger American culture. The emphasis on looking good is not lost on young unmarried women or on recent mothers who want to reshape their figures. Accordingly, Kosher Gym draws Orthodox women from Crown Heights to New Jersey.
“We have about 2,000 members,” said Myra Tawil, who helps run the women’s gym. “We offer them, naturally, babysitting; we give them all the services, whatever to make them very comfortable.”
Tawil gives a reporter a list of Kosher Gym’s training packages, which include the “Kallah” (bridal) package and the “B’Shah Tova” post-pregnancy deal.
“Women always want to look good,” said Frieda Shor, who works at Kosher Gym. “After having kids, before having kids…”
Sometimes, while having kids.
“There was one [pregnant] woman who came until the last day of her pregnancy,” Tawil said. “I said, ‘Don’t have the baby here!’”
For some women, Kosher Gym has become even more than a workout spot. Shor believes it is as much a social scene as an aerobics exercise.
Although the gym stays closed on the Sabbath, anxious members often line up on Saturday night after sundown for the gym to open up for a few hours.
“They come before me,” Shor said. “No joke, they stand outside before me. You’re eating the entire weekend — what [is a weight conscious] person going to do? You might as well work it off. Saturday nights the place is crazy.”
At midnight, the women are sent home. “They don’t want to leave at midnight,” Shor said. “If it was up to them they’d sleep on the treadmill.”