Brooklyn Boro

The Schvitz

February 17, 2021 William A. Gralnick
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Everyone should do an oral history of their parents.  Parents of our day almost never told their kids about themselves and their lives, lives that in many cases had real gems in them that occasionally got dug out. Those gems would make one wonder what else there was to know.

My paternal grandfather was related to the vaudevillian known as, “The Mad Russian” who toured with Eddie Cantor and who I did see a few times on the Ed Sullivan show. My mom had two cousins, one who was the agent for Judy Garland. Another cousin, his brother, was one of the great so-called “Big Band” leaders. I thought this was cool. My mom was pursued by one of the early big names in the news business—until my grandmother decided a “professional man,” in this case my father, a dentist, would be far more suitable. When her suitor showed up at the house to find an 8 x 10 picture of my young father in dental school on the piano, he took the hint.

As for my father, one such revelation was that my dad was an accomplished violinist, an instrument never seen in our house in my lifetime. His dream was to be a concert violinist. The Great Depression ended that.

One day he walked out of the house while a bunch of us were playing catch with a spauldene. He motioned for the ball and then proceeded to throw me a curve ball that looked like a rival to the one Clem Labine threw for the Dodgers. Who knew? My mother frowned on his doing anything that could bang up his fingers or hand. No pitch and catch with him.

Another was that in his youth, he was a neighborhood champion in handball and here begins the story. I think under the ruse to my mother of taking me to Coney Island, he took a detour in Brighton to the “world famous” handball courts. Here you found for hand ball players the equivalent of the almost pro street ballers on the basketball courts of Harlem. These men, many pretty well up in age, at least to my young eyes, were the legends of their game. Few wore handball gloves. For the uninitiated, a handball is about as hard as a golf ball, and not much bigger. When you hit it, you felt it and in a game of handball you hit that round rock it a lot.

My father had snuck me away to let me peek into a world he used to live in. I was mesmerized by the contortions these old guys could perform, many of them performing while carrying bellies well built on years of pastrami, corned beef, and knishes. They jumped and smacked the ball overhand, they dipped and slapped it just before it hit the ground, they raced to and fro following this round, black demon.

And the sounds, grunts, groans, occasional shouts of pain, and curses that broadened my vocabulary, a lot. The chorus of sounds was bi-lingual—English and Yiddish. As I recall, the area was the size of a school yard and it was intersected with walls making the courts. In handball, there’s no back wall. You didn’t have the option of letting the ball bounce off the back wall and then hitting it like you did in racquet ball. You had to get it before it got by you. I was told that unless there was snow on the ground you could always find a group of die-hards smacking the ball around. The “Polar Bear Club” of handball, if you will. Hard as it was in summer, I could imagine what hitting that ball in the winter would be like. A hockey puck shaped like a ball came to mind.

All of this is told to you to tell you that the players were schvitzing (sweating) like animals. The sweat was like a sheet of water that began at their hairlines. It poured down their faces, parting around the protective goggles of those who wore them. If someone played in a shirt, it was soaked through to the skin as were soon enough their shorts. Without a shirt, if someone was big-bellied, the sweat poured over their gut like water in a run of rapids, flowing over boulders. They might have been fat, but their guts were hard as rocks. You could hear feet squishing in sneakers from the sweat pooling in them.

So, we come to the grand finale, the reason some said they played altogether, the “schvitz.” This made no sense to me. In English it was “the baths.” Schvitzing was sweating. Why would one sweat one’s brains out and go “take a schvitz,” a sweat? I was to find out. The schvitz was a public steam bath. All these men, of all shapes and sizes, headed to the schvitz and waded into a heated version of the fog of London. And they were all naked as the day they were born but not nearly as cute. I had never seen a herd of naked men, but I couldn’t believe that some of these men would want to be seen naked by others. Yet there they were partaking in one of Brooklyn’s communal happenings.

This was to change or at least I became aware of the diversity one could find in the “bath community.” The Russians did it one way, the Fins another, and so on. Then came “Plato’s Retreat” and the growth in “the city” of the gay baths. Handball. Or even sweating, was not a prerequisite for going to these baths.

It can be summed up like this. In Brooklyn you learned by doing.

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