A new generation reconnects with Old World traditions at a storied Detroit bathhouse
It’s been two long and cold winters since Viktor Ferdman lost his wife of 62 years to a failing heart. And after more than six decades together, he can’t get used to life without his beloved Fradiya — and probably never will.
But even though she’s gone, he hasn’t lost the will to go on. He still walks 4 miles a day, followed by a vigorous calisthenics routine. He enjoys socializing and tells me there have even been some new ladies in his life lately. “Just to help regulate the blood pressure,” he says with a boyish wink from the back seat of the sedan.
We’re on our way to a forlorn stretch of Detroit’s North End neighborhood, where a nondescript gray brick building houses The Schvitz Health Club. Because, in addition to regular exercise and casual dating, Viktor also swears by the curative powers of a good steam and the camaraderie that comes with it. He’s been going to the Russian banya since he was a boy in Kiev, and, a few months shy of his 86th birthday, he’s not about to stop now.
It’s not just the health benefits of an artificial fever that keep him coming back. The importance of the bathhouse in Russian culture cannot be overstated. There’s a popular Russian phrase — s’legkim parom! — that literally translates to “with light steam” but is the linguistic equivalent to bon appetit. The plat du jour for Russians? An intense sweat bath.
Yes, for many Russians and their Slavic brethren, a trip to the banya is as central to life as eating.
A good sweat bath in the parilka, or steam room, has been called a “first doctor” for any ailment (vodka being the second).
Even the poorest Russian villages had a banya, and, under the Soviets, large communal bathhouses were built for the USSR’s proletarian city dwellers.
Of course, working up a sweat isn’t limited to Russian culture. The Russian word banya itself is derived from the Latin balneum, which were small bathhouses in ancient Rome. The steam room of the Russian banya shares similarities with Native American sweat lodges, Turkish hammams, and Finnish saunas — all with slightly different proportions of heat and humidity.
But no matter what flavor, the ancient ritual of sweat bathing is finding new enthusiasts around the country. San Francisco’s four-year-old Archimedes Banya hosted the first-ever “Perfect Sweat Summit” in 2014. In Minnesota, with its thick Finnish roots, the tiny-house movement has spawned a mobile sauna revolution for the hipster set. And in 2012, a former Goldman Sachs banker made headlines when he opened New Jersey’s first authentic Russian-style banya, flown in from Moscow.
But Detroit’s stake in the sweat-bathing trend goes back much further. The Schvitz Health Club is one of the country’s few remaining traditional men’s banyas from the early 20th century, still going strong in its 86th year, much like Viktor Ferdman.
The biggest change Schvitz manager, Dima (who asked his last name not to be used), has seen in his two decades there? An uptick in younger patrons.
“And by younger I mean people in their mid-30s and early 40s,” he tells me from across the table of the Schvitz’s main-floor lounge.
A Bygone Era: To experience the Schvitz is to travel back in time. The tattered black leather banquettes in the lounge were last remodeled in the 1970s.
Hot Stuff: The simple recipe of the banya is heat and humidity, orchestrated by the paril’shchik — the person who throws water on the hot rocks in the steam room
As a Russian-speaking immigrant of the ex-Soviet Republic of Lithuania, I’ve been going to the banya for as long as I can remember. But the frequency and zeal have increased over the last few years as I’ve crested decidedly into adulthood. Because, along with the pseudo-masochistic pleasures of sitting naked in a 200-degree room while being beaten with birch branches, the banya experience also includes post-steam debauchery, which consists of copious amounts of food and drink and male bonding.
Usually it’s Viktor Ferdman, my dad, and me — three generations. We go to the Schvitz to meet up with a rag-tag crew of Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, and other men from the former USSR. Everyone brings a little something for the spread. Think cold-smoked mackerel, pickled herring, Polish kielbasa, homemade sauerkraut, Lithuanian black bread, boiled potatoes, beets with horseradish, vodka, and beer.
Three days a week, the Schvitz (Yiddish slang for “sweat”) is a private, men-only club where you can BYOB or order something from the on-site kitchen in between sweat sessions.
“We all used to live under one government,” Viktor says in between shots of cognac on our most recent visit. “And when there’s a place where it’s possible to meet all nationalities, it’s very pleasant. Because everyone forgets what’s going on in our motherland, what kind of hostilities there are between nationalities and republics. It’s a place for communion.”
It’s not just for Soviet immigrants, either. In almost nine decades, the clientele has been composed of plenty of American-born men with Italian, Irish, Polish, Chaldean, German, and African roots. Ethnic Jews have always been a mainstay.
But it’s the freaky stuff that goes on upstairs on Saturday nights that earns the Schvitz its slightly lurid reputation. Saturday is “Couple’s Night,” Detroit’s 40-year-old little-kept secret spot for indulging in the swinger lifestyle. There are only two rules to Couple’s Night: You must show up as a one-man, one-woman couple, and no money is to be exchanged. After that, almost anything goes.
But on Sundays — our days — there are only Dima’s nonspecific stories of the night before and bashful smiles of men with imaginations but no firsthand experiences.
This particular Sunday is unusual, because it’s just me, Viktor, and my friend Alex Mossine, whom I’ve known since birth and with whom I’ve shared a number of good sweats on both sides of the pond. We were supposed to go with the usual crew a few weeks back, but the rendezvous was canceled at the last minute. Work and familial obligations — the things you go to the Schvitz to get away from — interfered.
I begged my dad to go anyway, but he demurred.
There’s an old Russian proverb: “In the banya all are equal.” The Bolsheviks might’ve brought Communism to Russia, but the banya’s humbling power long ago leveled the huddled paunchy masses. Stripped naked of your worldly image, all vestiges of class disappear. In the banya there are no designer brands to project your personal style, no gold jewelry to show off your deep pockets, and no latest iPhone at your hip to show you’re connected.
We are all perfect under God and ruddy in the steam room.
But there is one role that rises above the rest — that of paril’shchik, the person who throws the water on the hot rocks of the steam-room oven. Because the pleasure of the Russian banya is derived partly from a deceptively simple recipe of heat (between 150 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity (somewhere around 60 percent), it pays to know a good water-thrower.
In our crew, that’s my dad.
The Schvitz steam room is pretty large at roughly 20 by 25 feet, with four levels of wooden benches jutting from the walls, bleacher-style. In one corner of the room is a gas-powered oven that heats up six tons of pumpkin-sized stones until they glow with intense heat. Steam is created by throwing buckets of water on the stones through the oven’s open door. Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, the highest rows of benches are hit with the most heat.
My dad’s buckets have been known to send even the hardiest men scurrying for the lower levels. But with my dad in Thailand, Viktor, Alex, and I made our way to the Schvitz one Sunday.
To experience the Schvitz is to travel back in time. The faded brown carpet, red-brick walls, tattered black leather banquettes, and discolored drop-ceiling panels of the lounge and locker areas reflect four decades of tobacco smoke and damp bodies since their last remodeling in the 1970s. Even the resident parrot, Nemo, dates back to that era, sometimes squawking obscenities that he’s picked up over the years.
The front hallway of the bathhouse is plastered with newspaper articles written about the place over the years. One Detroit Free Press article from 1980 details how the place was under constant FBI surveillance in the late ’60s and early ’70s thanks to its colorful cast of patrons.
Decades earlier, the place was a known hangout of the notorious Purple Gang, who would talk business in the steam room. It was an ideal place for shady deal-making — you could be certain your naked compatriots weren’t wearing wires, and the humidity made it impossible for the government to bug the place.
Black inlaid tile by the pool in the basement spells out the year things last changed down here: 1930. The Schvitz’s history is steeped in the culture of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants that once populated the surrounding neighborhood.
Eighty-six years ago, Charles Meltzer and his son, Harry B. Meltzer (cousin of Purple Gang associate Harry “Chinky” Meltzer), opened the Oakland Health Club on the site of a former dance hall at Oakland Avenue and Melbourne Street. With the help of Eugene “Toots” Johnson, they hand-dug the basement to accommodate a steam room, a swimming pool, and a Jewish mikvah (small immersion bath).
“There were no fewer than a dozen bathhouses in 1930s Detroit. These bathhouses were not only social meeting places but were hygienic necessities serving the cold water flats and apartments of the ethnic neighborhoods,” writes Gary Sosnick on his website, OakLeafBroom.com, dedicated to the memory of the Oakland Bath House. “But the Russian steam room tradition was decidedly a Jewish one, and the bathhouse on Oakland Avenue remains as its last and finest example.”
Harry Meltzer lost the Oakland Health Club to foreclosure in 1976 and a trio of regulars bought it from the bank for $15,000, undertaking a half-million-dollar renovation of the main floor and renaming the place the Schvitz, as it was informally called all along. The mikvah was converted into a jacuzzi. Toots remained the cook and general manager for a tenure that surpassed 50 years. He was still around when Dima arrived from the USSR in 1980.
Having managed the place himself for nearly two decades, Dima is in his late 60s now. The proverbial venik — the bundle of damp birch or oak leaves used to whip or “massage” yourself and your banya compatriots — will have to be passed on soon.
But the future is uncertain for the Schvitz. For starters, the neighborhood has grown increasingly rough. Three nearby buildings have burned down in the last year. Secondly, the place is in serious need of renovations.
“When we counted how much money is needed to put in here, it’s a rather large sum,” Dima says. “You basically need to build a new health club. All that would be left is the walls. Everything else needs to be redone.”
After 86 years, he says he doesn’t think the Schvitz will be closing its doors anytime soon, but it all depends. For now the expenses are covered and there’s a small profit, thanks in part to its regulars, some who are there twice a week.
It’s quiet today — no big bacchanal going on despite being a few weeks before Christmas. There’s just a small group of young Ukrainians hanging out in their towels at a corner table when we arrive. We quickly disrobe, put our clothes in the lockers, grab two towels — one to sit on and one to cover the head — and walk downstairs in nothing more than our flip-flops. The parilka feels good today, hot and humid but not too much of either. It’s empty, save for us — the perfect opportunity to practice my water-throwing skills in my father’s absence.
I fill a bucket with water. Is it too much? I second-guess myself and dump a little down the drain.
“Ready?” I ask my two compatriots, who are already deep in conversation despite a gaping 53-year age difference. They pay me no mind, so I heave the half-filled bucket toward the stones. They singe beautifully and I scurry up to the top bench next to Viktor. The invisible wave hits, makes my mouth water, and momentarily takes my breath away. I feel it in my shoulders and on my cheeks. “Oh, that’s good,” I say, the condensation building on my glistening skin.
Alex quickly climbs down a level lower, but Viktor stays on top, unfazed. Not bad for my first bucket, but not even close to my dad’s magic touch. Still, I might have potential.
After 10 minutes or so I start to get a little light-headed. I run out of the steam room and jump into the cold pool, the 40-degree water shocking me into a temporary state of euphoria that accompanies wild swings in body temperature. After floating for a moment it becomes more than I can take. I crawl out, naked and steaming. Round one is over. But this is just the beginning.
Special Thanks: Much of the early history of the Schvitz is adapted from Gary Sosnick’s website, OakLeafBroom.com.
The Schvitz Health Club is at 8295 Oakland Ave., Detroit; 313-871-9707.