So, for my nephew’s high school graduation (CHHS ’08), I went with my nephew, my brother, two of my brothers’ friends and one of my newphew’s friends (son of one of the adults in our group) to the Shvitz in Cleveland! There is no directory assistance listing for this place, there is no web site, there is no street address on the building and no sign on the outside identifying what it is. The building is down an alley that doesn’t go to anything else. There is a dirt/gravel parking lot behind the building. Basically, the only way to find/go to this place is if you’ve been there before or are taken by a friend. This is in a neighborhood that was the old Jewish neighborhood (Kinsman Road) like 60-70 years ago, I guess. Now it’s very run down – you can probably get an idea from the above pictures of the outside of the building.
After parking your car in the lot, you enter the small door that simply says ENTRANCE. Inside the doorway there is a sign that tells you to go upstairs. Upstairs there is a small kitchen area and eating area (I wouldn’t go as far as to call this a dining room) and then there is the ‘locker room’. The locker room is really more than a locker room although when you enter it it is so dimmly lit it is a little difficult to tell what you are looking at. Basically, after your eyes adjust, you see that there are two rows of table height cots. The cots in each row are side-by-side, parellel to and touching each other. The only way to get on a cot is from the end of the cot. The head end of the cots has some elevation to and the foot end of both rows of cots are off the central aisle. There are small outer aisles at the head of each row of cots and the lockers line the two walls on the other side of these aisles. At the far end of the room are two additional cots that are used if you take a massage.
Once in the locker room you pick an empty locker and strip off all your clothes. You can use a lock if you brought one or get a lock from the pile by the top of the stairs – but all the locks in this pile use the same key!
Once undressed it’s time to head back downstairs. At the top of the stairs there are some shelves with a sign that you may take up to 2 towels. Now with our towels we head downstairs.
At the bottom of the stairs you go through a doorway into a good sized room. Cement walls and floor all around, no windows. On one wall are a couple open showers – showerheads with water valves. In a corner on another wall is a urinal. Along one side of this big room is a low wall, about 4′ high. Toward one end of this wall is an opening with a couple steps that go down into a not full sized swimming pool.
Finally, on another side of this room is a door that is the entrance into the Shvitz – Steam Room. Enter the Shvitz and you are in another dimly lit room. On one side is a plain wall with a square opening into the gas oven that is the heart of this activity and this place. Along the opposite side of the room are a series of wide, tiered wooden steps that get you pretty close to the ceiling. You pick the altitude you want, lay your towel down on the wood and have a seat and start to sweat. There is probably room for about 30 guys in these tiers. You just hang out, sweat and kibbitz with your friends and whoever is sitting near you. On the wall with the oven door there is a big sign that reads “Do Not Throw Water in Oven – Ask Attendant”. Only problem is, there is no attendant. I started on the top tier and it wasn’t too bad. After a while my brother, who has been to the Shvitz before, got down and filled the bucket next to oven door, sprinkled in a little peppermint oil he had brought, and then heaved this 5 gallons worth of water into the black abyss of the oven. There was a whoosh of sound an almost immediately, across the room on the top tier – I fealt like the oxygen had been removed from the room and been replaced with searing heat! I immediately dropped down two levels so that I could breathe. Some of the more hearty guys actually stayed up there.
For me part of this great evening was sitting in that room and thinking about my dad, uncle and grandfather – that have all been gone for quite a long time – and the fact that they had come here together probably 65 years ago and sat on these same wooden steps.
When you want/need a break from the steam you exit the steam room, walk to the other side of the outter room and jump (I don’t think there is any slow way to enter) into the pool. It’s making me shiver right now just writing this. Then out of the pool and back into the steam. You do this process as many times as you like until you can’t take it any more or are just ready to continue the evening.
After the steam, if you want, just mosey up to one of the shower heads in the outter room, rinse off, soap up and rinse off if you want – then grab your dry towel that you should have left outside the steam room to wrap yourself and head back upstairs.
At the top of the stairs, where we got the towels, you are also allowed to take one sheet. The sheet is your new wrap as we return to the locker room and climb up onto a cot to just RELAX! There is no alcohol served at the Shvitz but people that know, know to bring their own. I think we started with a bottle of Jack Daniels and several glasses in our group. Just sipping a drink, laying back, and kibbitzing amongst ourselves in the dimly lit room. Unless you’ve done this yourself I am not sure if it’s possible to really know how relaxing this really is. Eventually it’s time to move on and we climb off our cots and move back to the eating area. This is a room with a bunch of formica topped tables probably like the kitchen table my family had when I was a kid.
In this room are a bunch of what I believe were mostly Jewish guys wrapped in various fashions with their sheets. Now the Shvitz is located in Cleveland and Ohio has a “No Smoking” law. I am not sure what all the details of the law are but I can tell you that cigar smoking is almost everywhere in this room. So you have all these guys wearing sheets, smoking cigars and drinking whiskey and wine. There is a guy who doesn’t look like what you would expect a waiter to look like – and he is the waiter. He brings a basket of rye bread and some margin. Next he brings a plate of hot peppers, pickled sweet peppers and pickles. I ate some of the sweet peppers and they were delicious. Especially with some whiskey or Slivovitz.
Eventually the waiter guy asks us what we would like to eat. The menu here is not too complicated – rib steak, yellow fin tuna or chicken. It seems like most people have steak – that’s what I had. If you order steak you pick the size you would like – small, medium, large or extra large. If you see all of these on plates side by side, and look from the top down, they all look the same. The size dictates the thickness. In the kitchen/grill area there is a band saw and a side(s) of beef – they cut your steak to order. You also can choose the preparation for your steak (or fish or chicken). You can have them grilled and 1) coated in chopped garlic, 2) with onions or/and 3) with hot peppers. I had a medium steak, prepared medium and with the garlic – it was FANTASTIC. Only other choices are a side salad or a baked potatoe.
So the six of us sat around in our sheets, many smoking stogies (not me – I couldn’t even stand cigars when I was a smoker), eating, drinking, talking and having a terrific time. We had arrived around 6pm to start this event and at 9:30 p.m. we closed the place up.
If you have read this entire discourse I hope it has been of some interest to you. It will help me to periodically go back and re-enjoy this experience for times when it is too inconvenient to make the 500 mile round trip – or when the Shvitz is out of season.