I am face-down and naked as a mole rat, getting scrubbed with a mop by two old Jewish men. Typical Thursday. Periodically, one douses me with cold water; the other hands me a slice of grapefruit. I can’t breathe, and I can’t see through the sweat on my eyeballs, the only audible sound the sizzling of my own flesh—
Wait. Let’s start over.
Growing up, I was the strange kid who wore a T-shirt in the pool. Said it was because I didn’t want to risk sunburn—a line I peddled for years, even when it wasn’t sunny. But those who know me understand I have a weird puritanical streak about bodies. Especially my own. I’m obsessed with privacy to the point where I feel uneasy if there’s someone in the next shower stall at the gym. I don’t even like changing in front of the dog.
So each time my friend Mark urged me to tag along to the bathhouse on Division Street for a schvitz, that ancient custom for machers and pishers alike, I found the notion distasteful on multiple grounds. My excuses stacked and interlocked like a house of passive-aggressive Lincoln Logs. When the Division Street baths closed in 2011, I felt relieved. Then Mark moved to Houston, and that should have been that. But for an urban Jew like me, with Belarusian shtetl blood pulsing through his veins, priggish anxieties are no match for the historical pull of the schvitz. It was only a matter of time.
There is an undeniable masculinity to being confident in one’s skin. Why did guys like Mark, Saul Bellow (Chicago’s esteemed schvitz chronicler), and my own father, with his dangerously small bathrobe, possess this confidence while I did not? Was I somehow less of a man?
To find out, I contacted Warren Lupel, a former law partner of Mark’s father-in-law and one of the last of a dying breed: dedicated schvitzer. Lupel, 70, has been going to Chicago bathhouses since his Romanian father dragged him to one on Roosevelt Road when he was 11. “I enjoyed the experience, being with Dad,” says Lupel. “But the schvitz? That took some getting used to.”
He eventually learned to love the ritual, especially sucking the Chicago winter into reborn lungs with that first glorious post-schvitz breath outside. As periodic visitors to Division Street for 44 years, Lupel and his old law school buddy Joel Kruger watched the spa’s interior go from sacred to derelict. When the building closed, their tradition died—and then I came along.
The Chicago Sweatlodge is in a red brick building on a nondescript corner of North Cicero Avenue in Portage Park. Under a sign that warns against “lewd, lascivious leering,” I pay a young Russian man $25 for two decent-size towels and a pair of flip-flops. This apparently is already an improvement over Division Street, an establishment notoriously stingy in the towel department. “They’d give you two thin little rags you could barely get around yourself,” Lupel recalls. “And they wouldn’t give you any more.”
We walk through a checkered café populated by shirtless men—mainly Eurodudes and young Hispanics, eating pierogi and pork medallions—to the locker room, which looks like a man cave imagined by an eighth grader. TVs blaring ESPN. Leather chairs. Photos of NFL stadiums. Along one wall is an icy-blue arctic plunge pool. I undress quickly and wrap myself tightly in both towels, whereupon I encounter my first conundrum: Where to hang the locker key ring? My wrist? My ankle? My— No. Not going there.
“Careful when you sit down,” an aging frat-boy type tells me as I poke my head into the stifling Russian dry cedar sauna. “If you don’t sit on a towel, your ass melts into the wood.” Before I can test this notion, Lupel and Kruger beckon me into the 150-degree Turkish wet stone sauna.
To call the room hot is not sufficient. It’s soupy, hateful, and unrelenting, a boiling oven of cedar and granite that causes capillaries to dilate, heart rates to accelerate, and abject dread to flourish. Within minutes, I am drenched and delirious. Around the time my throat sears shut and I am about to black out and/or vomit, Lupel points to a bucket of cold water. “Pour it over your head,” he says. I do, and it is good. Then the process resumes and the impurities in my liver seem to be coming out my ears until—splash!—life commences again. At some point, hang-ups about nudity dissolve into the fog, leaving one thought: keep breathing.
My guides insist that I experience the ancient art of plaitza, a rubdown once performed with a broom of soaked oak leaves. Alas, the plaitza man is not due until nine. Sensing I will surely be dead by then, Lupel takes matters into his own hands. Acquiring oak leaves proves elusive, so he grabs a synthetic mop that looks like it belongs in a janitor’s bucket.
And that, dear reader, is how a neurotic never-nude like me comes to be bathed in public by two strangers. Whether I like it or not is immaterial. I do it. So free is my body that it marches to the arctic pool and plunges in, an impulsive act that goes from awesome to agonizing in 30 seconds. An hour later, the three of us are fully clothed, trading good-natured barbs with the crusty waiter at Sabatino’s over skate wing and gnocchi, as though certain members of our party hadn’t just been swabbing the slippery loins of another with soap.
Whatever it is—confidence in, acceptance of, or indifference to their bodies—Lupel and Kruger have it: I saw more square acreage of them in two hours than I had seen of my wife in months. After a few more trips to the Sweatlodge, I could have it too. Or I could go to Ukrainian Village, where Lupel and Kruger’s former hangout is about to reopen as the Red Square Spa, with coed saunas and bedrooms for overnight stays. “My vote is for the Sweatlodge,” says Lupel. “It has shower stalls rather than the old Division Street communal showers, like in a prison or the army.”
Stalls! Oh, Warren. Who needs stalls?
Illustration: Serge Bloch