To some it was the
sweatbath (Yiddish: shvitz-bawd)... to some it was the steam bath ... to some it
was the Russian bath .. to some it was the Turkish bath.
But to Newark's large
Jewish population in the 1920s and 1930s, the three traditional old-world bath
houses were known by a simple Yiddish word, the "shvitz."
The word "shvitz"
means 'sweat', but it was also a full description for the type of bath houses
that flourished in the old Third Ward. Those who patronized these places
went to the "shvitz."
The Third Ward bath
houses, known as shvitz's, were popular for a number of reasons. For one,
they put Newark's large Jewish immigrant population in touch with their Eastern
Further, this was an
era when many Third Ward dwelling places lacked indoor plumbing or running hot
water, and the shvitz was a high-class alternative to the Montgomery Public
Baths -- one of three such city operated bath houses in Newark that enabled city
dwellers to take a hot bath for a nickel soap and towel.
For many Third
Warders, a visit to a city bath house or to one of the three shvitz's was a
With rare exceptions,
the clientele was Jewish. The Jewish tradition of sweating for health is
at least 2,000 years old. Bath houses are mentioned frequently in the
Talmud, the religious authority for traditional Judaism.
The Third Ward
shvitz's were: (1) The Mercer Baths, located at 32 Mercer Street; (2) The
Charlton Baths, located at 36 Charlton Street, and (3) The Howard Baths, located
at 147 Howard Street.
The Charlton Street
bath house was unique among the three Third Ward shvitz's because of a special
addition: It was the only one of the three that had a Mikvah.
Explaining the Mikvah
The "Mikvah" is a
Jewish ritual bath that traces its roots back to ancient times. Although
both men and women have used the Mikvah for purification in conjunction with
Jewish ritual, in the early 20th century, it had special significance for
Orthodox Jewish women.
tradition, these women who followed the Mikvah ritual, would immerse themselves
in a Mikvah following their monthly cycle, or after childbirth, to become
ritually pure and eligible to resume their normal relationships.
At the Charlton
Baths, while ladies were allowed to use the shvitz only on "Lady's Day" --
Mondays and Wednesdays -- the Mikvah was open every day. It was presided
over by a religious woman who would accompany the visitor, assist with
preparation for the immersion, and say a special prayer for her. The
Mikvah attendant was called a "Tikerin."
Other Mikvah Uses
The Mikvah at the
Charlton Baths was also used for religious conversions, where a non-Jew
converted to Judaism. For this purpose, a rabbi would be present and would
preside over the immersion procedure.
conversions took place at the Charlton Street Mikvah during the 1920s and 1930s.
Operations at the Mercer Baths
The Mercer Baths were
located at 32 Mercer Street, a six-block long street that ran westward from High
Street to Springfield Avenue, cutting into Springfield between Broome and Prince
The bath house
operation was a mom 'n pop operation.
was Isador Goldberg, son of a rabbi, who had fled from Russia at the turn of the
century to avoid the Russian Army. He later brought his wife and child to
America through 'landsleit' (people from his home village of Kiev), who helped
him get a job in a New York City Turkish bath, where he learned the 'shvitz'
business from the ground up.
Becomes Bath House Owner
By the early 1920s,
Goldberg owned and operated the Mercer Baths and his wife, Gussie, operated the
shvitz restaurant. The family residence was a couple of doors away, so
their children virtually grew up in the bath house.
The Mercer Baths was
a typical shvitz, similar to its two competitors, the Charlton and Howard baths,
with wet and dry steam, the masseurs, and all the health treatments that the
typical shvitz of the 1920s era offered.
A 1928 advertisement
for the Mercer Baths1
called it "The most Modern Bath in the State of New Jersey."
As the ad noted,
Ladies Days were Mondays and Wednesdays from noon until 10 P. M. Ladies
were not permitted to overnight.
The four masseurs or
rubbers were listed by name as each developed his own following.
The term 'cupping' in
the advertisement were universally known by those who applied or used them as
They were glass cups
that were applied to the skin by suction and were widely believed to cure a
number of bodily ailments. To get the cups to adhere a blob of cotton was
ignited to put heat into the cup after which it would enable the cup to adhere
to the body.
The application of
bahnkes was a house treatment administered only by Isadore Goldberg, the
proprietor. He'd become expert at applying the cups and once treated an
ill grandchild with them. As Goldberg's daughter recalled for me "This was
a European procedure that was supposed to be a cure-all."
The Bath's Biggest Feature
The biggest feature
at the bath house was the 'plaitza', or rubdown, using soap covered oak leaves
with a "basam" from a bucket of hot water and applied in the steam room by
'rubbers' or 'parchiks' who seemed to be able to work endlessly in the 240
degree head of wet steam room by occasionally dousing themselves with a bucket
of cold water.
The steam rooms
had benches at differing levels, the higher the level, the hotter the steam.
The customer would
stretch out on the bench and the masseur working from a wooden tub of soapy
water, would pound the customer with a brush made of flat oak leaves, and then
massage the body, front and back.
Some Other Shvitz Specialties
As mentioned earlier,
cupping or bahnkes was a specialty believed to cure almost any ailment, and
proprietor was so expert at it that he was often called upon to make house calls
to apply the cups.
Another Mercer Baths
specialty was the application of leeches, a procedure called 'leeching'2.
Leeches were usually applied to the throat, also by Goldberg, and they would
suck the supposedly poisoned blood out.
Leeching was a
popular treatment in the era of the 1920s, and some neighborhood drug stores
carried leeches in stock. Goldberg bought his leeches from the Rosenbluth
Pharmacy on Springfield Avenue near West Street.
Another feature of
the Mercer Baths was an in-house chiropodist. In the 1920s, it was a Dr.
Dillingham (with a D.S.C. after his name). In the 1930s, he was succeeded
by a Dr. Danoia.
The chiropodist had a
separate room for his operations. He trimmed nails, cut corns, and
rendered whatever foot treatments were called for.
The Hydriatic Room
In addition to an
in-house chiropodist, the Mercer Baths also had a 'Hydriatic Room'. As the
proprietor's daughter described it to me "You were put in an electric box and
only you head stuck out.
"The inside of the
box had lights in it that made you sweat, and they you'd come out and stand
against a marble wall, and the attendant in charge would turn on two hoses with
a high pressure water stream and hose you down.
He would then dry you
down and you would go into an adjacent room and lie down and take a rest.
The Mercer Pool
In addition to the
wet steam room and dry room (sauna), there was also a pool, filled with fresh,
cold well water. Proprietor Goldberg had a well drilled in the back yard
to produce the water for the shvitz pool.
After the Steam Rooms and Pool
After the shvitz
visitors had finished with the steam rooms, or pool, and the accompanying
treatments, they usually went upstairs to a dormitory-like room filled with
cots, where they would rest or nap.
Then they would go
into the Dining Room to fill the hearty appetites they had worked up during
their downstairs ordeals.
Mercer Restaurant/Dining Room
room was run by Gussie Goldberg, who had married Isadore in Russia. They
had a full-time cook, but Gussie also participated in preparing the various
Jewish food specialties that their Jewish clientele ordered and expected to find
at Mercer any time of day or night.
Some of Gussie's
specialties were thick vegetable soup, Greek salad, and traditional Eastern
The Card Games
Often after they had
eaten, some of the diners would be ushered into a special side room by Gussie,
where they sometimes played poker or pinochle, to a lesser degree, for big
These games took
place not only with the male clientele, but also on Ladies Days. Gussie
used to collect a cut from winnings, which was her payment for allowing the use
of the room.
Mercer Baths Clientele
The typical shvitz
customer at Mercer Baths would come in for the afternoon, or for the day, and go
him in the evening.
There were others who
would come and stay overnight.
The Mercer Baths was
not a hotel, but there were a few customers who lived there in lockers, and so
long as they paid their 75 cents a day, they were entitled to stay overnight.
This meant they would take all their meals in the restaurant, and it made for a
very lucrative business.
The regular Mercer
Baths clientele were mostly local Jewish businessmen, mostly from the Third Ward
-- and then, too, there was the "Jewish mob."
Zwillman, a Third-Ward-based top New Jersey mobster would arrive at the baths
with a coterie of friends and associates every Sunday night, brought to the
front door in his 16-cylinder chauffer-driven Cadillac.
Zwillman also brought
various 'business' associates (he was one of the 'big six' in nationwide
organized crime) and they would talk business while "shvitzing."
A daughter of the
shvitz owner, near 90 years old, recalled to me that at times, Longy would take
over the whole restaurant. He always brought a crowd with him, she
recalled...he never traveled alone.
Source of Oak Leaves for Plaitza at Mercer
The daughter of the
proprietor shared with me a recollection of how the oak leaves used by the
"Parchiks" (rubbers/masseurs) at the Mercer Baths were obtained.
"Every year," she
recalled, "just before the spring of the year, my father would assemble the
parchiks and load them into his open touring car, and go into the woods to pick
"They would tie the
leaves into bundles and bring them back and dry them on the roof of the bath
"It was illegal, but
they never got caught. They knew where to go and they would be gone for
two or three days and bring the leaves back flat. After they had been
dried out, they would be used in the steam for months to come.
Recollections of Visits to the Howard Baths
My own recollection
of visiting a Third Ward bath house dates back to the 1920s when I was five or
six years old. I'd been a sickly, asthmatic child and my mother had
convinced my father that a visit to the shvitz might be helpful for my various
We walked together,
my father and I, over to the Howard Baths, the Howard Street establishment being
the nearest bath house to our cold-water living premises at 29 Montgomery
My recollections of
that long-ago visit are vague, but I do vividly remember my father leading me by
the hand, both of us wearing nothing, into a dismally lit, fiery hot steamy room
with stepped up wooden benches.
My father spoke to a
masseur, called a rubber then, and he stretched me out flat, face down, on the
second-level wooden step and started whacking me with a bunch of hot, wet soapy
The soap quickly
reached into my eyes, and I wiggled free, slid down to the floor level, and ran
screaming from the steamy inferno into the cold outside.
I recall it as one of
the scariest experiences of my life, and I have since never allowed anyone to
lay a hand on me for any reason, except for medical examinations, in the more
than 75 years since that day.
Seymour Pierce's Recollection of the Howard Baths
What I recall mostly,
says Seymour Pierce, a fellow Third Warder and longtime Newark native, was going
to the Howard Baths with my father. I was in the ice cold pool, and all
over the old guys were either getting rubbed in the hot, hot "sauna" steamed by
hot water thrown on red hot "small boulders" and usually rubbed by big, strong
Russians, or the like.
Or, they were getting "bahn-kes" (cupping) to cure all ills...or
they were getting other treatments.
They finished the
evening, still wrapped in towels, eating steaks, drinking wine or booze, and
then to bed.
Ben Unterman's Comments on Third Ward Shvitz Baths
I didn't go to the
shvitz because of my (young) age. I went to the Montgomery Public Baths
for a bath.
The shvitz was a
luxury for those older people who wanted the thrill of barely breathing wile
sitting on an elevated bench in a room full of steam, or the agony of someone
hitting you with those oak branches.
Then came the luxury
of the Turkish massage with the rubdown by a masseur with the usual hang-over
belly who is mad at the world and lets you feel it.
Or you could have the
"bankes" (cupping treatment) or the "leeches treatment."
When you finished
your beating, your oily massage, your shower, you take a towel, wrap around your
body and then you begin the best part of the shvitz.\
You sit around a
table with your group of odd-shaped friends, order a glessele
of tea, herring,
bialys, lox, etc, and then take out a deck of cards and play pinochle or poker.
That was worth the trauma and the beatings.
The shvitz was a
carry-over from the old countries, and a home away from home.
* * *
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