The Sacred, Secret World of Women

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

From early childhood, I was my grandmother’s frequent companion at the neighborhood public bath house whose clients were the Jewish immigrant women who had settled with their families in South Philadelphia. The place was known as “the shvitz” (Yiddish for “sweat”), and an evening spent at this working class imitation of today’s spa was comparable to dining out and theater entertainment for that tired, over-worked  community of women.  The baths constituted the Jewish equivalent of a Kiwanis convention, the Union League clubhouse, a beauty salon and an elite get-away spa, all under one roof.

The weary women who spent every Saturday night rejuvenating themselves at the shvitz spoke only in Yiddish, often unaware that I understood them. (Although English was the language of my home, Yiddish somehow imprinted on me, and, from my earliest speech, I was able to communicate with my grandparents in that colloquial and picturesque tongue.)  I was always the only child  at the baths, but it didn’t seem to bother my bubby, and I suppose it didn’t bother me either.

The building which housed the bathhouse was old and shabby on the outside, with faded paint and crumbling bricks, but the interior sparkled with white tile and shiny chrome, the air redolent with the purifying aromas of soap, antiseptics and cheap but powerful perfume.  As a teenager, before I understood the value of sisterhood, I would  recall the conversations that I overheard there as ordinary “woman talk.”  But as a child, barely understanding the references to  husbands and children, daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, finances and bargains, recipes and illness, pregnancies and miscarriages, and the veiled sexual references that always drew a giggle or a nod, I knew somehow I was privy to information that  ordinarily would have been shielded from my young ears.

Many of the women who were part of this Saturday night at the shvitz were extended family.  Cousin Rose, the manicurist in her husband’s beauty salon, somehow found relaxation doing the same, without charge, for her sisters-in-law and cousins at the shvitz.  Cousin Eta, a diminutive redhead with a fiery personality, came late to the baths because she worked behind the deli counter in the small grocery store she and her husband ran in west Philadelphia.  And cousin Esther, of the same diminutive proportions as Eta, spent the day shampooing customers’ hair in her husband’s salon, but still had the energy to give pedicures to her relatives in the entrance hall of the shvitz.

Some years away from adolescence myself, I was intrigued by the femaleness of the carelessly draped bodies, the loving care of the long, often graying hair, the sighs of relaxation, the unaccustomed self-indulgence. All  hinted at inscrutable puzzles I could not understand.  But I was not upset by my lack of understanding.  I knew these were matters for grownups and my time would come.  It was enough to have been invited into this sacred, secret world of women.

Most of these women had been left behind when their husbands made the unknown journey to America to seek their fortunes. The women took care of children, parents, in-laws, and assorted relatives in what was to become a matriarchal society for a time, while husbands sought their future in the land of milk and honey, dealt with their disillusionment, sent money back to Eastern European countries to keep the family going in their absence, and then, finally, after reconciling the differences between their expectations and the reality, sent the necessary information for travel documents as well as passage money.

My grandmother was among that group.  She had been left behind with two small children to await her husband’s “success” and summons.  The summons came six years later. When my grandfather finally picked her up at the dock in New York, he discovered a diminished family.  Their daughter had died of an undisclosed ailment a few months before my grandmother and her younger child, my father, were to leave.  She decided to spare her husband this tragic news until their arrival, so he learned this when he greeted his wife and son after a six year separation.

But past lives were seldom the topic of conversation at the shvitz.  The present and future were more relevant.   By Saturday night the tired women were ready for some relaxation.  It was a time for pampering, a rare and unexpected treat.

The entrance hall, in addition to the manicuring facility, acted as gathering place and social hall. The oversized shower and bathing rooms gleamed with white tile, gracing both walls and floors, and randomly placed wooden benches were plentiful.  Drains were positioned along the floor so that when showers and faucets were open, the water ran in rivulets over the tile, negotiating its way to the nearest concave drain.  There were no shower or bath enclosures.  The shvitz was no place for modesty.

The sound of the ubiquitous running water, the smell of perfumed soap and shampoo mingled with lotions–all created a feeling of unfamiliar self-indulgence.  A massage corner baffled me. Why would people permit someone to pummel them mercilessly?  Another thing that puzzled me was the steam room, although I always felt compelled to thrust my face into that hot, humid cauldron for a moment and emerged gasping and ruddy from the steaminess that enveloped me.  I never understood how my grandmother and her friends could sit there for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, absorbing the intensity of the heat, continuing to laugh and talk and take pleasure in each other’s company in the midst of that boiler room.

When the women left the steam room, they stood under a cold shower to soak and refresh themselves.  There were large wooden buckets placed around the room.  My grandmother and I would drag one of them to “our bench.” After she washed my knotted hair with rancid-smelling brown soap, she filled one of the buckets with hot water and poured it over my head for a rinsing.  The soapy water cascaded into my eyes and nose, over my body and into the drain at my feet. No one could have been cleaner than she and I after those hours of soaking, sudsing and rinsing.

The bathing part completed, we were ready for phase two. We covered ourselves with white coarse dressing gowns, scratchy against my softened skin. I can still feel the shock of cold air as we exited through the swinging doors of the bathing room to walk upstairs to the resting room.  This scene–-now that I recall it through the layered backdrop of other experiences–-was more like a hospital recovery room.  We were all exhausted and purified.

This room sported rows of cots with mattresses. No sheets, no bedding–-just mattresses.  Behind each cot was a metal locker which held clothing and other belongings.  All the women lay down on the mattress ticking (without a pillow) and settled themselves for a rest. But first, each would reach into a brown paper bag and pull out an orange to restore the body after the fatigue of the bathing.  Somehow oranges were endowed with magical recuperative powers. They were supposed to replenish whatever nutrients and strength had been washed away with the soap and water. As the oranges were peeled and eaten, I lay on my bare mattress and listened to my grandmother and the other women recapture their week and share plans for the future.

Adjacent to the central gathering hall/pedicure salon was a small tea room furnished with linoleum-topped tables and wooden stools.  When the women felt sufficiently rested, they dressed, and before leaving for home, reluctant to relinquish their closeness and the difference from their daily lives,  they lingered in the tea room where each had a glass of tea and some home baked cookies.  Although there was a serving area that seemed capable of providing meals, I never saw anything eaten other than tea and cookies.

The women drank the tea Russian-style in a glass, swallowed through a sugar cube held in the teeth.  I have never recaptured that melting taste of poppy seed-filled cookies crunching in my mouth, washed down by overly sugared tea, as the women sat and talked, replenished and renewed by their bathing and conversation.

After our snack my grandmother began her protracted goodbyes and, with many pats on the head and blessings for me from her friends, we began our trek back to her house in the dark night.  The stars never seemed so bright, the streets so quiet, the bond so strong between us as we walked home from the shvitz, quietly holding hands.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths and Philly Firsts. She lives in Malibu, CA. This is an excerpt from her book, Across the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, and it’s reprinted with the kind permission of the author. For more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

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