The Caref brothers were preparing the herring in anticipation of Schvitzmas that evening. Shelly, Willie and Benjie make it Russian-style, the way their late
dad Jake taught them. The brothers toast Jake with vodka shots as they get the herring ready. Jake was one of those legendary Red Army soldiers who gallantly fought the Nazis as they retreated from Stalingrad to Berlin.
Jake also taught his boys to love the schvitz, the traditional Russian and Turkish wet steam baths, so popular among Jewish immigrant men from Eastern Europe. Schvitz literally means sweat in Yiddish. As a kid, my father use to take me on occasional Sunday mornings to the Division Street or the Luxor baths on North Avenue.
Unless you experienced it yourself, it is hard to describe the calming effect from the heat at the schvitz. Your body detoxifies as your pores seem to open up. Muscles relax and your lungs feel clean. It feels like a “mechaya,” literally a restoration of the body and soul in Yiddish.
For going on twenty years, a group of guys have been attending the schvitz almost every Monday night of the year. First at Division Street until the ceiling collapsed, now at the Sweat Lodge on Cicero and Cornelia. There is a hierarchy at the schvitz. First and foremost are the Regulars like Joe, Mel, Bobby, Willy, Jimmy, Ronnie, Jay, the two Bobs and a few others. Shelly was a Regular until last year when he moved to Ecuador. Then there are the Semi-Regulars, who come maybe twice a month. I belong to the Irregulars, the group on the lowest rung of the ladder, making appearances once in a while, sometimes not being seen at the schvitz for months.
During the holiday season, the Regulars organize a wonderful celebration they call Schvitzmas. They are even so kind to invite renegade Irregulars like me to join them. So on a Monday in December, after all have had some steam and a rub, the festivities begin. There are males from four generations as sons and grandsons are brought to the schvitz that night. Everyone wrapped in towels, sitting around long tables enjoying the food and drink. You will never see a Norman Rockwell painting looking like this.
Each adult brings a food dish of some kind for the Schvitzmas feast. Home-made or store bought, everything is delicious. Some make toasts honoring various people and milestones, as well as remembering great schvitzniks, like Jake, who are no longer with us.
The schvitz itself is a place of warmth, but there is no greater warmth than the friendship that binds this band of brothers, wrapped in their towels, during Schvitzmas, on a cold Chicago night.
From Chicago Sketches
Illustration by Leonid Osseny