The Shvitz: The Three Third Ward Bath Houses that Served Newark's Jewish Community in the 1920s/1930s

by Nat Bodian


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 European roots.

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 weekly ritual.

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.

Charlton Baths

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.

According to 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.

Many religious 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 Streets.

The bath house operation was a mom 'n pop operation.

The owner/operator 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 'bahn-kes'.

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.

In-House Chiropodist

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

The restaurant/dining 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 European dishes.

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 stakes.

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."

Abner (Longy) 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 oak leaves.

"They would tie the leaves into bundles and bring them back and dry them on the roof of the bath house.

"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 ailments.

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 Street.

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 leaves.

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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