Congregants in the Pews of a Schvitz*

21 February 2019

I sit in a sauna, focused on enduring the steam, but panting like a husky would in the noontime sun of the Amazon. I’m in the midst of this ordeal in a Turkish/Russian communal bath with its choking heat, gazing sadly at old-timers’ bodies of fallow flesh…that have been tended to…but not too well…naked, sweaty, some sumo-large that terry towels of spacious size can’t cover well. (Truth, though, younger schvitzers are proudly in shape.)

It’s supposed to be healthful, this cleansing that feels far better when you’re out of it than when you’re in it…a rack of far more torment than reciting over and over confessional prayers. For make no mistake, though absent a cleric, the steam room bench (without the confessional’s anonymity) will focus the mind on all your sins, so you can quicker atone and escape the self-imposed hell of the schvitz.

The heat embraces you and the oxymoron…the pleasure of pain…becomes weirdly apt, even moreso when offered with the option of flagellation, should you want to be scoured with a broom of oak leaf branches to expand a bit more the exquisite discomfort of this resurrection of the soul. The schvitz, a miracle of purification, comes with a touching connection to the past thousands of tucheses that sat where you sit, who suffered in this purgatory of perspiration, trying to catch a breath, convinced that survival…you should be so lucky…will somehow make your life sweeter, your burdens lighter, your psyche as perfect as surgical steel.

Like it’s not hot enough, some imposing mound of muscled flesh with the menacing smirk of a torturer, who, you’re convinced. can’t be gently reasoned with, ladles more water on the hot rocks, creating an even more stifling sizzle of steam…like it wasn’t already hot enough. And, self-satisfied, I can hear the echo of his laughter, reverberating down the tunnels of time, happily showing how much more macho he is than the rest of us.

I sit until I can’t anymore. My pores, however much cleansed, will have to be satisfied. My lungs will thank me. The pucker of my reddened skin will turn normally smooth as it was before. And I, having suffered, will reward myself at a nearby Polish restaurant with a bowl of borscht and a plate of blintzes, the thought of which does make the schvitz endurable. From pain to pleasure and isn’t that what it’s all about.

* A schvitz is a steam room…to schvitz is to sweat.