Full-frontal di skeynim!
What, you don’t know from Yiddish? Di skeynim: That’s “old men,” for all of us goyim.
Documentarian Jonathan Berman’s The Shvitz is a wonderfully intimate look at the culture and history of bathhouses in New York City. Weaving lively contemporary interviews with stock footage from the heyday of bathhouse culture (the ’30s through the early ’60s), Berman delivers a poignant and very American story.
Brought to this country by Eastern European immigrants, the tradition of the public bathhouse, akin to the Finnish sauna, exploded in New York City in the early 1900s, when private baths were virtually unknown to the masses. Beyond the clinical necessity, the shvitz—literally a “sweat”—was a highly social activity. Shvitzing was a weekly break to gather for relaxation, gossip, a little nosh and, most importantly, a sweat.
Berman’s subjects—lounging, kibitzing and snacking—are remarkably candid. Often stark naked, the patrons speak rapturously about the culture, while acknowledging that the uninitiated may find their enthusiasm hard to comprehend. Every colorful anecdote and witticism is as informative as it is heartfelt.
The Shvitz falters a bit when it shifts from the old neighborhood reminiscences and coffee-klatch-style discussions with the remaining patrons; the filmmakers lose some focus in their attempt to show the “modern” face of the urban bathhouse. The inclusion of contemporary music, to amp up the nightclub feel of the coed shvitz, seriously dates their work, which was shot in the early ’90s. Otherwise, Berman seems subtly skilled in letting his subjects speak—at times poignantly and often hilariously—for themselves.
Berman and the Docurama label have preserved a true piece of Americana. So, as long as you don’t mind the sight of a geriatric tuchis or the random shvantz, The Shvitz is the definitive Jewish bathhouse doc you’ve been waiting for.