Gary Sosnick Detroit 2010

6.  The Steam Room / The Plaitza

This is what we came for really. This is what it is all about. Doesn't look like much, does it? Don't be deceived, there is a potent mix of heat and oak leaves brewing in this 20 by 25 foot room at a temperature near 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Do you know what oak leaves smell like? It's an unmistakable forest scent. Let's go over this procedure blow by blow, right from the very beginning. You might want to take notes.

The steam room is the most important aspect of the bathhouse. It is what separates the Russian Bania (of which the Oakland Bath House qualifies) from its imitators. Plain and simple, Oakland is a classic Russian bathhouse. The term Russian denotes the type of heat provided in the steam room, just like the term Finnish is often associated with saunas. The term steam room is actually a misnomer since there is no visible steam being produced. This is unlike the hissing steam room found at the golf or country club where the room fills up with steam so thick that you cannot see three feet in front of you. The heat in the steam room at Oakland has only a hint of moisture, enough to fog the shaving mirror but otherwise remain mostly unnoticed. And owing to the great size of the Oakland steam room, no one experiences claustrophobia.

Again, referring to the picture above, this is what the steam room at Oakland looked like in the early 1970s. You are looking at the plaitza bench, or top row, where one would lie down to receive a plaitza (a steam room rubdown with an oak leaf broom). Just below the top shelf is a water line with a tap filling a blue bucket with cold water. The white tub to the right is the plaitza bucket where the oak leaf broom, waiting to be used, resides in a bath of hot soap-foamed water. Plaitza, or pleytze, is a Yiddish word meaning "back" or "shoulder."

The steam room oven becomes the essential aspect of the Russian baths, since the oven is what generates the heat in the method we desire. Oakland's brick oven is massive as its interior occupies a space of about 4 feet wide by 4 feet deep by 5 feet tall. The oven walls are about a foot thick. Two iron doors on the face of the oven provide the portal for throwing hot water onto the rocks to produce additional heat in the form of superheated water vapor. Rows of bricks line the inside bottom of the oven and in between each row are gas jets used to heat the oven overnight. Large 75 pound granite boulders the size of watermelons fill the oven and provide the source of the heat throughout the day.

In this bathhouse equation, we now have the steam room and its oven, and the plaitza bench. We are ready for the most important activity--the plaitza--accomplished by the masseur who delivers the plaitza rub with his trusty plaitza broom. When all is said and done, it is actually the oak leaf plaitza broom that makes this steam room experience different from all others.

The magical oak leaf plaitza broom, or besom, (whose construction will be described in detail on Page 8) is a collection of 120 oak leaf twigs tied together with each twig or stem containing two or three oak leaves. In the photo above, about a half dozen examples of fresh green leafy splendor hang in Dick Brown's attic. Strong but supple, these beauties are ready to be soaked for the first time. Walk into a bathhouse with one of these gigantic dandies, and the waves part in biblical proportions as you are granted carte blanche and rightfully labeled an expert.

The Plaitza

For the sake of this description, I have enlisted Neil to give me a plaitza, thus he becomes the parchik or plaitza giver, while Jeffrey and Ricky stand at the ready, should their services be required. I have been lounging around on the hot top shelf in the steam room for some time. (Steam room physics: Warm air rises, that's all you need to know, so sit accordingly.) I have bathed in the steam room using my loofah and soap, showered off a few times, poured a bucket of cold water over my head, and even have taken one or two cold plunges in the pool. Meanwhile, the freshly picked plaitza broom is soaking in a bucket of hot water. The hot water softens as well as strengthens the leaves, and also produces an oak tea (from the unused broom only) which we will throw onto the oven rocks. After about an hour, both me and the broom are ready for the plaitza. I take a quick cold water plunge and prepare to go up for the plaitza.

This is what it looks like.
Naked Joe Morico administers the plaitza broom to Murray Weisman's backside in Boston circa 1970.

I lay out a couple of clean towels on the top shelf of the wooden plaitza bench, and soak a third towel in cold water that I will use to cover my head to keep it cool and to prevent flying soap suds from landing in my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. I lie naked face down on the top row and get acclimated to the room temperature. (Steam room rule: the guy getting the plaitza regulates the steam room temperature, thankfully.) I can stand it hotter. Neil who is preparing the broom in a tub of hot soapy water and working up a nice soapy lather, acknowledges my request. As he twists the broom in the tub, he calls out to Ricky, "How 'bout a nickel's worth, please?" Ricky gets up from his seat on a lower bench, and fills a bucket with about two inches of the oak tea and then adds a touch of water from the hot water tap. Ricky lifts the bucket with both hands, looks around the steam room to announce his intentions, and heaves the hot tea onto the oven rocks. As a result of this violent action, a wave of hot steam rushes out of the oven, the steam room door flies open for about two seconds, and the room temperature seems to increase by about ten degrees. Simultaneously, the steam room fills with a heavy oak scent, reminiscent of a dense virgin forest.

Neil now goes to work. As he stands over me, he removes the broom from the tub and lathers me up with a forceful twirling and rubbing motion. Although the room temperature is incredibly hot, the applied soap layer prevents my skin from burning as it, along with the natural juices of the oak leaves, cleanse every pore of my body. Neil lifts the broom off my body and twirls it in the air back and forth as the edges of the leaves brush against my back. He then slaps my back with the broom. He repeats these two motions throughout the rub; as water droplets fly off the twirling broom, they become superheated before landing on my back. This is called bringing in the heat, and a concentration of heat is thusly applied to my aching back or neck muscles, with a good slap of the broom for punctuation. I am in heaven and I moan delightedly.

This goes on for about fifteen minutes until it is time for me to turn over and receive the same treatment on my front side with my arms tucked behind my head. With my approval, Neil calls out for "a couple of cents worth." Ricky again obliges the request for more oak scented heat. (Very important steam room rule: Never throw cold water on the rocks; this causes them to crack and weaken prematurely.) Several very hot minutes later, Jeffrey volunteers to finish me up and Neil turns the broom over to him. Jeffrey works on me for another ten minutes, and after a plaitza that has lasted for a half hour, I announce, "Okay, I'm done!" Jeffrey responds "Not so fast! Where you going?"

I get up anyway and thank everyone in sight, lauding every aspect of the plaitza. Jeffrey takes a bucket of cold water and pours some onto my feet, and with the rest of the water, he washes off the bench below so that, in my relaxed condition, I will not slip and fall on my way down and into my bath shoes. From here I head to a shower to wash off the soap and remove any remnants of oak leaves, and then jump mercilessly into the ice cold pool where I will float in a state of perfect equilibrium for the next ten minutes or less.

This is what the steam room actually looks like today at the Oakland Bath House (now called The Schvitz Health Club). This picture was taken from the steam room doorway. Once inside, the oven is located to your right. Compare this photo to the one at the top of the page. I am forced to admit that this is quite an improvement from its previous rustic years! Even the shaving mirror has been updated. This steam room has never been more accommodating and less terrifying for novices exploring the world of intense heat and the oak leaf broom.

A Treatise on the Russian Steam Bath
(author unknown)

Next Page: After the Plaitza

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