Gary Sosnick Detroit © 2010




By Debbie Hitsky
The Detroit Jewish News - July 13, 2001

hile the Shvitz Health Club (formerly the Oakland Avenue Bath House) in Detroit is and has always been absolutely open to men of any nationality, religion or creed, it is and has always been closed to women. But, what the heck. The Internet is free, and everyone, man or woman, can point a browser to oakleafbroom.com and enjoy a historical tour of this local male sanctuary.
   It's especially nice while we celebrate Detroit's 300th anniversary.
   The Web site offers nine pages of photographs, background, and anecdotes about this shvitz, which was founded by Charles Meltzer in 1930. The bathhouse was home to some of Detroit's more colorful and infamous characters, including the Purple Gang.
   Gary Sosnick, Webmaster and creator of oakleafbroom.com has created a vignette of recollections focusing on his visits as a teenager, from 1970 to 1975, when the cost of a shvitz was $4, not the $20 men have to pay today.
   The nine pages cover everything from the building itself to the basics of making the oak leaf broom used in the plaitza, which is a rubdown (massage) that takes place inside a steam room. A surfer learns how to take steam, how to conform to the etiquette of the steam room, even how the hot rocks used in the steam process are replaced.
   We meet all kinds of characters, like Toots Johnson, cook/manager of the bathhouse who helped dig the basement in 1930. The same basement had a room with a mikvah (ritual bath—for men?) which was later sealed off and then resurrected into a whirlpool.
   We learn about the neighborhood, which was at one time a Jewish area. Located on Oakland Avenue, in the area northwest of where I-75 and East Grand Boulevard intersect, the bathhouse was one of perhaps a dozen like it in the 1930s. Today, the only other Russian-style shvitzes, where you can enjoy the total plaitza experience, are in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. (Women can shvitz in Los Angeles on designated days of the week)
   oakleafbroom.com is well organized, attractive, and easy to navigate. Plan to spend some time there, although it won't take you the two hours you'd have to spend to personally experience the plaitza.
   And if this Web site has "wet" your appetitie for steam baths, be sure to check out the links page, which is a very nice collection of relevant sites, everything from the Purple Gang to mikvahs. 


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