Stranger and Neighbor at the Schvitz in London

At a public bath in east London, three of the city’s most insular groups—cockneys, Russian immigrants, and ḥasidic Jews—sweat together in peace. How?

New Docklands Steam Baths.

New Docklands Steam Baths.

Dec. 20 2021
About Eli

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at

Every year the elite of the business, media and cultural worlds meet at scenic Davos in Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum. The upcoming conference in January of 2022 has the theme of “Shaping an Equitable, Inclusive, and Sustainable Recovery,” so in between enjoying the pristine views, fresh air, and skiing, the attendees will be busying themselves attending no doubt very valuable workshops and talks on how to encourage ethnically and culturally diverse groups of people to get on with each other a bit better. I presume that my invitation got lost in the mail, but, in the meantime, I have learned my most valuable lessons about diversity and inclusion, not on the alpine slopes, but in a dilapidated industrial estate in a forgotten part of London.

When I drive, as I try to do every Friday, into this dusty estate littered with scrap metal and rusting machinery, I pass a boarded-up old pub, the Durham Arms, once a favorite redoubt for the East End’s gangsters and rogues, and am greeted by the growls and barks of chained Rottweilers and Alsatians guarding the disheveled lots. It’s a short walk from there to my destination: the New Docklands Steam Baths, or as we call it: the schvitz.

The decor of the schvitz is not much to write home about. In the lobby, apart from a few couches and tables, the most notable thing is a big gold plaque, dedicated to Bobby Lazarus, a veteran of the East End Jewish boxing scene. It was Lazarus, who, along with other veterans of the schvitz, founded the New Docklands Steam Baths in the 1980s, when their former stomping ground, the Porchester Baths, was targeted by the local council for gentrification. In a bid to attract a more respectable and well-heeled clientele, the council made drastic changes that made traditional schvitz culture impossible: introducing mixed-gender sessions, cracking down on swearing, and insisting everyone wear swimming trunks at all times. Lazarus and his mates found in the Docklands a place sufficiently ramshackle that no city slickers looking for a spa treatment would ever disturb them again.

The beating heart of the schvitz lies at the bottom of a flight of stairs in a central chamber filled with naked corpulent men showering, shaving, and schmoozing. The whole room is a noisy hubbub of lewd jokes, tall tales, and male bonding through affectionate insult. The clientele is divided into three groups, ḥasidic Jews, Russians, and working-class Londoners (known as “cockneys”), many of them retired taxi drivers and market-stall traders for whom blokey banter is the very essence of life. Members of each group mix principally among themselves, with Yiddish and Russian interspersed with working-class London slang, and much of the chit-chat entirely incomprehensible to the other groups. Leading off from this central chamber are the steam rooms where the real action happens, where the steam is so thick it is hard to see your own hand, and men lie down on marble benches, ready for the all-important ritual: the schmeiss.

Coming from a Yiddish word meaning to whip, the schmeiss is nothing more complicated than a mop in a soapy bucket, but it’s what you do with it that counts. As one man lays down on the marble bench, two others take turns with the mop, pummeling him as hard and as quickly as possible, interrupted by the occasional dousing with buckets of cold water. While everyone is expected to administer the schmeiss in return for being schmeissed himself, the most sought after are those who can wield the mop in such a way that it generates the maximum degree of heat. To the uninitiated observer, the procedure more closely resembles an exorcism than anything you would expect to find in a spa. Finally, after ten to fifteen minutes of this drubbing, when the combination of heat, steam, and whipping becomes almost too much to take, the schmeissee is ushered by his two friends to the ice-cold plunge pool, emerging a shade somewhere between cotton candy and a flamingo, but with a feeling of deep inner relaxation that you cannot find anywhere else.

From there, after an extended sit-down to recover from the beating and intense heat, it’s up to the lounge, where the heated and cooled customers indulge in hot food and cold drinks, watch TV, and play card games. Everyone walks out feeling as if they are walking on air, ready for another week’s work, or in my case, ready for Shabbos. The way you feel when you walk out of the schvitz was best described by Wolf Mankowitz in his 1953 novel A Kid for Two Farthings:

And afterwards? Don’t ask. You feel like an angel walking through the green fields of Brick Lane. If you wanted to, you could fly looking down upon the hills of East London, while everything is fresh about you, as in the morning of life.


If this sounds to you like a horrendously uncouth, even barbaric, pastime, then I have succeeded in accurately rendering it to some degree, though to get the full measure, you really have to be there. Unsurprisingly, then, it is attended principally by three groups of people who, each in its own way, are the furthest possible thing from the spirit of trendy London: cockneys, Russian immigrants, and ḥasidic Jews. Apart from their distance from fashionable modernity, these groups differ in just about every conceivable way—indeed, beyond broken English, they barely share a common language—and yet, at the schvitz, they all get along extremely well with each other.

For ḥasidic Jews, this is no ordinary matter. The essence of modern Ḥasidism, and the engine of its phenomenal demographic growth, is separatism. In every respect, Ḥasidim lead separate lives, barely communicating with their non-ḥasidic neighbors. There is the odd, unusually gregarious individual who has friends outside the community, and, of course, the professional community representatives who dutifully attend intercommunal events, but the average Ḥasid never experiences ordinary human conviviality with outsiders. This is, if not exactly the price, certainly the inevitable result of separatism as a lived ideal. The schvitz, however, is the only place I know where ordinary Ḥasidim and ordinary non-Ḥasidim experience genuine camaraderie.

How this works in practice is instructive. In the steam rooms themselves, each group keeps mostly to itself. The Russians use the dry wood-heated sauna, where they wear felt hats to maximize the heat, and flog each other with oak branches; the cockneys use only the steam baths, and the Ḥasidim use both, though more so the latter. Banter is principally within groups; indeed language barriers preclude anything else. At the same time, however, there is also a great degree of unforced and amicable social mingling. The clothes-free nature of the schvitz, something that is made possible by the absence of women, acts as a great leveler, generating an unpretentious and relaxed feeling of fraternity across ethnic lines. Members of each group will ask those from others for assistance with small things, such as locating a mop, filling a bucket, or, when manpower is scarce, even an occasional schmeiss. After the schmeiss, too, people mix freely, playing cards, sharing a smoke, and simply doing what they would never do anywhere else—having a chat.

The basis of the harmonious relations among the groups is the unquestioned ethnic separateness of each, displayed in language, dress, hairstyles and more. Upstairs in the lounge, while the Russians and English tuck into the hearty grilled fish and roast meat served up by the bath’s canteen, the Ḥasidim once again demonstrate their separateness by taking out tin-foil trays of cholent and kugel. It would never occur to anyone to try to switch groups and adopt the customs and mores of the other. But, precisely because each group feels completely secure in its own identity, there is no animosity, and a genuine feeling of comfort in being yourself. Everyone accepts that the others act in ways that are completely alien and does not seek to change or influence them.

The truly multicultural life of the schvitz completely upends standard liberal assumptions about what is needed for a multicultural, multireligious, and multiethnic society to function peacefully. All of the attendees have social views that are reactionary to the extent of being off the political map in modern liberal Britain. All of them are ethnocentric, think their own culture is the best, and have no interest in learning to challenge their assumptions or learn the ways of others. And they all get on superbly. Instead of instructing each other on their unexamined bigotries and prejudices, each group enjoys its own and accepts those of the others.

At the schvitz, I have learned that it is possible as a ḥasidic Jew to have someone make fun of your hat and crack jokes about Jews and money, but at the same time feel completely safe, comfortable, and at home. By contrast, in respectable metropolitan environments I always feel slightly on edge. No one would ever mock my dress-code or haircut—to the contrary they are eager to police the speech of anyone who might—but at the same time they are inevitably keen to discover that underneath the funny clothes, I am at heart a good liberal too—someone who might be lacking, thanks to his benighted education, the latest good-thinker software update, but who still shares the same fundamental values and beliefs as them. Behind the overtly welcoming inclusion, there is always a faint aura of risk that this will give way to hostility if I don’t politely nod along. At the schvitz, by contrast, sharing a universalist and universalizing set of values is not a prerequisite for getting on with people; all you need for that is a shared love of a good schmeiss.

In addition to providing an insight on tolerance and coexistence among diverse communities, my weekly visits to the schvitz have also made me reflect on the nature of Jewish culture and cultural identity. To this day, there is no English word for the schmeiss, which was introduced to London’s East End by Jewish immigrants in the closing decades of the 19th century. The fabled Brick Lane, then the bustling economic hub of England’s Jewish community, was studded with “vapor baths” as they were then known, with Yiddish signs in the windows. For many London Jews over the past century and a half, the schvitz, more than the synagogue, was their principal place of Jewish socialization, and even identity.

While certain aspects of East European Jewish culture have been retrofitted with more or less plausible religious connotations and explanations, the schmeiss stands out as a quintessential example of something that is both undeniably Jewish, but not linked in any way either to religion or any one of the ideological forms of Jewish identification. (Those partial to Russian banyas might point to the venik used there, but that involves oak leaves and is often self-administered in the dry sauna, while the schmeiss is made of sea grass and used in the steam room.) Ever since the Haskalah, there have been a steady stream of Jews, determined to discover a “cultural Judaism” in which they can satisfy their desire to live Jewish lives without being tethered to religious beliefs they consider untenable or halakhic observances they find uncongenial. For the cultural Jew, though, history is a story of hopes dashed: the Yiddish theatre and comedy circuit is a distant memory, the borscht belt hotel is abandoned, and the New York Jewish deli is now a curry house. London schvitz culture, however, while admittedly a pale shadow of its early 20th-century heyday, is demographically stable, even expanding slightly.

And yet with the exception of a declining number of hangers on in their 70s and 80s, the only Jews today who schmeiss have long peyos and tzitzis. The descendants of those less- or non-religious Jews who used to fill the East End’s steam rooms have left for other more bourgeois pastures where sweaty whipping in a coarse, homosocial environment is not on the menu, and their Judaism consists of participation in either religious rituals or Zionist activities. “Cultural Judaism” in these circumstances is almost invariably a cringeworthy pastiche.

The authentically Jewish culture of the East End does and will continue to exist, but it does so precisely in the section of UK Jewry to whom the concept of cultural Judaism is most foreign. Schmeissing is a minority pursuit in the ḥasidic community, but it is one that spans the full spectrum of the community, from the more worldly members who are partial to a game of cards all the way to the late Stanislover rebbe, a respected Stamford Hill rabbi and a weekly schmeisser. To this day, one of the oft-retold tales is that the Stanislover rebbe, known throughout the schvitz simply as “the Rabbi,” stopped attending for three weeks in a dispute about whether the television in the lounge would be turned on, ending when the management agreed that the TV would be turned off and the remote hidden for the duration of his visit.

Amidst the steam, sweat, and swear words of the schvitz, many of the basic assumptions of liberal modernity can’t stand the heat. Reactionary ethnocentrism and tolerance aren’t enemies, but complementary; inclusion and exclusion aren’t opposites, one depends on the other; cultural Judaism and religious sectarianism aren’t alternative paths, but part of the same package. The ever-expanding diversity and inclusion industry, which funnels corporate money to aloof university graduates so they can lecture the proles, probably wouldn’t like a schmeiss all that much, but they might learn a thing or two from it.

More about: Arts & Culture, Bathing, British Jewry, Schvitz