NEW YORK -- Herbie Gittman sat naked and sweating on the top tier of a crumbling stone grandstand, enveloped in the sounds of large men laboring to breathe.
Gasps and soft groans rode the burning air. Every few minutes, Gittman and the others around him reached for giant buckets of ice water and drenched their flaming heads.
"Without this place, who could say how I'd live?" said Gittman, a New York antique dealer. "Do you think I need a health club?" -- he spat out the words in obvious disgust -- "with jogging tracks and fancy machines to tell me if I'm breathing? Nahhh. What I need is steam."
No place in New York has steam like the schvitz, the Yiddish slang term for steam bath. Housed in a hopelessly decrepit building on the northern edge of Manhattan's Lower East Side, the schvitz has been making people sweat since 1892, when its neighbors on East 10th Street were marriage brokers, apparel shops and tenements crowded with recent arrivals to the new world.
Born of an era when private baths were a dream cherished by many but attained by few and when the Lower East Side was home to the world's largest Jewish community, the Russian and Turkish Baths -- the formal name that nobody uses -- began its life as one of more than 40 such public bathhouses in the city.
In Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Washington Heights, the baths were a daily routine. But as the older immigrants died, their prosperous children began to choose private bathing rather than the ritual of community cleansing that had thrived since the days of the Roman Empire. The bathhouses, like vaudeville and pushcart peddlers, began to disappear.
This schvitz, open every day of the year and complete with a restaurant that serves everything from knishes to kishke and a shot of vodka, is said to be the last in the city. Its polyglot clientele is as diverse as the world it serves. For $15, exactly $14.75 more than when it opened, one can show up, for instance, at 7 a.m. any Sunday and see at least a dozen rabbis, in black hats and beards, from the orthodox communities of Brooklyn.
Saturday is another story. A visitor is as likely to see the hung- over remnant of a long Friday night, sporting purple hair and leather pants, as to see anyone in waistcoats or yarmulkes. Mondays and Tuesdays are days of coeducational perspiration. Shorts are required, and hospital gowns and oversized plastic slippers are piled near the entrance. Wednesday is Ladies Day.
"What do they want from us?" asked Valerie Taberman, a Soviet emigre who, with her husband and another partner, has owned the schvitz for five years. "They have tension and anxiety. They have problems at home, or they are worried about the world. Whatever. In here, they forget. We make them forget."
Naturally. Who could concentrate on worldly affairs, for example, while sitting in a cramped stone room enduring the searing heat of 11 tons of massive boulders warmed to nearly 250 degrees by gas jets?
True aficionados insist on paying to be pummeled by brooms made of oak leaves, a custom known as platza, which is said to open pores and rid the body of toxins. Silent attendants stand by ready to deliver the barrage, a holdover from the days when gangsters and politicians -- usually distinct sets of people -- frequented the schvitz and did not want people overhearing what had been discussed.
Few people can take the heat of the top tier, where the brooms are first dipped in soapy ice water, then splashed onto the supine, naked body. Cold-water spigots run throughout the room, and few bathers can keep their hands away from them for more than a minute or two.
"It's a sign of a real schvitz," a sweating doctor said one recent day, "how long you sit here without taking a dip."
After schvitzing until the skin starts to prune, custom dictates a plunge into the icy waters of the pool just outside the main bath known as the Russian Room. Few people bother to read the sign above the tiled pool that announces, "Persons with sore or inflamed eyes, a cold, nasal drip, discharges, cuts, boils or any other evident skin or bodily infections may not enter."
Nearby are massage rooms and on the upper floor are tidy cots neatly aligned and looking as old as if they had just been removed from a 19th century welfare hotel. After a schvitz and maybe a couple of shots of vodka, a patron often reclines for a few minutes. Then it's time to eat.
White fish, lox, roast chicken, several types of herring and pickled fish are always on display. For those who like steaks the size of a Buick Electra, the owners are pleased to comply. "If you have any special dietary requests, please tell Dave or Boris," the owners, says a sign at the restaurant entrance.
Steamy, therapeutic idleness has never been the only reason to go to the schvitz, however. People gossip, argue, discuss the price of cloth in the Garment District.
"I feel like what goes on in here is under a special seal," said Ben Saleimani, a New Yorker businessman who frequents the place. "You can sit on a bench and tell they guy next to you every trouble you have. He grunts, and you leave."
Unionism, communism, Gorbachev, Wall Street -- all have been discussed in the Russian Room. Today, however, one is as likely to hear agents talk about how Sony bought Columbia Pictures as to hear an impassioned defense of rent control.
Celebrities always have frequented the schvitz. The late comedian John Belushi is said to have loved nothing better after a long night of drug-induced carousing than to end up on 10th Street for a hearty sweat, a thick steak and a snooze. These days, one is likely to see Raul Julia or Billy Crystal.
"It's like being in the 10th century, don't you think?" said Eric Meuller, a New York sculptor who used to live in the building next door but has moved to escape the endless heat. "You expect to see a bunch of Cossacks with swords or whatever they carried around with them."