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An Interior Saunalogue

A North American Jewess talks to Whitechapel

Judy Batalion  |  Autumn 2007  -  Number 207


In this day and age you have to adapt your rituals. All right, so Whitechapel wasn’t the Jewish enclave I had thought when I immigrated here from Brooklyn in 2001, but I still persist. Shabbos is the day for my ritual cleansing … and I abide religiously. Each Saturday, after lunch, I gather up my required paraphernalia — towels, soaps, Kiehl’s crème de corps and Aveda conditioner. I trawl past the heroin addict on my stoop, the various drunkards who, with their pit-bull terriers, have made home around the crosswalk, screaming hoards of hagglers at the market, a mildly tense political rally and police arresting a young Chinese woman for selling bootleg Shrek DVDs (because clearly, that’s the main problem here). Then I enter the haven, strip, wrap a towel around myself, put on my polka-dot orange flip-flops, and descend into my immersion bath: the Whitechapel local chapter of the Tower-Hamlets-community-gym-women’s-sauna. It’s me and the girls: two Bengali, two Somali and one Pakistani. I relax into it and think: what would my parents say? Each week, cackling and pleased, I relax more.

But last Saturday was special, a real shehechyanu. I entered the gym and tried to show my membership card to the woman at the front desk, but she looked dazed. Eventually she turned to me and apologised. ‘Sorry. I’m in real pain. I need a root canal, the dentist is a fool and I’m pregnant. And bloody hot.’ I had never met this woman before and was not sure why she was

telling me anything. But lord, I loved it. Had she not been wearing a hijab, I could have mistaken her for anyone from my native all-Jew Montreal suburb. Brazen Whitechapel was more North America than most of England.

‘Bloody dentist,’ I replied, empathetically, passionately. ‘You tell him!’

Not only is my shabbos dunking a purification for the old skin (it’s true – you totally do look younger), but there’s another bird to kill with the hot sauna stone: this is my political outreach work. Every Saturday I show the Muslim locals that American Jews are OK. And I, too, learn that we are all the same.

I entered the bath. A debate was already raging.

‘Don’t look at my legs! They’re so hairy.’

‘Who cares if they’re hairy, we’re not meant to shave.’

‘Who is hairier, me or her?’

‘Me!’ I offered, joining in.

‘Yes,’ several of them politely agreed. ‘On white skin, it looks even worse.’

Furry and frank. These are my people.

‘Turn up the heat!’ I cried. The communal sweltering began.

Of course, it wasn’t always this easy. In the beginning, I had been self-conscious, unaware. I had been living in Whitechapel for years, mainly communing with local artists and students, before entering the sauna for the first time. And, on that virgin attempt, only seconds from dropping my towel, I had realized many of the Muslim attendees were in full body dress. In those early days, I was worried. What would they know? What would they see? Could they tell I was Jewish from my unmistakably Jewish flab (no matter how skinny Jews are in clothes, naked, they’re fat)? Near-naked, so close, I tried not to think about my own preconceptions of what they may have learned about me. But I was on shpilkes, and each time a drop of sweat rolled down my back, I thought it was a spider which I would turn to hit. Continually slapping my own back, wearing my only bathing suit from eight years ago with the straps pulled across my Jew flab breasts, I must have indeed seemed different. But after several months I came out to them, point-blank, during a conversation about language.

‘What was your mother tongue, in Canada?’ one of the women had asked me. Everyone listened, the only sound the sizzling rocks.

It was time to tell the truth. ‘Yiddish,’ I whimpered,

swallowing the ‘Yid’. ‘yidDISH was actually my first language.’

Now even the sauna stones lay silent.

But then one of the women spoke up: ‘Well,’ she said, ‘we could always tell you were a Hebrew.’ Everyone laughed, friendly.

I was totally in.

But never as in as last Saturday. ‘Judy,’ a regular said during a shower break, ‘I wanted to ask you something.’

My heart fluttered.

‘What are you doing on Wednesday?’ she inquired.

‘Wednesday night, you mean?’ I said, fingers crossed. This was like a fantasy.

‘Yes.’  Yes!


‘Well, why don’t you come with us to a Bollywood festival? In Ilford.’

A Bollywood festival! In Ilford! My first local date! I was elated. This was political action - ‘project rapprochement’ gone right.

‘Remind me to take your number before I leave.’

I wouldn’t forget.

Well, last Saturday, after my first cold shower, I walked back into that sauna feeling hot. I took out my Origins almond sugar scrub and began scrub-down with the best of them, thinking about the long way I had come. I recalled that first sauna when the women had taken out their smorgasbord of fruit. ‘Kiwi?’ Someone had offered me a clean-cut half. ‘Thanks so much,’ I had said, wanting so badly to be liked. I took a bite.

They all stared for a moment and I smiled. Then they took their own kiwi halves and wiped them down their legs. ‘Exfoliator,’ someone explained. Right.

Since then, I have learned about mango peels and lemon-rind astringent, bottled waters and lavender oil.

So, when last Saturday someone offered me some honey, I dipped my hand right in there, grabbed a wad and expertly ran it right through my hair, feeling like Andie MacDowell.

‘Um, that’s for your arm hair,’ I was told.

So last week’s cleansing ended in elation (and several rounds of rinsing my head), and on Tuesday, on cue, I got a text. ‘Meet tomorrow outside Whitechapel station at 7.’

‘Can’t wait,’ I texted back. Too forward?? Whatever. Honesty is totally back in, I reasoned. Or at least it should be.

Of course, the age-old question popped into my mind: what should I wear? I saw these women only in the sauna bedecked in towels and wraps – I had no idea if they would be wearing saris, jeans… I decided on the old panacea: black trousers.

Wednesday at 6.55 I was running late. But at 7.15 when I arrived, they were just arriving too. We were all on Jewish time! This couldn’t be better.

Only two women were able to make it, but as most have large families and children, I decided not to take it personally. We took the 25 bus in the direction I had never taken it. As we took off on our Eastern voyage, one of them took a packet out of her purse: ‘I brought some cake for us, so we won’t have to buy overpriced popcorn.’ I could have been in the womb, this was so familiar.

Then, one of their mothers called their mobiles. Before mine did!

The ride to Ilford was not short and gave us time for plenty of chat in our new in-the-world and

en-vetement context. Of course, the talk turned to men. One of them was single, in her 40s. The other was happily married and only 22.

‘Only 22?! Fantastic,’ I said.

She was confused. ‘22 is old. We married at 18.’

Though I am 30, and just beginning to be mature enough to go on dates, to her, I am ‘not married’, point final. My time has passed.

‘I am so lucky,’ she explained. ‘My husband lets me wear trousers. And go to university.’

‘Wow, that’s great,’ I said, a touch surprised. ‘It’s great to go to university.’ (I, of course, was still in university, in my 100th year of a PhD).

‘Well, except that my sisters won’t speak to me.’

I heard how she is ostracized by some of her female friends and relatives for the freedoms in her life. I told her she must write about this — she says she doesn’t want to be excommunicated. I thought: I should write about this. Then I thought: I wonder if it’s wrong to think this way.

While I was thinking about my thinking, they asked me about my work. ‘How is the dissertation coming along?’

‘Stressful,’ I replied. ‘A lot of work to do.’

‘Well,’ one asked, ‘sometimes you have to sit back and let fate take its course.’

She was right.

‘How’s the show you’re working on?’ the other one asked.

‘Stressful,’ I say. ‘A lot of work to do.’

‘Sometimes,’ she said, ‘you need to find the power in yourself to overcome the stress.’

She was also right.

‘There are ways to do that, Judy,’ said the other. ‘You can learn to manage it.’

‘We can help you learn, Judy. You just need to let a bit of spirituality into your life.’

An ominous pause.

‘Why don’t you come with us to a meeting next week…’

And all of a sudden, on a 25 bus somewhere beyond Stratford, I realized that perhaps I was fitting in a little more than I had intended.

Now I paused.

I had been happy to go on a simple date, but they wanted to go farther. Maybe I was misinterpreting the signs, maybe I was reading too much into it, but I was startled. And though I was supremely flattered, I pulled away a bit, declining the second date, not wanting to lead anyone on. Neurotic to my core, I am much happier in my place as an outsider, to the outsiders.

‘Next week, um, is hectic for me,’ I explained.

But it was more than just my outsider preference. It dawned on me, then, that fitting in and changing were two different things. You could turn a mikva into a multiracial sauna and a siddur into the Saturday International Herald Tribune, but, there was no doubt for me, I played the record on side j. The absolute assuredness of my impulse surprised even me.

There was also a part of me that thought I had best be a bit careful. People in saunas shouldn’t throw stones. So I changed the subject to fruit-based hair products. And all went on smoothly: the Bollywood movie was OK, the cake was fine, I got some tips on tea tree juices, and so what, there wouldn’t be a kiss. That’s OK. A good time was had by all, and we could all pretend this wasn’t really a date. We were just friends. Good friends. I am good friends with Whitechapel, a place which is more into me — into my love of food and family and chat — than much of England.

Yesterday, Saturday, I went back to the sauna, as I do. I greeted my friends. We knew that something had passed between us, but it was all fine. I had nothing to hide, I knew where things stood, I could take the heat. ‘Let’s turn it up!’ I enthused, ready for a shvitz. And the sweat rolled down my back, sliding off me, no problem. Or as they say, no sweat.

Judy Batalion is a writer, lecturer, curator and performer based in London. She recently co-curated and co-authored Home and Garden, a series of exhibitions and books about paintings of British living rooms since 1700 for the Geffrye Museum of Domestic Interiors. She is currently writer-in-residence at the Women’s Art Library as well as associate lecturer in Criticism, Communication and Curation at Central Saint Martins. Judy is compiling a collection of writing about comedy audiences to be published in 2008 and her first one-woman show, ‘Totally Chana Senesh’, will preview at the Edinburgh Fringe and Toronto Hysteria festivals later this year.

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