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There is only one place in New York City to go and be part of an ancient yet modern rite of wellness, purification, and community dating back millennia. Located in the East Village and open for one hundred twenty-six years, it’s a place where you can steam, sweat, jump in a freezing pool and eat borscht in the same building. The spot? The Russian and Turkish Baths at 268 East 10th Street, just east of 1st Avenue, our February Business of the Month.
The world’s earliest known public baths were built in what is today northeast Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwest India, around 2500 BC. The oldest of these, called the “Great Bath”, was a large pool constructed of baked brick. It may have been used as a place of worship, since bathing and cleanliness have been linked to religious beliefs. The tradition of the public bath has since spread around the world, with different customs and etiquette for each destination.
The East 10th Street baths opened in 1892. Residents of the area then were largely poor immigrants, who didn’t have working plumbing in their homes. So bath houses were not a luxury, but a crucial necessity. There were a number of such baths in today’s East Village at the turn of the century, including the landmarked public bathhouse at 538 East 11th Street.
But the Russian and Turkish Baths have always been a privately operated business. The current owner and management team took over in the 1980’s, and in the time since they say their clientele has become more diverse. It is evenly distributed between men and women, popular with the young and old, all races, locals and tourists, celebrities, old-timers, the religious and secular alike. Most people want to come for steam, a ‘platza’ and a quick bite before going out on the town or heading home from work. The platza (Yiddish for shoulders or back) is an extra treat, a potent Russian healing tool enjoyed in a scorching room known as a Schvitz or Banya. This is a traditional Russian experience unlike any other. You are tapped or beaten with an oak leaf broom called a venik, a very leafy, fragrant bundle of extremely fresh oak tree twigs with what feels like the heat of a dragon’s breath. The fresh forest-like smell of the venik creates a sedative effect and melts stress. The oak leaves contain a natural astringent, which will open your pores, remove toxins, and exfoliate dead skin. You must try it at least once. Maximal benefit is obtained by taking a dip in the frigid pool immediately after, when you are then wrapped in towels by the specialist and sit with your own meditative thoughts, if you have any left at that moment.
This one of a kind business has two owners, Boris Tupelman and David Shapiro, that alternately manage the facility each week. You can buy a daylong pass, multi-day pass, or pay for a particular number of entries. Some people are so hooked they have monthly, seasonal or even lifetime memberships! Discounts are commonly available, and haggling over the price of the longer term passes is a regular occurrence. Boris’s week has the old-school paper passes, while David’s week has the more modern computer swipe card, but the heat remains the same. Boris’s grandchildren, Julius and Dasha, help manage during his week; their mother lived in the building too, before moving to Miami where they operate another location. Dmitry Shapiro is the fixture and General Manager during his father David’s week.
The star of the facility by all accounts is the much ballyhooed Russian Room. David explained: “We have a fairly unique way of heating up the room overnight and leaving the room off, allowing the heat to radiate throughout the day. We’re probably the only bath house that has cold water inside the room, allowing customers to cool off in a way that doesn’t damage the heat.” In addition to the main feature, there is a large Turkish steam room with a cold shower in the middle, a small steam room, an aromatherapy steam room where eucalyptus permeates your airways, and a traditional dry wooden sauna. All are enhanced by a plunge in the centerpiece cold pool after.
Julis and Dasha pointed out to me that visitors should not expect to walk into a chi chi spa, but a traditional Russian bathhouse. The place allows solitude and quiet, or the chance to be social and convivial, with many people meeting there regularly and getting together outside of the bathhouse. They provide, shorts, robes towels, and sandals, and you can purchase Dead Sea mud, olive soap, or coconut oil for extra. Some people bring their own mini-spa kits to mask and peel and scrub.
Like any successful small business, the Russian and Turkish Baths relies on continuous capable management and leadership — in this case spanning several families and generations. And even though the neighborhood has changed radically with each passing every decade, there is a certain continuity here that is reassuring, even as the array of clients continues to grow. They’ve added a couple of rooms, Dmitri says, “but the baths haven’t changed much in decades, and that’s a good thing.”
Asked why they have such a dedicated base of clients, Dasha says, “It is like you get addicted to it, your body thrives on it.” Dmitiri adds, “It’s the healthiest habit you can have.” You can follow-up (or extend) your visit there with a variety of strong Russian beers or mineral water, pierogis, salmon, salads, freshly made green juices, and other fare. With some of the coldest days still left this winter, it’s an ideal opportunity to warm up from the inside out in a unique way. It even made the book, “Top 100 Things to Do in NYC Before You Die.”
But any season is a great time to go to the Russian Baths. You can roll in the snow on their outdoor deck after a steam in January, or feel the fresh air and even see some stars through the trees in the spring, summer or fall as you rest on one of their cushy mats. But remember, the sign in the entrance reads, “Cards for Boris and David weeks must be purchased separately.” If you have them both you can go on any day of the month to our February Business of the Month. Click here for information.
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And here is a handy map of all of our Businesses of the Month: