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The Story of the First Jewish Steam Bath in Toronto.
By Norman Bornstein
My Zaida Mendel Riman was one of the important early Jewish settlers of
Toronto. He does not get much mention in books that outline the history of
Toronto Jews, yet he played a very important part in it. This is the story
of the Steam Baths and my grandfatherıs historic contribution as I remember
it from my personal experience and from what was told to me.
In the late 1890ıs and early 1900ıs there was only a small trickle of Jewish
immigrants from Eastern Europe to Toronto. Clubs and societies associated
with villages and towns in the old countries had yet to be formed. When the
brave few arrived in Toronto they needed to find work and places to stay
immediately and had no time to create helping organizations. So it took
individuals like my grandfather to fill the void.
The German Jewish population was well established by this time and had built
their own place of worship. They looked down on the old fashioned East
European Jews arriving from their shtetlach. Often therefore the immigrant
had no one to ask for advice. Not every new comers turned up at the Shvitz
but certainly hundreds made their way to Mr. Rimanıs baths where they were
given the information and the help they badly needed.
I know this to be true.
Mendel Rimanıs Original Spa
Mendel Rimanıs Russian Turkish Steam Bath at thirty-six Center Avenue in
the heart of downtown Toronto, was Torontoıs original spa. It became a
gathering place for rag and bottle peddlers, bookmakers, swindlers,
racketeers, rabbis, cantors, professionals and labourers as well as
businessmen in every field. It opened at on Friday afternoons so that Jews
could get clean for Shabbos. Friday nights and later, on Sunday afternoons
it was available for their ladies.
It is quite possible that most Jewish immigrants who came from Eastern
Europe to Toronto in the early 1900ıs came to Rimanıs Shvitz at least once.
There were very good reasons for this for when they came to Toronto there
were very few places to have a bath. Though there were some public baths the
Jews were not comfortable there. One bath house called Harrisonıs was
located close to the Jewish neighborhood. It was popular and cheap and had
hot showers and a small swimming pool. Everyone and anyone was admitted so
that often it attracted an unsavory clientele whom today we would describe
as skinheads. These men made life miserable for the poor Jewish immigrant
who was easily identifiable by his beard and side locks and of course when
naked at the baths. These Jews became targets of abuse and ridicule. The
timing therefore of Rimanıs Shvitz was perfect and it served an important
Jewish community need.
It was important not only for Jewish men but also for women since Rimanıs
bath house also had a mikvah. It became a popular place for the Jews of the
day and was in fact often the first place many of them visited upon their
arrival to Toronto. Mendel Riman was a forerunner of the Jewish Immigrant
Jews entered Toronto by train. After the long and arduous sea voyage they
landed in Halifax, Glace Bay Nova Scotia and other ports. Those scheduled
for Toronto arrived into Union Station tired and often bewildered. Some were
met by friends or relatives who had settled earlier in the big city. Many
however, had no idea where to go or what to do. They wandered around the
vast rotunda of Union Station until they were spotted by a staff member who
recognized and knew how to help these poor lonely Jews by directing them to
Mendel Rimanıs place. It was about a fifteen minute walk from the station.
They were told that if they walked up Bay Street and turned west to Center
Avenue they would find Rimanıs Baths and that Mr. Riman would help them. And
that indeed he did.
The Jewish Immigrant
Many Jewish immigrants therefore came to Rimanıs bath house directly from
the train station carrying their trunks and bags. He gave the hungry, tired
and unkempt newcomers a meal, a bath and a place to stay overnight. In the
morning they got sound advice on how to make a living in the new land. If
they had tailoring skills Riman sent them a blocks away to Eatonıs factory.
In those days Eatonıs manufactured most of the thousands of suits coats
dresses and childrenıs wear that were sold in their stores. They were always
ready therefore to hire tailors, cutters, pressers, sewing machine operators
and anyone who could help make a garment. Of course never were these
newcomers hired to work up front in one of the stores.
If the newcomer had no work experience or skill and or was pious and
unwilling to work on the Sabbath, my grandfather directed him to a place
where he could rent a horse and a wagon to become an independent salesman.
When he was low on funds he got a pushcart in which to put merchandise to
sell. Riman knew the places to peddle. He sent the newcomer to the better
neighbourhoods to gather old clothes, rags, bottles, metals, furniture and
any product that could be recycled or renewed for sale .
Untrained in the business world and from his personal trials my Zaida knew
how to guide and help other Jewish immigrants. Therefore many newcomers
turned to him for advice. Before1900 most Jews in Toronto came from Germany
or England. The German Jews were called die Deutche Yidden. They were better
educated and had far more money then their Eastern European cousins. They
were often ashamed of these poor Jews and looked down on them. Riman came
from their same world of the East European shtetl and he related to them
with sympathy and understanding.
Zaida was my motherıs father. His wife my grandmother Basha Fuchs or Buba to
me and my Zaida were very orthodox. Zaida stood about five feet nine inches
tall and straight. He had a long carefully trimmed beard, closely cropped
hair and blue eyes. When he was in a room you felt his presence. Even when
he didnıt say a word you knew he was there.
Being scholarly and religious Zaida needed time to study and learn. He would
not work on Shabbos, the Sabbath. He had not been a successful peddler and
looked for a better way to support his family. Though he could speak read
and write several languages the details of running a business were not to
his liking. When Zaida and Buba saw the need for a Jewish bathhouse and a
mikvah or a ritual bath, they decided to create one. Zaida made up his mind
that he would build the biggest and the best Shvitz in the city, which in
fact he did.
I donıt know how he managed it but my grandfather with another man whose
name I do not know, found and purchased a house on Center Avenue and they
went into business together. In the house they built a small steam room and
showers where at last, the Jewish peddlers of Toronto could get a hot
shower and some steam for ten cents. At the beginning the place was open
only on Friday afternoons enabling customers to prepare themselves for the
Sabbath. The mikveh and the steam rooms were available for women on Friday nights and later
on Sunday nights. The arrangement was ideal for Zaida. He didnıt have to
answer to a boss, could observe the Sabbath and study as much as he wished
while providing for his family. The family at that time consisted of my Buba, their
daughter my mother Sarah and her brother my Uncle Sam. Four more children
came in rapid order. They were Uncle Abraham whom we called Al, Aunt Gert,
Aunt Clara and Uncle Bob who only was eight years my senior.
Zaida and his Schvitz
After the Sabbath, between the hours he spent in the synagogue and studying,
Zaida and his staff made bazems for the steam room, cleaned up and prepared
for the Thursday stoking of the ovens. They received the wood needed to fire
the ovens that was delivered early in the week. Even though Zaida was now
his own boss and he could take as much time as he wanted to learn and study,
there were still a lot to learn about running a Shvitz. What kind of leaves
were needed for bazems. What rocks were best for heating the oven? What wood
would burn the longest and hottest? He did all this I imagine with much
trial and error. I donıt know where Zaida got his knowledge about steam
baths. He was after all, a scholar. I suppose he must have researched the
computer of his day that were books? More than likely he used his own
creative talent. At any rate, he came up with what was to become the
forerunner of the present day spa and health club.
Grandmother Basha - Buba to me.
Grandmother Basha was trim, about five feet one or two inches tall and
weighed about 120 pounds. She was very stylish. Her wigs that were mandatory
for Jewish religious women were in the fashion of the day. While I never
heard business discussed between Buba and Zaida, I believe that Buba was the
behind the idea of opening the shvitz. She took responsibility for the
women and their needs. Zaida must have run out of money because there was
no plumbing to fill the bathtubs in the basement that the women needed. So
Buba and her helpers carried buckets of hot water into the cubicles when a
Buba was the matriarch of the family. I recall in later years when she
became bed ridden and an invalid in an upstairs bedroom of the Brunswick
Avenue home, she called down instructions to my mother and her sister Aunt
Clara. She would holler to the kitchen telling my mother how much salt to
put in the soup. Clara and my mother nursed and looked after Bubba in her
old age. She was a strong willed lady and had much to do with the success of
the business. Later the Henry Street Shul took over the religious
requirements of mikvah for funerals and for the women.
The Peddlerıs Life
The Jewish peddlers were the first Shvitz customers. They would get up
before dawn each working day to collect and sell their merchandise. These
recently arrived poor guys were strangers to the ways of the new world.
Many of them were bearded and could neither speak nor understand English. So
they developed a trademark, a haunting cry by which they were instantly
recognized. They would call out ORags, Clothes, Bottlesı, up and down the
streets and alleyways of the city. They bought what ever the seller wanted
to get rid of that he could turn into cash for a few pennies of profit,
bargaining for every variety of stuff, a burlap bag full of empty bottles,
an old piece of furniture, outdated clothing, old unusable boilers, things
worth nothing to the owners that suddenly became very valuable to the owner
when bargaining with the Jew. In strange and hostile neighborhoods the poor
men were made the butt of many crude and practical jokes. They suffered
unimaginable abuse. Yet they persisted. If the peddler was lucky and
succeeded in picking up some brass or copper he had a good day since metals
were more valuable and the profit was greater. With some metal he might wind
up with a few dollars at the end of the day rather than just pennies.
Before dark the peddler made his way to the junkyard where the owner would
make minimum offers for the contents of the wagon. In most cases the dealer
had started in the same way, by collecting junk in the streets. One would
think that because of his similar background he would be a little more
generous and understanding. Not so! He was often meaner and more aggressive.
When the bargaining was finished and the peddler was paid off he had to take
his weary horse back to the stables where it had been hired, or if the horse
was his own it would have to be rubbed down, cleaned fed and ready for the
next dayıs work.
The peddlerıs long tiresome week ended by Friday afternoon since Friday
sundown was the beginning of the Sabbath. No matter how a Jew made his
living he would not go to the synagogue without a body cleansing and change
of clothes. He would knock off from work a little early on Friday afternoon
and make his way to Center Avenue for steam and a shower. There the steam
opened his pores cleaning out the weekıs accumulation of dirt and grime.
Each came with a parcel of clean shirt and underwear, pants and jacket if he
In the new building that I remember a twenty cent admission fee was paid at
the wicket and in return a customer got a small slice of soap and a small
towel. The soap was usually cut about half an inch wide from bars of P &G
laundry soap. In the changing room stuff was hung on large nails with
smaller items in box size containers. There were no locks or lockers when
the Shvitz first opened. The customer went naked into the shower room. In a
corner lay a large supply of bazems that were oak leaf brushes used to apply
soap to the body in the steam room. He chose one making certain there were
no protruding sticks. Into a wooden buckets from the stack next to the
bazems he would add a few inches of hot water along with his piece of soap
and with the bazem stir up a soapy lather. It was always surprising how
much lather that little bar was able to produce.
The wooden buckets were old lard pails that Zaida obtained from the
abattoirs. I could never understand about those buckets. After all, they
did at one time contain lard, which of course was a-ONo, Noı. But they in
fact had been thoroughly scoured with boiling water and then burned on the
inside. Wooden buckets were apparently necessary to make a successful soap
mixture. The peddler could now enter the steam room. Followed by a hot
shower and dressed in fresh underwear, clean shirt and Shabbos clothing the
bedraggled peddler was transformed. With shining face, his beard combed and
brushed he was ready for the Shabbos rest.
In the early days of the Shvitz, many years before I was born, I was told
that the peddlers and junk dealers would carry their working clothes into
the steam room with them. They had been out all week and worked sometimes in
the filthiest of conditions. They picked and sorted rusted metals, mildewed
furniture and clothing, slimy half filled bottles with moldy liquids. Often
they would become lice infested. The peddler took his clothes into the steam
room to get rid of the germs and bugs that had remained on them even after a
thorough brushing. I was told that the sound of cracking bugs could actually
be heard in the steam room when the steam hit them. Howıs that for a modern
Shabbos at Home.
At home the women also prepared themselves for Shabbos. They cooked the
Friday evening meal as well as for Saturday. They washed and scrubbed all
the floors. Hardwood floors had to be waxed and polished to a high gloss.
The boxed hard wax was applied with a rag by hand on her knees. The floors
were then buffed with a flannel cloth pushed and pulled across the surface
of the floor under a heavy weighted metal block. When the floors were clean
and polished they were covered with newspaper to keep them spotless until
candle lighting time. With the house clean and in order and the food cooked
the women washed and dressed themselves and their children in their Shabbos
best. Everything was ready when the men came home clean and shining from the
Before 1902 there were only about 3000 Jews in Toronto. By 1912, believe it
or not, as the Canadian Government permitted free immigration to Toronto the
Jewish population rose from 3000 to 35,000 Jews. With this growth many
began to prosper. The peddling and junk business became overcrowded. Both
new comers as well as the old timers started new business ventures. Clerks
became store- keepers. Rag peddlers now owned junkyards. Scrap metal dealers
opened steel foundries or became metal fabricators. Kosher butchers
flourished and some opened their own abattoirs, selling the non-kosher meat
to gentile butchers. Bakers prospered. Some tailors, cutters and designers
opened their own factories for men and womenıs clothing. Painters and
carpenters became builders and others became real estate developers
The Enlarged Building
Business was good. Zaida managed to buy out his partner and acquire the
house nextdoor building creating a larger building into which I was born and
that became the center of my world. The building had a brick and glass
façade with a large sign in front proclaiming ³RIMAN'S RUSSIAN TURKISH STEAM
BATH RELIEVES the PAIN of RHEUMATISM, LUMBAGO, ARTHRITIS². In fact it did
that for a short time anyway.
I think back to the time when I was six or seven years old. At that time,
the familyıs prosperity improved had quite a bit. Zaida bought a house on
Brunswick Avenue. It seemed like a mansion to me. My parents had already
moved to Borden Street, the next street west of Brunswick. My parents,
younger brother and I moved from Borden up the hill to Glenholme Avenue.
That was pretty classy for those days. Tragically, my father who was a
printer was killed in an automobile accident. My mother and brother and I
moved back in with my grandparents. Fortunately there was plenty of space. I
was eight years old at that time.
I always think of the house on Brunswick as the place where I grew up. I
lived there from age eight to my early twenties. The street was beautiful.
It had a boulevard and was lined with huge elm, oak and maple trees. In the
summer they formed a huge bower from the east to the west sides. The leaves
kept out the sun so the street was relatively cool. When I was fourteen I
started to help my grandfather in the business and at age twenty my
responsibilities grew much more. I remember only the enlarged building.
Safety Issues at the Shvitz
Before the building was enlarged the main entrance opened into a hallway
with a small office that led to dressing rooms, a shower room and the steam
room. A customer paid twenty cents at the wicket of the small office for a
slice of P & G soap, a towel and the bouquet of oak leaves called a bazem.
At the little office before getting undressed the customer handed over
valuables such as wallets and watches that we stuffed into small numbered
leather pouches. The client was given a metal disc with a corresponding
number. The pouch was then placed into our very large safe that stood in one
corner at the back of the office jutting out into the lounge area. Money was
never counted, at least in my presence, nor was the pouch sealed. The client
went into the changing room where he hung his clothes on a nail in the wall
and placed his smaller items in open cubicles. While the safe looked fool
proof, it could not in fact be locked and it had no dial. We had only a
small key and even that didnıt work.
It is remarkable that during all the years of operation at the Shvitz there
was never, a holdup or an attempted robbery with no locks on lockers and an
unsafe safe. In fact most of the time the office was manned by an old man,
my Zaida, or by me, a sixteen-year-old boy. On any Saturday night there were
probably several thousand dollars in that safe. Imagine such a set up today!
Anyone could have come in and threatened the roomful of forty or fifty
naked men and the sixteen-year-old boy. Yet never in all the years that the
Shvitz was run by the Riman family was there an attempted robbery.
As the Jews prospered they wanted more luxuries. The new enlarged building
now had a large beautiful changing and rest room with wooden closets and
real coat hangers including a shelf for odds and ends. The closets had doors
that closed with a small wing nut but no lock. In the middle of the room
stood forty couches called ³lonches². They stood twenty in a row head to
head, the type associated with psychiatristıs offices. This new additional
changing room was only for higher paying customer. The old one was for the
poorer folks at the former twenty cent price.
The new enlarged shower room had tiled walls with two showers at one end of
the room and two enclosed toilets. It held two marble topped massage tables
and the Mikvah with steps leading down to the water of the pool. I was the
only Jewish boy in Toronto who had my own private swimming pool.
Prices Raised More Amenities.
When the price was raised to forty cents, the customer received more
amenities such as larger towels, a sheet and two bars of soap. Sheets were
made of sugar bags, four to a sheet washed and bleached to a snowy white
colour. Four bags were sewn together to make one large sized very water
The upstairs rooms that had been the Riman living quarters were now
furnished with beds for the use of the customers. One very large room held
ten beds and five smaller rooms held two to four beds each. The rooms had no
other furniture and the beds were white iron metal cots like those seen in
old hospital ward pictures. The mattresses were not very thick but they were
The basement was divided in two sections. One held eight private wooden
enclosed bathtubs mainly for the use of the women. Another section was a
work and storage areas for tools and materials where the staff crafted the
bazems. The basement also held a furnace and coal storage to heat the
building. In the backyard shed there was a large coke fed boiler that
created the hot water that was piped into the building for the operation of
The Bazem was an oaken hand held bouquet of branches and leaves used by the
customer to apply the soap lather to his body for his steam bath. There
remain one or two places in Toronto that still use them.
Each bazem was made by hand. These were about twenty four inches in diameter
with a handle of about five inches of bare branches. The handle was put in a
special vice. The small branches were stripped to form a handle that was
tightly bound with twine and was just big enough for an average sized hand.
The center of the bazem was prepared so that no sharp twig or bare branch
would protrude to scratch the body of the customer. The bouquet was as soft
as possible for a bunch of oak leaves and was softened more by soap and hot
Tons of oak leaf branches were gathered in the country in the Fall, before
the leaves began to change colour. It was crucial that they be harvested at
just the right time. To get these branches Zaida went to Pontypool Ontario
where some Jews owned farms. Zaide arranged when to have them cut the oak
leaf branches. Several wagon loads of these small branches were shipped to
the Shvitz where they were cut to the proper size.
Making bazems was a weekly chore for the staff. Two handy men did
everything. If the supply of oak leaf branches gave out in late summer they
would repair some old stock of bazems.
Buckets and Lather
In preparation for a steam bath the bazem was dipped into a thoroughly
scoured oak bucket containing a measured amount of hot water to which soap
was added. The mixture was stirred to just the right consistency forming a
rich creamy lather.
Steam Room and Hot Rocks
The steam room our wonderful shvitz was the big attraction. This was no
ordinary room. These days a steam room or sauna is about a four foot by
eight foot room, lined with cedar wooden risers or steps and they can
accommodate five or six people at a time. At our shvitz the room was about
twenty-five feet square with a ceiling height of about twelve feet. It was
the biggest and best Shvitz in the country. Along two of the walls of the
room there were four concrete steps each about three feet wide with risers
of two feet. The surface of the steps was smooth for sitting and a person
could easily sit upright on the top step since the ceiling was so high.
In addition to the height and size of the large steam room what made it
special was the way the steam was generated. Behind one wall of this
twenty-five foot square room there was a small enclosure about ten feet
square lined with firebricks. The enclosure had a huge arch of fired-bricks
that were impervious to the most intense heat. In front of it stood a brick
grill, a platform on which stones were placed. Each stone
was carefully chosen. Each stone was about the size of a large bowling ball.
They had to have been exposed to the elements for long enough to withstand
the terrific heat they would be subject to without disintegrating. The rocks
were placed on the grated platform of the oven. The grate made of
fire-bricks held the bowling ball sized rocks piled to a depth
of five layers and about four feet high. Each stone had to be carefully
placed to permit the heat and air from below to reach it.
Under the platform grill were placed two cords of very dry hardwood. The
hardwood was lit on Thursday night and burned so intensely that the tons of
rocks above became white hot by Friday noon. Beside the doorway were hot and
cold water taps and a small bench for the water buckets.
Filling the Room with Steam
Now came the exciting important part of the process, filling the room hot
with steam. All the customers were told to get as close to the floor as
possible while one of the attendants or an experienced customer would fill a
bucket with very hot water. He would open the door to the brick oven room
and throw a pail of hot water onto the white hot rocks. WOOSH!! Steam
would form instantaneously rushing out and filling the large shvitz room.
Sometimes a second bucket was thrown but usually one would suffice. The
naked men quickly coated themselves with lather with their bazem protecting
their skin from the intense heat that opened their pores and cleansed their
bodies. They would throw cold water over their heads and shoulders and
scrambled up the steps to the height that they could tolerate. The steam
could become unbearably hot especially on the highest steps. The higher one
climbed the hotter the steam. Before a customer ventured to the top step he
would our an additional bucket of cold water his head. This was inevitably
followed by a cry of pain or pleasure. What a great feeling! Since frequent
coolings were necessary some folks brought their old felt hats to the shvitz
and filled them with cold water to cool their hot bodies.
This is the way a professional playtza was given. The top step of the shvitz
was covered with burlap bags soaked in cold water. The customer lay down on
the bags and the playtza-giver covered him with lather from a bazem that he
had specially made for himself. This bazem was large and made of the most
tender branches. The professional owned additional whole bars of soap for
extra lather for these customers. He covered his customerıs back or front
with lather and placed another cold burlap bag over the feet and legs. The
customer was now completely protected from the heat. The massage, a strong
body rub was now given. It removed every ache and pain for a little while
anyway. For steam lovers there is nothing like the feelings you get when
given a proper playtza massage on the top step. When the client got so hot
that he didnıt think he could stand it for even one more second the
experienced massager splashed a bucket of cold water over him
The Playtza Giver
Those who could afford another fifty cents could have the treatment called a
Playtza. As time passed most of the customers could afford a playtza every
time they came. So, in addition to the regular full time hired man working
at the baths, who gave playtzas to augment his income, another playtza giver
was added. His name was Noosen. This man weighed about 90 pounds soaking wet
and stood maybe five feet two or three. He looked like the starved and
emaciated people whose pictures we see of concentration camp survivors. But
he was very healthy. He could tolerate enormous temperatures of heat. No
sooner was a bucket of water tossed onto the stones and the steam rushed out
than Noosen was at the top step in the ³playtza² corner preparing it with
the burlap bags, soaked felt hats, bazems and cold running water. Noosen
would beckon his customer up and work on him for about fifteen minutes. He
could do this for hours at a time. No sooner was he finished with one, then
the next man would be waved up. Of course, sometime in between, more water
would have to be thrown on the rock to generate more steam. In this way, at
fifty cents a shot Noosen supported his wife and six children..
Working as a Teenager
When I was about fourteen, I started to go down and help Zaida at the
Shvitz. Saturday afternoons I set up for the evening customers. I stacked
the sheets and towels, cut the P&G bars of soap into proper slices, check
that the bazem bin had enough products for the night. I would fill the
cooler with ice and pop to be ready for the customers. This meant that I had
very little social life. I was a teenager. My friendıs parties and
gatherings usually took place on Saturday nights. Some of the boys would
come and visit me after the parties were over, around eleven oıclock on. If
I was very busy they would help me serve the pop and clean up. As I grew
older and more responsible, I remained on duty by myself until closing time
about two oıclock in the morning. Zaida would get there very early on
Sunday morning, before I awoke and take his shift until about two in the
afternoon. The women started to come in about five pm when my mother and my
Aunt Clair took their turns.
New Customers - Finns, Athletes, Jockeys, Boxers
By this time the fame of the Center Ave. Steam Baths was growing. The sign
outside advertised that the steam was helpful to cure the aches and pains of
arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, colds and other ailments. We didnıt have to
worry much about false advertising. There were now many customers who could
not get through a week without their regular steam and massage. Some would
have to be helped in. After the steam they would walk without help, free for
the moment from their pain.
Scandinavians and their Sauna.
More customers began to come. There was not yet a public Sauna or the
Finnish steam room in Toronto. Sauna later became the most common name
describing steam baths. I guess Shvitz did not sound genteel enough. One
thing the Finns and Scandinavian know about it is the steam room. Their
Saunas differ from the Shvitz, in that they do not use lather or oak leaf
bazems with which to protect themselves from the hot steam. They use small
switches of cedar or other evergreen branches with which to beat themselves.
When a Finn gets to the top step of the sauna, he holds a switch of
evergreen branches in the air for a few moments and proceeds to whack his
body with it. This brings hot blood to the skin surface opening his pores as
he continues smiting himself. To onlookers it seemed like tortuous
flagellation but the Finn loves it. Sometimes he would leave the sauna in
winter and dive into a frozen lake or pond where previously he cut a hole.
Sometimes the Finn would roll in a snow bank. This cooled him off in a hurry
and closed his pores up tight. As far as taking steam is concerned, the
Finns are the champs
After a shvitz the client often wrapped himself in white sheets to fall
asleep on the lonches. Sometimes the men on the ³lonches² would debate
argue and discuss politics, or religion, art, music, sex or business. It
was very interesting to listen to the conversations of the big blonde Finns
with the little dark, often bearded Jew at the shvitz. As they compared the
types and methods of taking steam their conversation was in English. The
accents on both sides were so thick that a native Canadian could hardly make
out what was being said. But they understood each other perfectly.
Losing Weight in the Shvitz
Jockeys became regular customers If they had to get their weight down for a
race the following day they came in with split rubber tire tubes. These they
wrapped around their bodies as they sat in the steam room. Encircled with
rubber they could sweat off the pound or two of moisture to make their
required weight. They would not eat or drink until the race was over since
even a drink of water could restore the weight they lost in the steam room.
Many people think they lose weight in a steam bath. We had customers, both
men and women, who really believed they were losing weight. They would get
on the scale for one cent, before the steam. After they came out of the
steam they weighed in for another cent and gleefully exclaim they had lost a
pound or two or five. Of course, all the loss was moisture. As soon as they
had anything to drink the weight came back on. But, they were happy and who
were we to remind them that they would regain the lost pounds in a couple of
In those days there was not a great deal of entertainment in Toronto. There
were movies, some concerts and of course hockey. The fights attracted very
good crowds. There was some sort of boxing program going on in some part of
the city nearly every week- some weeks every night but Sunday. There were
professional and so-called amateur fights. Some promoters held stag parties
just to have boxing bouts. The boxers came in during training for their next
fight as well as following a tough fight for a soothing steam and massage
The black population of Toronto was very small in the 1920s and 1930s. Those
who were here learned, like the young Jewish men of the times knew that
boxing was a very good way to get recognized and make a little money. There
were many famous Jewish boxers and the blacks soon found that boxing was
also good for them. They all began to come to the Shvitz. Larry Gaines the
black light heavyweight champ of Canada was a regular customer and was
always treated as the hero he was.
I can still picture the scene of the handsome tall black athletes, big
blonde Finns and little Jewish guys all wrapped in their white sheets lying
and sitting on our couches discussing the world of sports.
Saturday night was the biggest night in town for all sorts of events, the
fights, smokers, stags, floating crap and poker games. In those days there
was horse racing, basketball and hockey even before Hockey Night became
popular in Canada. Bookies were busy with all of these events. At about 11
oıclock, after most of the Saturday night action had slowed, down these
gentlemen, and mostly they were gentlemen, soft spoken, with kind words and
very polite, would begin to drift in. Most had odd nicknames such as OThe
Beastı, OJoe the Goofı, OBearı, ORed Shapiroı, OLittle Shapiroı. Many had an
entourage a group of guys who were always around them. They also had
nicknames like Porky, Lefty, Shrimpy, Horny, Little Goof, Dummy.
The bookmakers were all rivals in business and their business was a tough
one. There were no computers or even hand held calculators back then.
Betting odds were calculated with pencil and paper. Some of them did it all
in their heads. They remembered everything they had to. Some were
mathematical geniuses. I remember one of them in his younger days worked at
the racetracks calculating the odds of each race. The work was fast and
furious and he had to be right. I guess he figured that if he could do this
on his own he made more money as a bookmaker. They were all smart, tough and
cagey. Yet, when they came to the Shvitz there was never an argument amongst
them. They participated in the general discussions and sometimes raised
their voices only to be heard above the din that sometimes occurred, but in
general they were quite reserved.
There was not much entertainment after dark on a Saturday night in Toronto.
I will tell you about our own exciting races. Our steam bath, despite the
fact that it was being continually cleaned and scrubbed was quite damp.
Laundries were not as thoroughly inspected as they are today. Every Saturday
as I would stack the newly arrived laundered sheets and towels, I spotted
the odd roach scampering from the white sheets and towels. No matter how
many times the place was fumigated, no matter how many gallons of roach
killer insecticide were sprayed, they continued to multiply.
One night, a bored customer who had either won or lost a lot of money that
day, came up with the idea of cockroach races. Naturally, when you want them
they became scarce. Eventually a few were captured and marked with tiny
numbers. A course was laid out on the floor, bets were made and the new
sport became a regular part of Saturday nights. The noise and the cheering,
which went on, made one think an Olympic race was being held. But no, they
were just the lowly cockroaches. The bets were real. No money changed hands
at the time of the races. The settlement had to wait until the customer
retrieved his pouch from the safe when he was leaving. It was always an
honour system and each winner and loser knew how much he had won or lost and
always paid up. I do not recall a welched bet.
The only refreshment we had available was the cold pop. Sometimes a customer
would ask for sandwiches to be sent from Solomonıs Deli, a few blocks away
on Dundas Street. Corned beef or pastrami sandwiches cost a nickel each.
Soon the price was raised to two for fifteen cents. I always enjoyed it when
too much was ordered and I was given the leftover sandwiches. These I shared
with my friends who came to keep me company after their Saturday night
The one exception were the butchers, who never left over any food . When a
butcher eats, he really eats. When he drinks, a small shot of liquor never
do. They came in groups and brought large quantities of various kinds of
smoked meats with bread and pickles. They built a sandwich that put the
modern sub to shame. It looked like a delicate party sandwiches in
comparison. The butcher put large amounts of meat between two slices of rye
bread and opened wide. Before eating of course they had to have an
appetizer. The choice was imported scotch. Sometime they would drink Old
Mull, a Canadian brand of scotch. They would fill their large glass
tumblers, right to the brim. This they downed in one or two gulps without a
grimace holding out their glasses for a refill. Amazing was the capacity and
appetite these guys had. I never saw one of them drunk.
One reason I believe was that they went back into the steam room to sweat it
all out. Anyone going into the steam room after one of these orgies could
smell the alcohol that oozed out of their pores.
Boyfriends and the Butchers
This story about the butchers happened when I was in my late teens. Some of
my friends wanted to get into the act. They asked the butchers to share
their meat and drink the following week. The butchers agreed that if they
paid their share, the boys could join them. The next week my friends came
early. They wanted to show off that they could consume as much liquor as the
butchers did. They had filled an empty bottle of Old Mull, the Canadian
Scotch whiskey, with cold sweetened tea. This they announced was their
appetizer before they participated in the laid out goodies. They filled
their tumblers with the cold tea that looked like scotch and swallowed the
drink just like they had seen the butchers do in previous weeks. Then they
announced that they were ready for more. Iım pretty sure that the butchers
were wise to them. They poured full tumblers of the real thing for them. The
boys could not lose face and they had to swallow. They didnıt eat too much
of the smoked meats that night. They were too sick.
Trying to close Early
During the first couple of years of my Saturday night shifts I got pretty
tired by the 2am closing on Sunday morning. I had been on duty since three
pm and by the time we were ready to close, I was pretty beat. Once a year I
would try and cheat my customers out of an hour and every year I failed.
When the day came to change to daylight savings time I would go to the big
clock on the wall and move the hands forward one hour at midnight. When the
clock read two AM, I would announce closing time. I asked those who were
staying overnight to go upstairs to the beds and the others to please claim
their valuables and leave. Not once did this sneaky ruse succeed. The
customers noted what I had done and remained for the extra hour. The same
thing happened in reverse in October when we reverted to Standard time. The
customers would always insist that it was only one AM and I was stuck for
the extra hour. I was quite young and could not win many arguments with my
Professionals at the Shvitz
We began to get more professional customers, doctors, lawyers, dentists and
a few accountants. The profession of accountancy had not reached its present
day popularity with young Jews though we did have bookkeepers. Important
Jewish professionals of our day were the rabbis and the cantors. These
gentlemen were regular customers. One of the most famous Toronto cantors was
a tall very handsome man. He carried himself with great dignity. His vocal
ability and his musicianship were known throughout the Jewish population of
Canada. The choirs he conducted and trained were extraordinarily good. Many
graduates from his groups became recognized vocalists and musicians. He was
also an accredited mohel who performed the circumcision of nearly every
newborn Jewish baby boy. He continued this part of his work until he was
well into his eighties and had to be convinced to retire. I donıt know if he
was getting a little shaky, but the parents of eight-day-old infants
certainly were a little wary of trusting their darling to an eighty-year-old
man with a sharp knife in his hand. Of course there were other cantors who
had steady positions with the larger synagogues. Some cantors freelanced,
traveling around the country especially during the High Holidays to eke out
a small living.
A fight at the Shvitz
One Sunday morning, Cantor W, the mohel, was resting after his steam and
talking with another Cantor H who did not have a regular pulpit but was kept
pretty busy. He had a fine voice and gave singing lessons to supplement his
income. Many members of his family went on to become famous singers,
musicians and dancers. These two men W and H were lying quietly and talking
when suddenly they began to argue very loudly. W was tall with a very
athletic looking build. H was short and stout. Both had very powerful
voices and they could be heard through the whole building. Before any one
realized it the two men began to fight. They had no idea about how to box,
but fists were flying and arms were flailing. They were both stark naked.
The shorter one, H wrapped his arms around the tall W and threw him to the
floor. We could not believe what we were seeing. These two pillars of the
community, two well respected men came to blows. I donıt know what caused
the fracas, but some said it had to do with protecting territory. No matter
what it was a very strange and disturbing sight. Onlookers soon parted them
but they would not calm down. Epithets were hurled back and forth. One of
the combatants was taken upstairs. The other quickly dressed and left the
building. The other soon followed. It was many weeks before either came back
to the Shvitz. W came in on a Friday afternoon and continued to do this for
many years. I donıt recall if H ever came back.
Our place attracted bookies, gamblers, fighters, con men and others with not
too savory reputations. They often came every day that we were open and
sometimes two to four times a week. But never did we see them fight. There
were certainly arguments and raised voices, but never a punch was thrown.
And here, two religious and respected men of the community lost control. It
was quite a scandal and a subject of conversation for a long time.
Sunday was the traditional time for fathers and grandfathers to bring their
sons and grandsons children who ranged in age from six to sixteen to the
Shvitz. Quite a few of these young children were in the room at the time of
the fight. I wonder what effect it had on their concept of holy men. Of
course the fighters were not rabbis, but then a cantor was often held in
just as high esteem.
a Death in the Shvitz
Iıve mentioned Moishe, our one full time employee. He did everything. He
stoked the fires, made the bazems, cleaned and painted. He was also our
engineer since he looked after the boiler. The boiler was a monster that
continually gave us problems. It was in a shed in the back yard and it
heated the thousands of gallons of water. But it was always giving us
trouble. It seemed that hardly a week went by when one of the tubes inside
would blow. The repair people were very good about coming quickly to repair
the damage. It was too expensive to replace so we made do with what we had.
One Saturday morning the boiler people did their job and advised Moishe that
everything was OK. It was his routine to go to the synagogue in the
morning, come back for lunch and take a long rest to be ready for the busy
hard work ahead for the night and following day. This particular Saturday
morning Moishe must have had too many lıchaim-drinks following prayer
services and fell fast asleep after lunch. He awoke very groggy and went out
to inspect the boiler that was in a pit. The pit had a drain that carried
off excess water. It was usually dry except when a tube burst and then it
would then fill with water.
Moishe must have been pretty groggy for he did not see that the pit was full
of boiling water. Either the mechanics did not do their job properly or
another tube had burst immediately afterwards. We could never find out. At
any rate Moishe walked out half asleep and stumbled into the usually dry
I came into work about an hour later and found Moishe on one of the couches
practically unconscious. He had dragged himself out of the pit and into the
rest area. I was frightened out of my wits but managed to call the General
Hospital,that was not too far away. They sent an ambulance and took poor
Moishe away. He died that night of third degree burns. It was a horrible
There was an inquest. I remember this vividly. It was my only experience of
this kind. I was asked questions about what happened and my knowledge of the
events. Zaida was interrogated. It was a normal inquest but both Zaida and I
felt we were being accused of murdering poor Moishe in cold blood. The jury
ruled that the death was an accident.
Zaida Gets Sick
Immediately after this event, Zaida began to get sick. I donıt know how it
could cause diabetes, pernicious anemia and heart problems, but all of these
were diagnosed after stays in General Hospital. Insulin was newly discovered
and it prolonged Zaidaıs life for some years. I can still see him boiling
water to sterilize the big syringe. He would go into what we called the
summer kitchen with his syringe and little bottle of insulin and give
himself the injection. For his anemia he had to take liver injections. It
seemed that the two, liver and insulin were not compatible and Zaida was
never very comfortable. However he had remarkable fortitude. Not once did I
ever hear him complain.
Every morning he would go to the synagogue to spend a few hours in study,
then to the Shvitz and back to the synagogue for evening prayers. His shul
(synagogue) was at first the Terauley Street Shul at Bay and Dundas Street,
where the Eatonıs Center now stands. He would walk from Brunswick Avenue all
the way to Bay and Dundas every day, rain snow or shine, hot or cold.
The Jewish Community Moves Northward
As the years passed and the Jewish community moved northward to the
Bathurst, Spadina, College Street areas, little shteebles, shules in houses,
began to spring up. With each new group of Jews a new shul was formed.
Sometimes there were as many as three in a block. Zaida helped form the
small shul in place of his old Bathurst Street Shul just a few hundred yards
from where we lived at Ulster and Brunswick Avenue.
The Jewish community was growing quite rapidly and many families had moved
out of the downtown area. They moved from Chestnut, Elizabeth, Dundas, and
the University Avenues to Yonge and Dundas to Queen streets core. They began
the northwest trek to the Spadina, Bathurst area. They moved west to Grace
and Manning and east to Beverley and Huron streets and to the fringes of
these areas. The Shvitz was quite a distance from these parts and while some
of our customers had automobiles, most came by foot or by public
transportation. Until this time if they wanted a Shvitz they had no choice
but to come to Center Avenue.
One day a regular customer of ours decided he would go into the Shvitz
business with a partner. They built a new modern steam bath on Bathurst
Street a couple of blocks south of College. This area was then the heart of
the Jewish community. The facilities were modern and had both wet and dry
steam rooms. They had a lunchroom and very importantly they sold Coca Cola
something we never did. My Zaida bought his pop from a Jewish bottler and
decided that our customers could do without Coke. The new Shvitz was taking
away our customers and things looked pretty grim for the Riman Shvitz.
Bell Telephone and Opportunities Lost
The economy was still pretty good and there was lots of money around. Rumors
started that the Bell Telephone company was buying up the properties on
Center Avenue. Speculators came around and offered Zaida fifty thousand
dollars for his land. That was a fortune in those days. At two percent
interest he could have kept his family clothed and fed with the odd luxury
thrown in. He refused. It was not because he thought he could get more from
Bell. He just did not like land speculators. He thought it immoral and said
he would only deal with principals who wanted the property for their own
Then one of our customers a builder and contractor came to Zaida with a
terrific proposal. He had been to New York City and stayed at a hotel built
for traveling businessmen. It had wonderful steam rooms, bowling allies,
pool tables, swimming pool and restaurants. It was a very good hotel at very
reasonable prices. He wanted to do the same thing in Toronto. He had plans
for a six-story building and he wanted to buy the land behind Center Avenue
that faced University Avenue. This would have been a wonderful thing for the
city as Toronto that was badly in need of this type of accommodation.
Zaida accepted the idea and things looked really very good. Architects were
hired and they started to design what was going to be a great building.
Sub-contractors were hired and everything was ready to go when it happened.
The stock market crashed in October of 1929.
This was the beginning of the end for many people and the start of the great
depression. Money supplies dried up. Our friend and chief mover for this
project had to close down all of his other projects and of course ours was
dead. Not only that project died but Bell Telephone changed their plans and
stopped buying land just two doors south of our place at number thirty-six
Zaidaıs illnesses caught up with him. He became too sick to attend to
business and I was too young to handle it alone. An emergency call was made
to Uncle Bob in Buffalo. Bob was Zaidaıs youngest son. He was in the
millinery business as were the other family members and unmarried at the
time. He was asked to come to help out. Bob packed his belongings in his
1929 Essex Coupe and came home to take charge. He was eight years older than
me and had both a University education and business experience. He was a
wonderful guy. We became good friends. Also contacted at the same time was
Uncle AL another of Zaidaıs sons in the millinery business who was a very
good artist and Zaidaıs brother Beresh Riman who settled in Buffalo where he
and his family also became successful operators of millinery stores.
The Depression Deepens
Things were really rough. The depression was in full swing. The Bathurst
Street competition was hurting us badly. The only thing they couldnıt
compete with was our steam room. OShvitzersı who appreciated a good steam
bath knew that there was nothing like our Shvitz. Our room was hotter,
dryer, bigger and much more comfortable. This, we could count on.
So we started to give our customers extra services. When they came out of
the shower room they had been given a towel and a sheet. Now we gave them an
extra towel. With great ceremony we unfolded and draped a fresh sheet over
their backs. We went around the lounge area offering free cigarettes. One of
us was always going around the room with a little carpet sweeper. And
finally, we added Coca Cola to our ice chest. That became a cause for
celebration for some of our customers.
Pop Sales and Debts
Strangely enough the pop sales were part of our undoing adding to our
accumulated debt to the laundry and other suppliers. Because my Zaida was so
well respected and looked up to, the suppliers never asked him for money.
They were also long time friends. Zaida was not much of a businessman and
while he must have made the odd payment, he never bothered to pay his bills
unless he was asked to. Accounts payable grew enormously. When Zaida became
sick and Bob and I took over, there was no hesitation on the part of the
pop, laundry, coal and others to ask for payment of long overdue bills. It
was astounding that they continued delivering their goods and services week
after week when they were owed substantial amounts of money. The debts were
legitimate and we had to scrounge to pay them off
In buying Coca Cola, for which we paid cash, we did not have to purchase so
many other kinds of pop. The suppliers delivered less. We paid c.o.d. as we
paid off small amounts on our debts. We opened on Wednesday an additional
day to generate a little more cash flow. Every Monday morning, we went down
to Center Avenue to get ready for the weeksı business.
In the past the steam room had been whitewashed about every three months.
The wooden benches and trim were painted at the same time. Now the steam
room was whitewashed every week and all parts of the shower room that were
not tiled were freshly painted every two weeks. In those days we did not
have long lasting quick dry washable paints. Our paint was oil based. Bob
and I did the all the work ourselves.
One day the arch of firebricks behind the hot rocks began to disintegrate.
The bricks had become brittle from constant use. They literally fell apart.
We had to close the place for a week while the oven was repaired and a new
arch of firebricks was installed. Though we had recently put in new stones
and rocks, these also had to be replaced.
When repairs were completed we opened for business. The first pail of hot
water was tossed on to the white-hot rocks and the steam that came out was a
wonder to behold. It was so powerful that if the steam engine had not
already been invented, any one who observer of the phenomena would realize
that the force could drive almost anything.
Until this time the door from our steam room opened outwards into the shower
room which was the normal way. However the force of the steam opened the
door to the shower room every time a bucket of water was thrown onto the
rocks. A lot of the steam was lost into the shower room that became damper
as we lost steam needed for the shvitz. We got an idea. Why not reverse the
door opening? This arrangement, we thought, would keep the steam in the
steam room where it was needed and the shower room would stay relatively
dry. Why had we not thought of this simple solution before?
We immediately changed the door jamb so now one had to pull instead of push
to get out to get out of shvitz into the shower room. We were ready for the
test. Our handy man, the one who replaced Moishe, filled his pail with
steaming hot water, opened the oven door and tossed the water on to the
white hot rocks. Almost before he could get out of the way, the steam roared
out filling the shvitz. Suddenly there was an ominous c-r-ac-k. We had no
idea what caused the noise. We were so excited and pleased that the steam
remained in the shvitz and our idea had worked.
Then we saw the cement falling from the corners of the ceiling. We looked
more closely and saw cracks and openings between the wall and the ceiling
all around the room. The force of the steam had been so great that it
actually lifted the ceiling. There went another money saving idea.
Sometimes I tell this story and laugh, but it certainly was no laughing
matter. The cost of repairs was not great, but to us at that time, it was
One Price for All
Because of these unforeseen costs, we decided it was time to do away with
the two-price system. We were charging forty cents to the peddlers who came
on Friday afternoons. They were satisfied with a thin slice of soap and a
skimpy towel. Sixty cents was by this time our price for deluxe service in
the big lounge room that included the use of the couches, big sheets, larger
towels, more soap and free cigarettes.
However there were by this time fewer peddlers and many who had already
graduated to the big dressing room. Our decision to have only one price of
sixty cents resulted in some of the most unbelievable tales of woe. The old
timers complained that they had already suffered a price increase from
twenty cents to forty cents over the last fifteen years, and that an
increase of twenty cents was unwarranted. They claimed they could not afford
it. They said they had stuck with us through thick and thin and threatened
to go to Bathurst Street even though they would have to pay more there, and
so on. Some of these men rumor had it, were quite well off and could well
afford the extra twenty cents. But there were some that we had to oblige. We
had forty cent customers until the day we closed.
Meeting the Competiton
Our competition on Bathurst Street had lockers with steel locks and keys
which also became a cause. The fact that not a penny nor any valuable was
ever missed or lost at Center Street meant nothing. The customers wanted
keys to their lockers. They couldnıt be blamed of course. Eventually we gave
in and installed locks on each locker door. I donıt believe they were any
more secure, but it satisfied the Shvitzers. They still gave us their
valuables to put in the office safe for security.
At this time small individual bars of Palmolive and Ivory soap had just come
on the market. We decided to add a touch of class by providing one of these
wrapped bars in addition to the cut slices of P&G soap we had been using.
It did a lot for customer relations. Those who remained with us boasted of
the good service and personal attention they were getting on Center Avenue.
However despite our service of unfolding the sheets, the wrapped soap and
free cigarettes, all of this was not enough.
Our customer base was declining. Fewer Shvitzers were showing up and it
reached the point where we could no longer cope. The depression was in full
swing. Money and jobs were very hard to come by. Our cash flow was minimal.
Buba had to sell her jewelry to help pay the bills.
We decided that there was no use struggling any longer. The expenses became
too much for us. Household expenses, food and the like had to come out of
the weekly revenue that we all worked for to use as spending money. My
weekly pay was $2.00 and I think Bob took about $5.00.
The Most Valuable Property in Toronto
We had been stalling the mortgage payments for some time now and we had to
tell the mortgage holder that we could not make the payments. The total
mortgage was $4,000.00. Our property sat on what would turn out to be one of
the most valuable pieces of land in downtown Toronto where the Bell
telephone building now stands at University and Dundas Streets.
The property was lost to my family for failure to pay interest on a
$4,000.00 mortgage. We really just ran out of steam.
When I was very young, I remember that I was often asked who I was. When I
replied that I was Mendel Rimanıs grandson, I was embraced and told how
wonderful my Zaida had been to them. This great man my grandfather who
helped unknown numbers of immigrants, also took into his home his widowed
daughter my mother and her two little children raising us as his own sons.
This was my Zaida and I am very proud of him. He deserves a place in the
story of the Jews of Toronto.
I want to thank Sara Edell Schafler Kelman for the enormous amount of time
and effort she has put in to make this narrative readable. Without her
enthusiastic help and support it would not be done. I am ever grateful.