Tell me if I’m wrong but to me, there has always been something strangely sentimental about seeing an 80-year-old Zeydie stark naked. By sentimental, I mean of course, severely traumatizing. Sure we’ve all seen our parents naked, but hopefully never our grandparents. Think back to when you were 8 years old and first introduced to the Jewish community center locker room, a place where men with names like Murray, Hymie and Isidor sprawl out in the nude and talk about nothing for 45 minutes. Where elderly women with cataracts and a collection of sordid skin blemishes can gossip freely about kugel recipes, grandchildren and their evil goyisha neighbors, while drying their frail bleached hair (I’ve been told!! Although, there is always that time you have to go in with you mom, a memory I’ve tried very hard to suppress). But more importantly, a place where you, for the first time, get a upfront look at the human body in its, as a kind doctor may phrase, “developed” stages; which, as a child, triggered the mature question in your mind of “What the hell IS that?” Ask yourself, what is it about a JCC locker room that compels elderly men and women to lounge, chitchat, and scratch themselves without shame? Or better yet, why has every Jewish person I know some how shared this same experience and never been able to get that rather “uncomfortable” feeling out of their mind when recollecting on this specific childhood shower room memory. How has this shaped our childhood as Jews in America?
First off, I think its important to track down how this nudity phenomenon started. I think it maybe have sources in the Mikvah, the original JCC Jacuzzi. Oddly enough, “the ritual bath”, Judaism’s spiritual cleansing pool, sure has developed a lot of proud naked people. Ladies, trust me on this one, if you walk into any mikvah any where in the world there is always some fat dude with a beard, a belly, and enough back hair to produce a couple shaitels, who will be “lounging” in the stark nude chatting endlessly about some kosher restaurant while his circumcision is casually giving a nationally televised press conference.
Listen, don’t get me wrong I’d be glad to discuss shul developments or Jewish community issues with the guy, but does he have to be sooo naked, can’t the guy at least show some amount of insecurity? Turn the other direction? Take a towel? Heck, take my towel! (And No, I will not pass you your boxers! Uhh and why are you smiling?)
Now, I can’t say the same of “female” mikvahs, but at the guys’ mikvahs there is constant brazen frontal nudity. Oddly, there is no shame. Even by the most religious bearded black hat dudes who pride themselves in wearing full length overcoats in Miami, chill out in the buck. Where did rabbis develop this confident Nudist Colony mentality? Can’t some mandatory Chasidic fig leaf policy be established (good imagery, right?) or maybe require all towels to go below the knees and above the groin? Doesn’t there need to be some element of religious modesty? The answer is surprisingly, No. According to the Mishna Brura, our codified book of Jewish law, the mikvah requires zero tznius/modesty in such a purely spiritual place! Cool, who knew full frontal nudity would be halacha? (Besides Al Goldstein or Howard Stern) From there, the thought process was simple: All Jewish pools therefore “require” nudity, and thus begat the JCC Locker room phenomenon.
So that’s how it may have started. Now, what effect has it had upon us? Well, for one, it certainly made us learn early the lesson that G-d makes people in all shapes and sizes. This was my dad’s response when he found me close to vomiting; after I unfortunately found myself in point blank range of old Mr. Shlepman’s daily crotch “baby-powder application.” Thank you Mr. Shlepman for that lesson, I’ll never forget it.
Hey another effect is that it may have promoted heterosexuality. While the ancient baths of the Greeks may have encouraged homosexuality, no Jewish kid I know would ever want to look at the body of another man after the battle scars of the JCC shower room. That is hell and back. I remember my first time going in trying my best to concentrate on my own shampooing, water temperature and NOT making eye contact with any old dude. Then thinking to myself, “what the hell is that thing growing on that guy’s neck?” “What the heck are those red spots and wrinkles?” and “why are they laughing at my bathing suit?” I walked out traumatized swearing I’d never shower again. Trust me, after your first time in that shower room, you’ve been through combat, you’ve seen the worse. You never want to see another man’s flesh again. Unfortunately for me, “air drying” seemed to be prevalent in my JCC and I was forced to get dressed in front of another harem of naked wet old men. I was dressed and out in two minutes flat, of course, still completely soaked.
Without a doubt the smell alone is enough to invoke some of these fond memories. The heavenly aroma of chlorine and urinal is enough to get me teary eyed. Which probably explains my joy of peeing in pools. But more importantly, in retrospect, the locker room may have been the American Jewish kid’s his first venue for offbeat comedy. While the locker room had lots to invoke therapy, there was a lot more to laugh at. Old people are just funny, especially when they are naked, and have weird hair, and if they are cursing, any Jewish kid, will burst laughing, guaranteed. It’s magical. While our sages tell us that comedy sources from sexuality (pirkei avos, rambam), an addendum of “naked senior citizens cursing” might work equally as well, we had some great laughs those days. So yet again, thank you Mr. Shlepman, hats off to you and your hernia problems. The impressions will last a lifetime.
I think the one other lasting lesson of the JCC locker room is the way that old people never gave a crap about anything or anyone, and that takes balls, figuratively and, um literally. As little Jewish kids at the JCC we may have picked up this vital life message earlier than any others. If it is worth anything, the JCC phenomenon taught us not to be concerned with the judgment of others, rather to be cool with yourself whether you have liver spots on your legs, cysts growing from your neck, or even an overdone circumcision. This maybe exactly the reason why the mikvah requires no modesty as well; to teach you, especially when cleansing yourself spiritually, to get rid of all your superficial layers and be happy with who you are. That’s a decent lesson I keep in mind, well that and of course never to shower with old people again.