Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic write, speak and blog together as The Word Mavens.
Northeast on Fire! Massive Heat Wave Bearing Down! No Relief in Sight! When summer comes, TV weather people shout these teasers at us, warning us to take shelter in air-conditioned libraries, avoid caffeinated drinks, and check on our elderly neighbors.
It has to hit 90-plus degrees for three days in a row to be labeled an official heat wave, and we’ve had several so far this summer. It’s been sticky, steamy and stormy and we’ve lost our Internet service, but as the weather people keep reminding us, it doesn’t compare to the Snowmageddon of 2014.
We really shouldn’t kvetch about the heat, but we will because we’re shvitzing, which is the Yiddish word for “sweating heavily.” Shvitzing isn’t perspiring or having a moist glow; it’s sweating so much that you need to reapply your deodorant or change your shirt before dinner.
In our Dictionary of Jewish Words, it’s fitting that shvitzing is the entry right above shwarma, the spicy meat that’s roasted on a spit over an open flame. We’re roasting right now.
Those who live with us might argue that it doesn’t matter what the weather conditions are outside: We’re always complaining that we’re hot and shvitzing. We are women of a certain age, and our internal temperature control is out of whack. That’s probably why we like to sit inches away from an air conditioning vent.
Sweating is a Jewish custom that’s thousands of years old, and we are tired of it.
When Eastern European Jews immigrated to America, they brought the shvitz – a popular gathering place to sweat – with them to their new neighborhoods. After all, people who didn’t have indoor plumbing or running water needed a place to go clean up. In 1929, Alexander Lucker opened the Camac Bath House in Philadelphia. At the bath houses, men would relax and socialize in steam room. Sweating was considered a good thing.
We prefer to sweat in private; we take refuge at home, meticulously following tips from the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service to “slow down, don’t engage in strenuous activities, and drink plenty of fluids.” Although we were reluctant to follow the directive from Homeland Security to make an emergency evacuation plan for the family or the instructions from the attorney to draw up a living will, we have no problem lounging on the sofa drinking ice tea and not cooking dinner – but we still have to provide something.
In the dog days of summer, we look for quick, cold dinner options. Sometimes we do bagels and lox, the traditional, cold brunch that can easily stand in anytime. Or takeout sushi. Or the Seinfeld big salad – with olives, cheese, almonds and whatever else is in the pantry. Sometimes we even say, “You’re on your own. Have a bowl of cold cereal.”
In the days before central air conditioning and microwaves, our mothers had to come up with summer dinners that didn’t involve turning on the oven and heating up the house. Salmon croquettes, tuna salad and egg salad would make an appearance all too often. On some nights, our moms would cook on the stovetop, and we’d enjoy buttered, boiled Creamettes with those salads.
We’re not complaining. We know we are blessed with central air, microwave ovens and automatic ice dispensers. And we’re grateful not to be among the 2-3 percent of the population that has hyperhidrosis, the medical term for excessive sweating no matter what the weather or physical activity. Hyperhidrosis does not describe your husband when he comes in from jogging. People who suffer from severe cases of hyperhidrosis can be so sweaty that it’s hard for them to “hold a pen, grip a car steering wheel, or shake hands,” according to WebMD.
We read that other causes of excessive sweating include diabetes, hyperthyroidism and a high arsenic level. If someone is slowly poisoning you with arsenic, being sweaty is the least of your worries.
As long as it stays hot outside, writing this essay is enough activity for us for the day. We’re going to pour ourselves a cold drink, sit quietly on the couch, and wait for Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz to announce: Killer Heat Wave Ending!