I found my way to 17d Via Torrearsa in Palermo on Friday evening around six-thirty, as the oppressive heat of the day was beginning to consider settling down. Inside the hammam door was a small modern fountain and a set of marble steps which led down to a counter where a pretty blonde woman waited for me. "Scusi, signora," I said, "parla Inglese?" She did, and with some relief I asked in English whether it was possible to take a bath.
I traded my clothes for a thin white towel, blue flipflops, and a locker key I wore around my neck. As I changed, I realized that I recognized the vaguely Middle Eastern music that was playing: the melody I know as "zochreinu l'chaim" ("remember us for life") off of cantor Richard Kaplan and Rabbi Michael Ziegler's album Turning the Soul. I was already vaguely considering the bath my pre-Shabbat treat, and hearing this familiar melody made it feel all the more like Shabbat preparation!
First came a shower; then a second beautiful woman (dressed, as were all of the attendants, in orange capris and orange-and-pink striped tank tops) led me into the big octagonal white marble room with the black marble slab. She seated me on the slab and brought me four copper pails of water (hot, hotter, hottest, and pleasantly cool) and a hammered tin dipping bowl. We established that her English was less existent than my Italian, so in French she explained that I should dip the water onto myself in order to become relaxed and accustomed to the heat.
She left me in privacy for a while. Since I was the only person there, the experience became meditative pretty quickly. I melted into the steam of the room and the sound of water running in the marble sinks in the corners. As I sluiced the hot water over my body, I thought, "I am washing away the week." I washed the week away in each of the four worlds: my actions, my emotions, my thoughts, and the essence of the week beyond words. Each dipper of water came to represent something I wanted to celebrate in memory, or something I wanted to release.
After a while she returned, gestured for me to lie down, and dippered the remaining hot water all over me in slow, steady streams. Have you ever had a massage or bodywork done, and discovered that pressure on certain parts of your body makes you want to smile or weep inexplicably? It was like that. (And it didn't occur to me until just now, as I began transcribing the experience, how similar that was to the way my fellow chevra kadisha members and I washed the body of our fellow congregant back in April -- in the absence of a mikvah, a continuous stream of water poured from buckets is considered to purify...) Then she rubbed my back with ghoussal, an herbal liquid soap from a round white ceramic dish, and encouraged me to coat myself with it.
From there, to the steam room: a brick dome lit by a constellation of little white lights, a simple white marble fountain (just a disc with water rising from it) in the middle of the room, a marble bench running the circle of the room which was surprisingly cool despite the tremendous steamy heat. I basked there for a while. When I exited, my attendant lay me on another marble slab and scrubbed me with a rough blue glove that made my skin tingle with gratitude. Then a quick shower, and a whirlpool dip. I returned to the steam room for a bit, then had my extra treat: an herbal mask, which was painted on to my body in the big marble room. I sat with the mask for ten long sweet minutes, then showered it away. At the end, I wrapped in a towel and drank a pot of mint tea in the sitting room piled with pillows and rugs, idly poking through Italian travel magazines but mostly luxuriating in the way my body buzzed.
Travel is a kind of immersion. Navigating foreign streets and odd driving customs, unfamiliar menus and the wash of a language one doesn't much speak, can feel like drowning -- or like a triumphant swim in supportive waters. (Usually, I think, it's both.) Maybe that explains why it felt so especially good to round out last week with meditation and water the way my few hours at the hammam enabled me to do.
I wonder how many other people have used Turkish baths like this one as a pre-Shabbat mikvah? Naturally this wasn't actually a mikvah -- these were not mayimei chayyim (living waters), I wore a key around my neck, my vivacious Italian masseuse was hardly a mikvah lady, my immersions were in a hot tub for crying out loud -- but it did exactly what my rare but precious pre-Shabbat mikvah dips have done: sealed my week, awoke my sense of connection with the All, and left me wet-haired and beaming. A definite highlight of my week! I wish we had a hammam around here...