It’s under 30 degrees out. The wind at Corn Hill Beach in Truro is cold enough to numb fingers and faces in a matter of minutes. Sunset colors glow on the horizon. And Ethan Herschenfeld is going for a swim.
He’s not going to submerge his head. That’s because it’s capped with a furry ushanka that his mom, who worked for a clothing manufacturer, brought back as a gift from a trip to Hungary 30 years ago.
A vegan for almost a decade, Herschenfeld speculates — and fears — that a whole family of rabbits contributed fur to his garment.
“I thank that family of rabbits every day,” he says, though he’s not really sure they were rabbits. They might have been muskrats. Either way, the hat is an essential part of Herschenfeld’s swim ensemble. “Gotta keep the noggin toasty,” he says.
Almost every day for the last year, Herschenfeld has been plunging into the water on the bay side of Truro. He took his first winter dip a year earlier, in 2020, on Coney Island, when he was living in Brooklyn. Herschenfeld is originally from the Bronx, but his family has had a summer place in Truro since 1973, to which he and his girlfriend, the painter Kerstin Roolfs, decamped early in the pandemic.
“I just have this feeling about this house and this land,” he explains. “It’s a very strong attachment.”
After plunging into the frigid salt water — temperatures in the bay averaged around 43 degrees Fahrenheit last week — Herschenfeld swims with the current for about eight minutes. “I call it the old-man-at-the-YMCA breaststroke,” he says.
Besides the ushanka, he wears chunky surfing mittens and booties, and he layers three or four swimsuits to provide insulation under a pair of denim cut-offs.
The swim is invigorating. “The second I’m in there, my nasal passages open up,” Herschenfeld says. “You get a sense of clarity of vision. Everything pops.”
It also lifts his spirits.
“When I stopped the daily swim last April, my mood did sink a little bit,” he says. Although head and ushanka stay above the waves as a rule, Herschenfeld tries to float on his back and submerge his vagus nerve, which runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. Stimulating it with cold water, he says, helps him relax.
Herschenfeld is an actor and comedian. He got his start while he was in college at Harvard, where he studied English. Later, he attended the Actors Institute in London. He’s appeared in TV shows like POSE, Boardwalk Empire, Girls, and High Maintenance. Most recently, he played Abanoub Magdy in Netflix’s Red Notice alongside stars Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot, and Ryan Reynolds.
Comedy is another calling. Herschenfeld “first caught the bug” in the late ’90s at a workshop at the Comic Strip, a renowned club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His first stand-up comedy album, Thug Thug Jew, topped the iTunes charts in 2020.
Then there’s opera. Or there was opera. Herschenfeld, a bass, sang the part of the assassin in Verdi’s Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014. “The singing is such a specific thing and requires full attention,” he says. “I sort of ran out of steam with it.”
Herschenfeld tapes all of his auditions now. Actors auditioned by tape from afar long before the pandemic, but now, for Herschenfeld, the complete remoteness of it all takes some of the magic out of auditioning.
He misses going over his lines on the subway. But there are things he likes about performing stand-up on Zoom. While you might think it would be harder to captivate a virtual audience of rectangles, Herschenfeld enjoys seeing everyone’s faces. In comedy clubs, stage lights illuminate only the first few rows.
He says this makes crowd work easier: “You talk right to the person. You even have their name right there. It’s like a total cheat.”
There is no cheating the choppy bay. Herschenfeld emerges into air 20 degrees colder than the water. He jogs down the beach, throwing his mitted hands up in victory. After toweling off, he tugs four sweaters over his bare torso. The ushanka is replaced by a purple beanie.
Herschenfeld settles the ushanka over its winter perch, the headrest of his car. He says he doesn’t worry if it’s gotten a little wet. Whatever animal it came from, “it was waterproof.”