As geography, the Catskills are a mountainous region of southeastern New York State. As synecdoche, they are a now-vanished way of life. For your parents and grandparents, the Catskills from the 1920s through the 1970s was the Borscht Belt, the Jewish Alps, “Solomon” County, the summer place to be if you were Jewish.
A blurb on the home page of the Catskills Institute says it well: “New Yorkers hungry for mountain air, good food, and the American way of leisure came to the mountains by the thousands, and by the 1950s, more than a million people inhabited the summer world of bungalow colonies, summer camps, and small hotels. These institutions shaped American Jewish culture, enabling Jews to become more American while at the same time introducing the American public to immigrant Jewish culture.”
The Catskills had been a resort area for Gentiles in the 19th century. As Eastern European Jews immigrated in the early 20th century, some became farmers in the area. And as their urban peers became more prosperous, they looked to do something they could never have imagined doing in the old country: take a vacation. They weren’t welcome in most of what was still an anti-Semitic world, so the Jewish farmers began taking on boarders. Their boarding houses morphed into small hotels and bungalow colonies — a cluster of small rental summer homes.
Grossinger’s, in Ferndale, grew from a single-family house to a 1,200-acre, 35-building resort — complete with its own airstrip and post office.
“Once Jews started to go in large numbers, they had their own built-in community,” says Dr. Phil Brown, a professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University and director of the Catskills Institute. “Farms, businesses, professionals, day schools, yeshivas. Yiddish was spoken, 95 percent were kosher. And they also liked being around their own people.”
The big Borscht Belt resorts — like Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s, the Concord, and the Nevele — “were pioneers of the all-inclusive vacation,” Brown says, offering three meals a day, snacks, entertainment, child care, sports facilities, everything you can get now at Club Med — plus a knish to die for.
Grossinger’s, in Ferndale, grew from a single-family house in which the owners rented rooms to a 1,200-acre, 35-building resort — complete with its own airstrip and post office — that served 150,000 guests a year. It became the first resort in the world to use artificial snow for skiing. Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club, near Monticello, was the longest running of the Borscht Belt resorts. It was also known as a sports mecca; legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach stayed there, and Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain worked there as a bellhop while in high school. Boxers Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson, and Leon Spinks all trained at Kutsher’s. The Concord, in Kiamesha Lake, was the largest of the resorts with more than 1,500 guest rooms and a dining room that sat 3,000.
The entertainment at the Borscht Belt hotels was first-rate. Musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Dean Martin, and comics Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld all toured the hotels.
But things change. Anti-Semitism declined, so Jews could go other places. The next generation had no interest in vacationing at the same places they had been dragged to as children, and as intermarriage took hold, neither did their goyish spouses. Their parents retired and moved to Boca Raton or Scottsdale, “where it felt like a permanent vacation,” Brown says. And the hotels and bungalows, most of which were never great profit centers to begin with, fell into decay. The old bungalow colonies, meanwhile, were often usurped by Hasidic Jews.
Brown had lived and worked at his parents’ hotel, Brown’s Hotel Royal in White Lake, and other hotels, in the 1950s and early ’60s. When his parents died, “that shook a foundation: ‘Where do I come from?’ ” he says. “I thought in earnest about doing research.” He formed the Catskills Institute in 1995 to promote research and education on the significance of the Catskill Mountains to Jewish-American way of life. For 13 years, he hosted a conference on the Catskills. “I was always surprised how many people we could find who would come to talk,” he says, “academic and nonacademic researchers, entertainers, filmmakers — a never-ending string of speakers.”
In the process, he has begun to answer his formative question. “I got a much fuller view of the place. It was a prototype of life, not all good or bad, where you learned to hustle to make a living and apply those lessons to make a life. It was not just a summer place, but a capsule of many parts of Jewish culture.”
Brown has compiled some of his research online at http://catskills.brown.edu. The site includes excerpts from previously published material, interviews with “mountain rats” like himself, and other historic documents. We’ve excerpted just a few of them here, with his permission. If you never spent a minute there, you’ll get the smallest sense of what the Catskills were like back then. If you spent a week, a month, a summer, or your entire childhood there, you’ll be transported back in time.
Some of the vendors were so colorful and unique. There was the “Knishman from Mountaindale.” He would arrive at our colony each and every Thursday afternoon, his truck laden with freshly roasted chickens, brisket, soup, kishka, kugels, cholent, and, of course, those marvelous knishes — potato and kasha. A harried and hurried mom could purchase an entire Friday dinner with some mah jongg winnings, and save Friday afternoon for sunning at the pool. And they did.
There was “Shimmy the Pickle King.” He owned a huge blue truck, the side painted with giant pickles. His garlic sours were a thing of beauty, a joyous memory forever crisp, flavorful, and tart.
There was Chow-Chow Cup, of blessed memory. We savored chicken chow mein and Chinese hot dogs, just corn-dogs on a stick, really, that came encased in a wrapper with Chinese lettering all over. The egg rolls were loaded with enough oil to slick the hair of the entire Lincoln High School football team. On the first bite the grease saturated the flimsy napkin and stained every article of clothing within 200 yards.
In 1950, my father, Jack Kramer, hired Lenny Bruce to be the master of ceremonies for our hotel, Kramers on Luzon Lake. Lenny was great. He tumulled, he danced, he told jokes. My father was happy.
In fact, he rehired Lenny for the 1951 season. That summer, Lenny brought his new wife Honey along. They were still a happy couple. In fact, several times a week my father had to have Lenny paged over our booming loudspeaker system. A temporarily chastened Lenny would straggle back from a private escape on the lake or from a romantic walk in the woods to conduct the daily dance lesson by the pool. My father was not so happy with Lenny that summer.
Lenny suggested that he invite some of his entertainer friends to do a late show at the hotel’s casino a few nights a week. In return for providing extra entertainment for our guests, he wanted 50 percent of the bar take after midnight. Since our guests were all asleep by midnight, and the bar take past that hour was zero, my father gladly accepted.
Lenny brought in jazz musicians, comics, even strippers to our little casino. For 1951 only, Kramers was the hottest hotel in the Catskills.
Several weeks into this arrangement, there was a particularly large, raucous crowd at Lenny’s show. A couple of guests knocked on my father’s door to demand that he quiet down the crowd. Reluctantly, my father ventured downstairs.
When he arrived at the casino, there was a pudgy, pimply-faced kid on stage talking dirty in New York English and broken Yiddish. The crowd loved it, but this was too much for my father. He marched on stage in his bathrobe, slippers, and cigar and kicked the young comic off the stage.
The next week or so Lenny got more morose with the guests, and more attentive to Honey. So about the 15th of August, when the crowd was thinning out anyway, my father fired Lenny. He figured he would get an MC for Labor Day Weekend, and save two weeks’ pay.
Henny Youngman worked at our hotel a few times in the ’60s. During those times, comedians often worked three shows. They would do an early show as a warm-up at one of the bigger hotels, then headline a show at our hotel, and then do a late-night show at a bungalow colony. One evening my father heard Youngman screaming at someone in the phone booth around the corner from the front desk. When he left the phone booth he said to my dad, “My agent thinks I’m doing a third show at one of the bungalows. That’s not for me.” Later that night at the end of Youngman’s performance on our stage, two big guys walked through the house and backstage. A few minutes later, they walked out with Youngman between them and got into a car together. Youngman played a bungalow colony that night.
Many entertainers and athletes — Jackie Robinson, Jan Peerce, Rocky Marciano, Joel Grey, and Henny Youngman — were wonderful people and great to be with. Milton Berle was always “on,” very pleasant with anyone who came over to greet him. Eddie Fisher had started at Grossinger’s on staff as a boat boy at the lake, and when he came back as a star, he was still just “Eddie” — he never acted stuck-up with us. He was three years older than me. We were close enough that I could ask him if he was sure he was not making a mistake the day before he married Debbie Reynolds, at Grossinger’s, and he asked me the same before I married. (Neither of those marriages lasted!)
Marital relations were very confusing to me as a child. I saw so much infidelity — and it wasn’t limited to men. I remember once, when I was around 10 years old, I heard about a woman I knew who was getting married. My mother asked me why I was so excited about it. “Because then she can go to sleep with the lifeguards. That’s what all ladies do when they get married, don’t they?” Of course, today, they’d be sitting on the terrace with their laptops.
Poker and mah jongg for the women, serious pinochle for the men. They played under trees, in the card room, on the porch. Both sexes went at each other with a vengeance. Epic battles and curses resounded through the halls and frightened animals in the woods. But somehow, when it was over it was over. Most of the games were for small money but money wasn’t the issue. Winning or losing turned largely on luck but luck wasn’t the issue. Either you could play or you couldn’t play and if you couldn’t play how come you’re playing was the issue.
The nightly scene in the kitchen was a hamish cabaret. There was Baba, ancient, out of it, standing in brown sackcloth and Russian boots, drinking hot water and lemon with a sugar cube between her teeth. There were plates of cookies and cakes along with a few leftovers spread around. Guests sat around sipping tea or coffee swapping stories or listening to somebody like Reuben Radish singing songs from the old country. The songs were sentimental, about villages like Beltz, that brought back mysterious memories. It was all very remote to me, this coming together of Hungarians, Galicans, Russians, Roumanians united by a past I couldn’t begin to fathom. Soon people would drift away and my aunt and uncle would clean up and put away the “live stock” — the food that managed to remain uneaten. Taps was my Aunt Dora giving out an “oy vey.”
Many of the grand old hotels of the Catskills have fallen into complete disrepair; a number of them have sat idle and untouched for more than 20 years. New York City-based photographer Marisa Scheinfeld spent two years documenting these (often eerie) ruins.