By Phil Brown.
Pack a few trunks and valises, call the “hack” or load your car, and drive to the Catskills for a communal vacation. That’s what millions of Jews did for over a century, and many still do. They took their communities from major east coast cities and set them up for the summer in “the Mountains.” They went to a place of fresh air and green hilltops, surrounded by other Jews, and they relaxed like they could never do through the year’s hard work back home.
Never mind that it’s long gone – the Catskills Institute website will take you there in endless forms of memories. You can see postcards, rate cards, maps, menus, and many other flat and 3-D images. You can read histories, memoirs, poetry, and fiction. You can see lists of hotels and bungalow colonies. You can immerse yourself in this very unique Jewish experience that is now an historical past.
Here is a little history to help frame what you’ll see on the website.
The Catskills Institute, that I helped co-found, lists 1,133 hotels and 688 bungalow colonies that existed over the 20th century. During the height of the Catskills’ popularity, in the 1950s and 1960s, at least 500 of each existed, allowing for a remarkable number of people to be part of that collective summer Eden. Aerial views mirror what the ground-based observer can’t help notice: you drive for dozens of miles in any direction and are never away from a hotel or colony. The roads are dense with guests shpatzirn (strolling), male waiters and busboys cruising for girls, female waitresses and counselors cruising for boys.
Ulster, Sullivan, southern Greene, and a tiny sliver of southeastern Delaware Counties hosted the Jewish Catskills experience from the turn of the twentieth century up to its few remnants today. This mainly started on the farms. Along with shuls and social/cultural institutions such as Workmen’s Circle branches and dairy and insurance coops, the farms provided the base for a year-round Jewish population. Jewish farmers learned that farms were not a winning proposition for most, so they took in boarders, and many made that into their main enterprise. Some boarding houses became kuchalayns (literally, “cook for yourself” in Yiddish), where you rented a room and got shared cooking and eating privileges in the kitchen and dining room; these facilities ranged from 10 to 40 guests. Kuchalayns frequently developed into bungalow colonies, where you rented a whole building, small as it usually was, and had your kitchen for cooking and eating. Some kuchalayns later turned into hotels. For other farmers, the expansion of the boarding house led directly to hotels.
Catskills hotelkeepers pioneered the idea of the all-inclusive vacation, with three meals plus a nighttime tea-room, midnight suppers on Fourth of July and Labor Day, nightly entertainment, many sports and activities, and eventually day camps for children. Nighttime shows included comics and singers on weekend nights, and also a champagne night (guest dancing contest plus dance team exhibitions), a movie night, a bingo night, and a talent show. Sports were common, especially handball, softball, basketball, and tennis; some grander places featured horseback riding and indoor ice skating rinks. Medium-size and large hotels offered lectures, dance lessons, portrait artists, and other activities. After World War II, the larger hotels started operating year-round, adding winter sports. A few larger hotels had their own golf courses, but most just shared the bulk of the expenses of two municipal courses. During many decades when “restricted” hotels kept Jews out, Jews could have a vacation with kosher food, engage in Yiddish conversation, and be entertained by Jewish comedy and song. In the Catskills they could become Americanized while preserving much of their Jewishness. American Jewish humor grew up in the Catskills, where any Jewish comedian worth his laughs got his or her start. The appellation “Catskills comic” remains a common label (as does “Borscht Belt comic,” meaning the same thing).
Bungalow colonies could have as few as six bungalows (in which case they provided no amenities or entertainment) or as many as 100, rented for the whole summer. Most colonies ranged from 20-30 bungalows, enough to support a casino (social hall for entertainment, not a gambling casino) with some entertainment, mainly on weekends, athletic facilities, and a day camp. The owner ran a store for groceries and sundries, and a constant stream of peddlers came to sell what the proprietor did not offer.
The resorts, like the cities the guests had temporarily escaped, housed people of all classes and occupations. While there was class stratification due to the range of costs in different resorts, even some of the more expensive places were accessible––if you knew someone, or even if you didn’t. People experienced the larger community through frequent visits to delis and shops in nearby towns, in the frequent strolls past other resorts, and in visiting friends and relatives in other hotels and bungalow colonies. Bungalow dwellers sneaked into hotel casinos, guests at small hotels sneaked into larger ones, and workers swarmed from place to place.
In the Catskills Jews could become Americanized while preserving much of their Jewishness
The classic look of a Catskills hotel is the small-sized main house with a stucco finish, windowed gables on the top, two side rooms on either side of the porch, a canopy over the central entrance, and a broad staircase descending to a walkway. Take a casual glance at the many buildings that fit this description and there is no doubt about it – the hotels are smiling. Stone gateposts frequently stood by the roadside, making up part of the decorative fencing along the roadway, and framing the walkway up to the main house. You can see this today in the still-operating Rainbow Hotel – the walkway is lined with benches that held a multitude of conversations. As you strolled up this Yiddish promenade, the boulevard of the Jews, you approached the entrance of your personal summer Eden. The unique design smiled and beckoned you into an oversized home full of warmth and activity. The hotels stood upright and secure, offering the haven of their lobbies for shmoozing, and the endless food of their dining rooms for nourishment.
When I started studying the Catskills, I wasn’t sure how significant it was to collect memories from people who had spent parts of their lives working in hotels or being guests here. How do I know I am on the right track? I get waves of awareness about this when I receive letters from people who have heard about the Catskills Institute’s efforts to preserve the Catskills legacy.
The Catskills is an archeological site covering hundreds of square miles, and you don’t have to dig to get to the remnants. You can ramble through many old hotel buildings, revisiting the amazingly small rooms that people would stay in for weeks at a time, examine the rusted waiters’ trays lying in crumbling kitchens, view the rows of folding wooden chairs from where they watched shows in the humble casinos. Many buildings still stand, even if teetering on collapse. At the Mayflower Hotel in Thompsonville, between Monticello and South Fallsburg, every single building remained in place, less than a decade after its successor, the Bethel Sunshine Camp, folded. You could walk the grounds and take in the whole daily routine, viewing the movable community that had come to the Mayflower, as it had to hundreds of similar small hotels. When necessary, I have even walked with a miner’s lamp on my head through long-abandoned hotels where light doesn’t enter through boarded-up windows. And I have had the luxury of visiting the few remaining hotels, accepting owners’ generous insistence that “You must stay for lunch,” where I could see people still living the life of Catskills resorts.
No wonder that decades later, so many people return to the bungalow colonies and hotels where they once worked or stayed. No surprise that many Catskills veterans have set up websites and organized reunions to relive these days. And how fitting that the Catskills memories remain so important in the history of Jews in America.
As a worldwide community, held together by religion, culture, and experience, the Jews knew how to form a Catskills-wide community. They may not have intended it to be such, but their inclinations about how to house and feed people, how to entertain themselves, and how to make a Jewish environment led them to do it anyway. They didn’t need too much with which to create those amazing Catskills resort communities that gave safety, security, fun, sustenance, mobility, pleasure, and spirituality to many generations. In their movable communities of the Catskills, the Jews constructed homes, community, shuls – a whole culture. Future histories will remember this segment of American Jewish culture as one of its most influential building blocks.
For further reading
Phil Brown, Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat’s Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).
Phil Brown, editor, In the Catskills: A Century Of The Jewish Experience In “The Mountains” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
Holli Levitsky and Phil Brown (eds.), Summer Haven: The Catskills, the Holocaust, and the Literary Imagination. (Academic Studies Press 2015).
Irwin Richman, Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memories of Catskill Summers (1998, Philadelphia: Temple University Press).
Irwin Richman, Sullivan County/Borscht Belt (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Press, 2001)
Irwin Richman, The Catskills in Vintage Postcards (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Press, 2002)
Irwin Richman, Catskill Hotels (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Press, 2003)
Abraham Lavender and Clarence Steinberg, Jewish Farmers of the Catskills (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995).
John Conway, Retrospect: An Anecdotal History of Sullivan County, New York (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1996).
Myrna Frommer and Harvey Frommer, It Happened in the Catskills: An Oral History in the Words of Busboys, Bellhops, Guests, Proprietors, Comedians, Agents, and Others Who Lived It (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991)
Eileen Pollack, Paradise, New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998)
Sidney Offit, He Had It Made (Silver Spring, MD: Beckham Publications, 1959/1999)
(many more books are listed on the Catskills Institute website)