Dark Side of the Catskills

When Murray Mednick was an impoverished 14-year-old growing up in the Catskills, he took a series of busboy jobs at rundown hotels frequented by Holocaust survivors.
September 12, 2002

When Murray Mednick was an impoverished 14-year-old growing up in the Catskills, he took a series of busboy jobs at rundown hotels frequented by Holocaust survivors. "I was working in dumps, very cheap kucheleins, like rooming houses, but they all had dining rooms and they all needed busboys," said Mednick, 63, an Obie-winner and founder of the renowned Padua Hills playwrights’ festival.

For $12 a weekend, he rose daily at 5 a.m. to fillet the pickled herring, slice the tomatoes and onions, and place butter and cream pitchers on the slightly soiled white tablecloths. Then he ran around to serve the five-course breakfast, as the cook screamed and the customers made demands.

"These were survivors who had almost starved, so food was very important to them," Mednick said. "They’d yell, ‘Hey boy! Hey, I’m not finished yet!’ ‘I asked for stewed prunes 30 minutes ago! What’s the matter with you?’"

Mednick recognized their voices — and those of the hoteliers and guests — when he began jotting down 40 pages of dialogue that came into his head 11 years ago. The result is his loosely autobiographical play, "Fedunn," now at the Odyssey Theatre, which draws on his memories of being a worker, not a guest, in the mountain resort area frequented by New York City Jews in the post-World War II era.

Set in 1948, the drama explores the legacy of the war on the diverse personalities at a modest Catskills hotel owned by the fictional Silverman brothers. The play’s title, "Fedunn," is the name of a blond gentile youth who lurks around the hotel stealing food. He forms a mysterious bond with a dying Holocaust survivor, Tali, who recognizes in him a spark of the son she lost in the Lodz ghetto.

Mednick said the characters are all Catskills archetypes based on people he met while working in more than 30 hotels from age 14 to 32. "Tali is a composite of refugees I knew, silent and impenetrable," he said. "Pini is the guy who runs the kitchen and yells. Solly and Dudi are the townies I grew up with who came back from the war. And Hesh is the Lower East Side struggling artist who — as I did — kept returning to the Catskills to wait tables and earn extra cash."

Like Hesh, Mednick had mixed emotions about the place: "The work got more and more depressing, because it was humiliating, and you were treated like a servant," the soft-spoken, intense author said. "But I also loved its Yiddishkayt, its Jewish diversity, because the hotels were full of every possible Jew you could imagine.

"The Catskills was like a country, like being in a Jewish land in America," he said. "That’s why I wrote ‘Fedunn,’ as a testament to that place and that way of life."

If the Catskills was a Jewish land in America; the national pastime was eating — although not always happily. Mednick remembers that "the refugees ate silently, almost grimly and with a certain purpose. But I understood, because I was a poor kid, and food was also very important to me."

Mednick described himself as the son of an ineffectual, childlike father and a mentally disturbed mother, the eldest of six children who grew up malnourished and lice-ridden in a filthy hovel across the street from a synagogue in Woodridge, N.Y. He said he was often so hungry that he stole money to buy food. "Like Fedunn, I was a sneak-thief," he said.

Mednick said he turned to books "primarily as an escape from the noise and the chaos" at home. He voraciously read Tolstoy and Hemingway in the wee hours, the only time the household was silent.

His sympathetic teachers allowed him to sleep in and to miss school in the mornings; during his senior year, they collected several hundred dollars to help him attend Brooklyn College. By then, Mednick was writing short stories. "My writing saved me," he said.

Eventually, he joined a circle of Lower East Side poets and discovered the theater, where his Catskills experience came in handy. "Working in the dining room was very theatrical," he said. "You were always performing for one another or for the guests. And we had a tough crowd, I’m telling you."

Mednick went on to develop a career that would put him at the forefront of avant-garde theater in New York and Los Angeles. He won two Rockefeller Foundation grants, a Guggenheim fellowship and an L.A. Weekly award. In 1978, he founded the Padua festival (now called Padua Playwrights Productions), which nurtured theater luminaries such as Sam Shepard, John Steppling and Jon Robin Baitz.

As a teacher and festival leader, Mednick is apparently as demanding as the refugees he once served in the Catskills. "Murray is a hard taskmaster who’s crafted many of us into artists," director Roxanne Rogers told the L.A. Weekly last year.

Though he remains best known for his Native American-themed "The Coyote Cycle," the author has also written five plays since 1991 that draw on his Catskills roots. Padua’s 2001 season consisted of the three Jewish-themed dramas he wrote after "Fedunn." They are: "16 Routines," about an aging vaudevillian, which was inspired by the standup comedy rhythms he heard in the Borscht Belt; "Joe and Betty," a semiautobiographical account of Mednick’s troubled parents, and "Mrs. Feuerstein," which revolves around a Holocaust survivor who squares off with a German couple.

"Fedunn" also explores the legacy of the Holocaust, even though it’s set in the microcosm of a Catskills hotel. It’s Mednick’s most Jewish work to date.

"While the three plays performed last year were meant for general theater audiences, ‘Fedunn’ is more for my own people," he said. "It’s like a folkloric letter to the Jews, a celebration of a place I knew as a teenager, but no longer exists."

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