The lure, history and humor of the Catskills

The Catskill Mountains are, of course, a fact of geology located northwest of New York City.
December 9, 2015

The Catskill Mountains are, of course, a fact of geology located northwest of New York City. The Catskills are also a nearly mythic place — the so-called Borscht Belt —where Jewish cuisine, humor, music and sheer joie de vivre reached such a high boil that they spilled over into American popular culture — “Disneyland with knishes,” as the resort called Grossinger’s was laughingly but aptly described by novelist Mordecai Richler.

The story is told in all of its richness and curiosity in “The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America,” by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver (Knopf), a well-told and lavishly illustrated overview of a place that is wholly unique. The story begins in the early Colonial era, when the Catskills were an object of botanical curiosity for early explorers, but the book sprawls across the next three centuries of American history.

“Henry Hudson arrived purely by accident, only to make the foolish mistake of moving on,” the authors write. “Others, chiefly Prohibition-era mob figures famous enough to be remembered by their nicknames (Waxey, Lucky, Legs, Dutch), literally got there by hook or crook, conspiratorially aware of how the remoteness of the terrain protected them. And others still, among them businessman manqué Selig Grossinger, wandered into the woods wishing nothing more than to become simple farmers, only to find themselves (in Selig’s case, by necessity) evolving into the standard-bearers for the world-class American hospitality industry.”

The jokiness in the prose is perfectly fitting in a book about the Borscht Belt, but the authors are quite serious about capturing the sweep of history. We are reminded of the significance of the Catskills in the Revolutionary War, the writings of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, the paintings of the Hudson River School and the machinations of pols and robber barons in the Empire State. Indeed, the Catskills are made to serve as an observation point from which the authors survey a vast landscape of war, revolution, politics and culture.

As early as 1773, as the authors point out, the first Jewish person on record showed up near Woodstock, a man called “Jacob the Jew.” But, as late as 1877, a local hotel owner turned away a prominent Jewish banker named Joseph Seligman with the announcement that “no Israelites should be permitted to stop at this hotel.” The incident “triggered a wave of pent-up anti-Semitism,” and signs began to appear at boarding houses and hotels: “Jews and Dogs Are Not Welcome.” Yet, Jewish-owned hotels soon opened to meet the demand of city-dwellers who sought a place where they could take “a whiff of fresh air.” The Grossinger family, for example, began to take in paying guests at its farm in 1914 after a couple from the Bronx showed up and asked for lodgings: “When I saw the sheitel, I knew yours must be a truly kosher household,” the woman told Mrs. Grossinger.

The appeal of the Catskills, as it turned out, had less to do with kashrut than with pleasure-seeking. Maurice Samuel, a disapproving Zionist intellectual, decried the Borscht Belt in his 1925 prose poem: “And here in Catskill, what do Jews believe? … In charity and in America, / But most of all in Pinochle and Poker, / In dancing and in jazz, in risqué stories / And everything that’s smart and up-to-date.” 

In fact, the Borscht Belt prefigures nothing so much as Las Vegas, offering customers “everything from swimming pools to dress stores to top-name entertainment, all within the confines of the same property.”  

For many of us, the Catskills are something we have only read about in Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar” or seen in movies ranging from “Having a Wonderful Time” to “Dirty Dancing,” all of which distort the reality to varying degrees. (The 1938 film “Having a Wonderful Time,” starring Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., “exorcises every Jewish character name” that appeared in the Broadway play on which it was based.)  In that sense, “The Catskills” is a healthy corrective that allows us to see the place in all of its glorious complexity.

Quite a different take on the Catskills can be found in “Summer Haven: The Catskills, the Holocaust and the Literary Imagination,” a collection of provocative and highly illuminating essays edited by Holli Levitsky and Phil Brown (Academic Studies Press).  Here we find a tight focus on the strange and powerful point of connection between the Borscht Belt, a place of escape and frolic, and the Holocaust, an event of dire gravity. “We explore how vacationers, resort owners and workers dealt with a horrific contradiction — the pleasure of their summer haven against the mass extermination of Jews throughout Europe.” With contributions from scholars and writers including Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum (a Jewish Journal contributor credited by the editors with inspiring the book), novelist, essayist and law professor Thane Rosenbaum, comic artist Art Spiegelman and the beloved Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Summer Haven” is a unique exercise in extracting new meanings from the unlikeliest of sources. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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