Jewish Vacations: The Catskills

A haven for Jews trying to get away from it all.

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Though several Jewish hotels remain open in New York's Catskills mountains, most have closed. Despite its decline, this region played an important role in American-Jewish social history, and has made its contribution to American culture more broadly: The region is the proverbial "Borscht Belt," where many of the great Jewish-American comedians got their start entertaining guests at the Jewish hotels described below. Reprinted with permission from The Forward.

Vacations, like women's fashions, are ever changing. One year, cruises are all the rage; the next, it's trekking in the Himalayas. Earlier generations were no less impervious to what was in and what was out. As early as the 1920s, increasingly affluent American Jews began to forsake the humble bungalow colonies and boarding houses of their youth in favor of the well-appointed resort hotel, with its swimming pools, tennis courts, golf course, and nightclub or "casino." 

Resort in the Catskill Mountains

The Concord and Grossinger's, that self-styled "kingdom of outdoor happiness," were two of the best known and certainly the most enduring of the resort hotels that catered to an American Jewish clientele. At a time when many tony watering holes were off limits to Jews ("We are better off without than with their custom," declared one hotel proprietor, frowning on what he took to be American Jewry's predilection for toothpicks and patent leather shoes), these two establishments provided a welcoming alternative.

Great Variety

Located in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, north of New York City, they enabled the children of immigrants to perfect their swing or their backhand, master the latest dance steps and otherwise indulge in summer's manifold pleasures--all within the company of their own kind.

Garnering much attention, Grossinger's and the Concord were by no means the only resort hotels on the American Jewish landscape. Rifle through back issues of the Forward, American Hebrew, or the Jewish Tribune, and you'll be astonished at the number and variety of advertisements extolling the virtues of this vacation spot or that.

During the 1920s, potential vacationers from the East Coast could choose between the Hollywood Hotel in West End, N.J., with its "nine-hole sporty golf course," and Schildkraut's of Highland Falls, N.Y., a place of "pleasure and cheer" with a distinctive cuisine of "famous vegetarian health food of flavor and delight."

Some hotels were brand new; others, having fallen out of favor--and fashion--with their gentile patrons, were purchased by Jewish owners and marketed to American Jewish prospects. Where Vanderbilts, Goulds, and Astors once danced, you now see "Jewish youths and maidens gyrating to jazz," gushed the Grossmans, the new proprietors of the Pavilion Hotel of Saratoga Springs in 1927, in a revealing instance of ethnic swaggering. "The dining hall that rang to the tune of 'Yankee Doodle' will resound now to the 'Hatikvo.' Dark eyes flashing with Oriental fire will gaze from the porch of that aristocratic hotel."

Poetic Inspiration

It's against this background that Maurice Samuel, arguably one of the most versatile and gifted belle-lettrists of the modern era and an equally avid Hebraist and Yiddishist, took pen in hand to comment on American Jewry's newfound fascination with the gyrations of the good life. Taking the form of a prose poem that he titled "Al Harei Catskill" ("In the Catskill Mountains"), Samuel's rueful observations seem to derive much of their style and all their sensibility from the traditional kinah, or lamentation, said on Tisha B'Av, that midsummer fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

The poem, which was published in the high-minded Menorah Journal of 1925 but, sadly, all but forgotten today, uses the spectacle of American Jews happily at play as an occasion for stocktaking. Personalizing the story of growing acculturation and deracination, it begins by contrasting a traditional Eastern European figure, a great-grandfather, with his descendants. The great-grandfather, writes Samuel, never heard of the Catskills or, for that matter, of Paris or even London. He "knew only of two worlds--Golus [exile] and Zion."

His offspring, however, live everywhere. Citizens of the West, each of them lays claim to a particular vision: One family member believes in France; another in science; a third in the Vilna Gaon [an 18th-century Jewish sage]; and a fourth, a proud resident of the United States, believes in just about everything.

"And here in Catskill, what do Jews believe?
In Kosher certainly; in Shabbos, less.
(But somewhat, for they smoke in secret then.)
In Rosh Hashonoh and in Yom Kippur,
In charity and in America,
But most of all in Pinochle and Poker,
In dancing and in jazz, in risque stories
And everything that's smart and up to date."

If this is our patrimony, what will become of us?, Samuel wonders as he contemplates an American Jewry more at home on the golf links than with Torah, more conversant with the latest fads than with its Old World heritage. What will become of us?

Summer or winter, these questions are still with us.

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Jenna Weissman Joselit

Jenna Weissman Joselit holds the Charles E. Smith Chair in Judaic Studies at the George Washington University. The author of the prize-winning book, The Wonders of America, she is also a monthly columnist for The Forward as well as a frequent contributor to the New Republic. Professor Weissman Joselit is currently at work on a book about America's relationship to the Ten Commandments.