Jewish Vacations: The Catskills

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

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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.