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Borscht Belt Bungalows

Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memoirs Of Catskill Summers

Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Borscht Belt Bungalows
    Book Description:

    Every year between 1920 and 1970, almost one million of New York City's Jewish population summered in the Catskills. Hundreds of thousands still do. While much has been written about grand hotels like Grossinger's and the Concord, little has appeared about the more modest bungalow colonies and kuchaleins ("cook for yourself" places) where more than 80 percent of Catskill visitors stayed.These were not glamorous places, and middle-class Jews today remember the colonies with either aversion or fondness. Irwin Richman's narrative, anecdotes, and photos recapture everything from the traffic jams leaving the city to the strategies for sneaking into the casinos of the big hotels. He brings to life the attitudes of the renters and the owners, the differences between the social activities and swimming pools advertised and what people actually received. He reminisces about the changing fashion of the guests and owners—everything that made summers memorable.The author remembers his boyhood: what it was like to spend summers outside the city, swimming in the Neversink, "noodling around," and helping with the bungalow operation, while Grandpa charged the tenants and acted as president of Congregation B'nai.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0450-3
    Subjects: Sociology, American Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    Vie a Heen Zol Ich Gayn”and“Mein Yiddishe Momme”are two songs that Borscht Belt singers could count on to bring down the house.¹ If you wanted to leave your bungalow or hotel audience on their feet, stomping, applauding, shouting for more, end your 1950s or 1960s act with one of these workhorses.“Mein Yiddishe Momme”(“My Jewish Mother”) evoked the image of the self-sacrificing, presumably immigrant, Jewish mother bathed in the warm glow of Sabbath candles.“Vie a Heen Zol Ieh Gayn”(“Where Shall I Go”) struck an even more elemental chord among Jews as a popularized version...

  5. 2 A. Richman, Woodbourne, New York
    (pp. 18-34)

    Grandpa was born in Russian-ruled Lithuania near Wilna, in the 1880s. He was about ninety-six when he died in 1978. We were never certain of his age because his accounts varied, and some of his friends claimed that he lied about when he was born. Grandpa was a liberated, worldly young man who ran away from home at thirteen, after his mother died and his seventy-year-old father married an eighteen-year-old bride. “We fought,” he recalled as an old man. “She had a hard life.” Grandpa stayed away for five years. ““When I came home, my father didn’t recognize me. I...

  6. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  7. 3 Farmer’s Life
    (pp. 35-62)

    While many resorts emerged from farms, this was not always the case. Hotel and bungalow colony owners came from differing backgrounds. Some used the mountains as an escape; several saw the industry as a way to move up in the world; others had more personal reasons. Most were immigrants or children of immigrants.

    As spring approached, European-born Leo and Lillian Halper of fictional Brookville, who for many years had been year-round Sullivan County residents, made an annual trip into New York City. “They had to hire waiters, bus boys, a band and other help.”¹ Not caring for New York city’s...

  8. 4 “Unzereh Menschen” (Our People)
    (pp. 63-70)

    There are few, if any, of the traditional bungalow colonies remaining in Sullivan County—the colonies of my youth, the resorts that catered to mostly nonobservant or semiobservant Jewish families with children. Mom and the kids spent the summer; father came up on weekends and stayed up for his week or two summer vacation. Today there are colonies in which the major portion of this lifestyle is practiced, but the religious complexion has changed. It is ultraorthodox and Hasidic Jews who have taken over the colonies, because these families still adhere to a traditional lifestyle like that of most New...

  9. 5 The River and the Woods
    (pp. 71-86)

    Right after lunch the whole colony, except Grandpa (who always napped after lunch) and Grandma (who manned the post), would come together for the trip down to the river to swim. This was a substantial operation. While most colonies offered access to a river or a lake, usually cottages were set back from the water because of the perceived bugginess around water in the evenings. Although we had screens on windows and doors, screened porches were rare before World War II. Soon after Grandpa bought the ground for the colony, he bought a thin strip of land going down to...

  10. 6 Noodling Around: Kids at Large
    (pp. 87-93)

    When we weren’t doing chores, swimming, or playing in the woods, what else did we do? Diversions can be divided into two major categories: the eternal and the trendy. Swings and the see-saw were popular well into our teens; admittedly, the older we got, the more the aim of see-saw play was who could bounce the hardest and make the other kid fall off. We also had the big sandbox Grandpa made. Our toys included the usual, brightly painted, commercial tin pails, shovels, and sand strainers of the period, as well as toy cars and old kitchen utensils. As a...

  11. 7 To Town: The Escape
    (pp. 94-100)

    One of the best antidotes to boredom was to go off the site. Going to town was always an exciting prospect. Seeing the same people day after day was a drag and the town offered the allure of stores, albeit with a limited range of choices. Sidney Offit, inHe Had It Made, describes a fictional town that is clearly Woodbourne: “There was a sign that said. ‘Woodmere, bungalows and hotels for your pleasure.’ A movie house was on the corner and there was a large parking lot next to it. Then came a succession of small stores with big...

  12. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  13. 8 Daily Life: Mostly Adults
    (pp. 101-119)

    After paying for accommodations, the most traumatic part of the summer for most adults was getting packed and traveling to the mountains. How families arrived varied with time and economics. The trip could be quite luxurious or a crowded and uncomfortable ordeal.

    Joey Adams remembered an early mountain experience, a summer at Boxer’s Dairy Farm near Ellenville. Even more vivid were the memories of preparing for the trip. His family was to go to the country 15 June: “About the middle of May my father brought home the burlap sacks. Who had luggage?” They also borrowed valises. And “anyone who...

  14. 9 The Quest for Entertainment
    (pp. 120-142)

    Entertainment was always very important to Sullivan County. The list of performers who got their start in the Borscht Belt is long and legendary and their stories have been told to death. While live professional entertainment came to the bungalow colonies in the 1950s, prior to that much entertainment was home grown or stolen—that is from the perspective of hotel owners who often looked at bungalow people asschnorers(beggars) orgonifs(thieves).

    In the matriarchal world of the weekday bungalow colonies, card games and the occasional movie were the primary nighttime entertainment. The weekend was another story. This...

  15. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  16. 10 Religion
    (pp. 143-148)

    Before Joey Adams’s mother would rent at Mrs. Boxer’skuchaleinin the 1920s, she insisted that the place be strictly kosher. The“farmeka”assured her, “We have two stoves—one for dairy and one for meat, and even our iceboxes are kosher.”¹ These concerns weakened as New York’s Jews acculturated. By the time traditional bungalow colonies were in their heyday, 1940–1965, the vast majority of American Jews were essentially secular. They were more likely to be cultural or gastronomic Jews than observant ones. Even among the hotels, only a few were religiously observant—and these were clearly talked about...

  17. 11 Summer Emergencies and Other Unforgettable Events
    (pp. 149-156)

    For the bungalow colony owner, the summer season was a series of disasters waiting to happen. Providing you rented, what could go wrong? Plenty. Would your tenants show up? After all, the only assurance you had was a deposit of twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred dollars. At larger, very popular colonies, most renting was done at the end of the summer and they had a payment schedule that would guarantee the owner at least 50 percent of the rental before summer started. At Richman’s, we never had a “no show,” but we did have one case of an unstable woman...

  18. 12 The Day Camp
    (pp. 157-174)

    In 1953 when I first worked at a day camp, my salary was one hundred dollars, payable at the end of the summer, plus tips. My first paycheck from Meyer Furman’s Day Camp bounced, returned for insufficient funds—Meyer soon made it good. I worked for him for two more summers because I liked the head counselor. When he left, so did I.

    Like much in the bungalow business, the day camp concept was developed by the Catskill hotels, which quite early recognized that mothers would especially enjoy their holidays if the kids were out of sight for at least...

  19. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  20. 13 Crime and Punishment
    (pp. 175-180)

    Dominating Woodbourne was its other, its most enduring industry—the Woodbourne Prison—which loomed on the skyline for many years. Established in 1934, the red brick pile has been expanded over the years, but its great smokestack was torn down a few years ago.¹ The prison is a distinctive element setting Woodbourne apart from the other Sullivan County hamlets. The prison guards and their families were, and largely remain, a distinctive social group. As goyim, they interacted very little with the summer people, but you often recognized them in town by their uniforms: light blue shirts, dark blue ties, and...

  21. 14 An Age of Change
    (pp. 181-204)

    In 1961, the Kassacks were very upset because a number of their best, longtime tenants had bought summer homes at Emerald Green, at Lake Louise Marie near Wurtsboro. Emerald Green was the first successful post–World War II summer home development in Sullivan County, and it was a portent of doom for major bungalow colonies. Those former tenants who could afford it would now enjoy the communal life of a colony, completely on their own terms. Many of the houses were quite luxurious, by middle-class standards, and at least two of Kassacki’s tenants opted for Lake Front homes—the development’s...

  22. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  23. 15 Ghosts along the Road
    (pp. 205-210)

    As I drive along the roads in Sullivan County, especially those that lead into Woodbourne, I see ghosts. I see hotels that have been converted into schools, drug rehabilitation centers, or bungalow colonies, or that have completely disappeared. I go by bungalow colonies that are now orthodox, and I go by colonies that have vanished. My mind’s eye remembers a Sullivan County of vital towns, undrained by the shopping centers that have sprung up outside of Liberty and Monticello drawing year-round business, and the day-to-day business of many summer visitors as well. Even if they don’t buy all their food...

  24. Notes
    (pp. 211-224)
  25. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-234)
  26. Index
    (pp. 235-242)