the catskills -- 6/14/24

Today's selection -- from City Game by Matthew Goodman. In the 20th century, resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains became the destination of choice for New York City’s Jewish community:

“The Borscht Belt, it was called, a stretch of hotels that ran through the southwestern part of New York’s Catskill Mountains, a couple of hours up Route 17 from the city by ramshackle bus or overflowing family sedan. The Catskills had been discovered as a vacation spot around the turn of the century, when in the summertime Jewish immigrants fled the heat and noise of the city to experience the simple pleasures of country food and an after-dinner walk under the stars; as time went on, a steady stream of Jews from the Lower East Side began making the trek upstate, word having gotten around about the wonders of the mountains – the beautiful scenery, the healthful air, the deliciousness of butter and eggs from cows and chickens you could actually see. Soon farmhouses were converted into boardinghouses, and boardinghouses multiplied into bungalow colonies, and then came the hotels, sprouting like toadstools around the lakes and under the pines. 

“By the 1940s a Catskills vacationer had hundreds of places from which to choose, hotels for every budget and sensibility, from rustic homesteads to the most opulent modern palaces with tennis courts and golf courses; there were vegetarian health resorts and dude ranches and leftist retreats where the evening’s entertainment might be a Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie concert, or the restaging of a Clifford Odets play, or a musical Pageant with a title like Peace in a World of Equality. Some hotels catered to families, while others were understood to be destinations for single people, or married people who arrived without their spouses, and there the evening dances took on a different quality, and couples made abundant use of parked cars and distant linen rooms, and the rules about employees fraternizing with guests were less strictly enforced. One of the hotels, the Sha-Wan-Ga Lodge, was widely known as ‘Schwenga Lodge,” from the Yiddish word for pregnant. The comedian Joey Adams had a joke: ‘Every year thousands of girls come up to the Catskills looking for husbands -- and thousands of husbands come up looking for girls.’

Concord Hotel, Kiamesha Lake, dining room, 1978

“The life of the hotel was carried on to the soundtrack of the public address loudspeaker, summoning bellhops for new arrivals, reporting lost children and phone calls waiting in the lobby, announcing upcoming activities: volleyball games, art classes, riding lessons, cha-cha lessons by the pool. (The Hotel Brickman offered lessons in so many activities that the owner, Murray Posner, once quipped, ‘You should get a diploma, not a receipt, when you leave my hotel.’) Almost all of the hotels provided three gargantuan meals a day, which in the larger hotels became four meals, including a self-service ‘midnight supper.’ Night there was dancing -- many hotels had two house orchestras. One that played American big band standards and the other specializing in the latest crazes of mambo and rumba -- and on the weekends the fancier hotels also offered nightclub routines by stars like Martin and Lewis and Sophie Tucker and Danny Kay and comedians like Milton Berle and Myron Cohen and Henny Youngman.) 'A drunk was brought into court. The judge says, “My good man, you’ve been brought here for drinking." He says, "All right, judge, let’s get started."’) In some of the hotels it was common practice for the comedian to tell the joke in English but reserve the punch line for Yiddish, for that extra ethnic zing, that zetz: ‘Mr. Goldman,’ the policeman asks the old man lying in the street who’s just been run over by a truck, ‘are you comfortable?’ The old man raises his head and replies, ‘Nu me makht a lebn.' (‘Well, I make a living.’)

“Like the jokes, the members of the audience seemed to exist in two cultures at once. They weren’t immigrants anymore but they weren’t precisely American either, though some of the older ones had in their youth changed their names to more American versions, lopping off extra syllables like sidelocks, with one swift stroke converting Old World to New. Many of them still spoke with accents and belonged to mutual aid societies that derived from towns in the ancestral homeland, and even their children, making their way into the wider society, understood the reality of educational quotas and professional restrictions, recognized that while the most talented among them might someday become a Supreme Court justice like Louis Brandeis, none could hope to be president, or even gain admission to many of New York’s elite private club. For a few weeks out of the summer, though, they could forget about their cares and do morning calisthenics and games of Simon Says, or just sit in the sun and do nothing at all, and three times a day, or four, they could eat to their heart’s content, and order more than they needed, and send back plates with scraps of food still on them, and in doing so thumb their noses, at last, at generations of scarcity.”



Matthew Goodman


The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team


Ballantine Books


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