Issac Bashevis Singer wrote a short story about it and the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn broke his taboo about leaving 770 and went there. Did you know The Catskills were very Jewish and hip even at the turn of the 20th century? In 1998 Prof. Phil Brown wrote Catskills Culture: A Mountain Rat’s Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area, a memoir which is still relevant. Today The Catskills vacation is no longer. Some modern Orthodox vacationers still go and the ultra Orthodox, predominate. But its been over for a long time. Indeed the old warhorse hotels are long gone and with them a whole civilization. The Concord in Kiamesha Lake closed in 1998; Grossinger’s in Grossinger’s NY in 1986.
American Jews initially went to The Catskills to be together and feel both heimishe — Jewish but not too religious—
and American . They wanted to be outdoors, see a lake and a tree, and have a ‘vacation.’ Prof. Brown says they landed up re—creating the shtetl. Later, it became the fancier, swingier Borscht Belt.
It started out modestly with farms, then came summer boarders, then “kuchalaynes” (sort of self cooking places), then bungalow colonies, then hotels, then grand hotels etc.. In its heyday, the “mountains” or “the country”, were accessible by trains as well as private cars and “hacks”. There were over 900 Jewish hotels; many were kosher but just a few were Orthodox.
What killed The Catskills as a vacation destination, were cheap air travel fares, and changing gender habits—(Dad was no longer relegated, for most of the summer, to his hot city job), inter-marriage, the death of Yiddish culture, suburbia, California , Arizona, Israel and Florida, became desirable and distant places to live, changes in eating habits, where huge portions of meat and fat once reigned, the Americanization of Jews, the decline of anti semitism. Today Jews sip lattes anywhere.
Other reasons for the decline: It became mega costly to run hotels. Jewish help, such as college student waiters and busboys who once dated guests daughters, became non existent. Younger people didn’t want to vacation where their grandparents did.
The only Jewish group that clings to The Catskills for a summer vacation are very Orthodox Jews, who like to keep to themselves, need cheap plentiful space and seem to like the bungalow colony set up. They have bought up some now decrepit famous old hotels for very Orthodox summer camps. A rumor has it that the ultra Orthodox bungalow colonies are actually styled as tax free yeshivas. Its unclear if this is true.
To a lesser extent the modern Orthodox still maintain some leisure institutions there . There’s Vacation Village, a housing unit in Loch Sheldrake and various homestead colonies (bungalows are now proper homes with air conditioning etc.) and summer camps. Old timers of Italian descent rent at the Villa Roma just outside Calicoon. Some folks of Jewish descent, now Floridians, come back to the region for the summers.
The Catskills have changed. Ashrams, rehab centers, car dealerships, prisons and strip malls dot the still pretty countryside. Some millionaires have returned and bought up whole bungalow colonies for private use and built palatial single homes.
But Brown’s book focuses on the early phase of The Catskills—when he was a waiter. His thesis is that once The Catskills served as a place of American acculturation for mostly secular New York Jews. His book is a kind of valentine to the world that was.
My own experiences in The Catskills and were much later and narrower. As a child we summered in the north Catskills, in Highmount Hotel which was then modern Orthodox. Like the book says, it had a day camp and tennis courts, pool, tea room, but no entertainment of note. It was a small hotel and my parents and their friends had the run of the place. Later we frequented the Pine View and the Pioneer, other Orthodox establishments which were bigger hotels. Grossingers where we went once, was disliked (by my very observant Dad) because they allowed Saturday check in and he was neither an athlete or a big eater. He was very European and didn’t own leisure clothes.
Mine was probably the last generation that vacationed in the Catskills and saw its demise. In my adolescence, I went Camp Hili in White Lake and then to Camp Hillel in Swan Lake. As a young Mom, I spent a few years in Tannersville in the northern Catskills. We rented homes, not bungalows and there was a Jewish camp, library, synagogue and a beach lake nearby. Pious, serious German Jews who were like the Amish, ran the place but they were replaced by lustier Lubavitcher hassidim.
Sick of the huge amount of work involved in moving, and the somber , ever-studious German Jews, I treated myself to the Homowack Hotel in Spring Glen. There I met entirely different Jews. During the weekdays women lived it up; wigs and other head coverings came off, women drank alcohol and went in the evenings to the Concord Hotel.It was exactly as described by Brown’s book. I was a weekday widow. Men came with wads of cash to pay the hotel. It was the Eighties. Little did we know that the end of an era was near. Maybe The Catskills will have another life?