Sheldon Kirshner

The Catskills

The Catskills, a resort area in upper New York State favored by Jewish Americans from the 1920s to the 1980s, was an earthly paradise of mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and streams redolent of fresh air.

With more than 500 hotels and and hundreds of bungalow cottages, the Catskills boasted of having the greatest concentration of resorts in the United States.

And now it is virtually gone, a relic of changing tastes and times.

Lex Gillespie’s nostalgic documentary, The Catskills, charts its rise and decline through file footage, home movies and interviews. It will be screened on June 9 at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from May 30-June 9.

The hotels and cabins in the so-called Borscht Belt catered to an eclectic Jewish clientele: native-born Americans, immigrants, Holocaust survivors, workers and professionals.

These family-oriented “homes away from home,” as they were fondly called, were located in Sullivan and Ulster counties and ranged from Grossinger’s and the Concord to Brown’s and the Nevele. They offered visitors everything they could possibly desire — a clean and comfortable room, copious kosher meals, activities during the day, and entertainment in lavish auditoriums.

Beyond these attractions, they were the perfect places to meet and greet friends and launch romantic encounters that could lead to marriages.

They filled a yawning need at a juncture when racial and ethnic discrimination was common, antisemitism was rampant, and Jews were rarely welcomed in some American resorts.

The person most synonymous with the Catskills, Jennie Grossinger, was the co-owner of Grossinger’s. She ran the hotel with her husband, Harry, who kept out of the limelight. She was a gracious and indefatigable hostess as well as a brilliant publicist. It was her idea to invite famous athletes, such as the boxers Barney Ross and Rocky Marciano, to training camps on the grounds, and their presence burnished the hotel’s reputation. One of her guests was Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin Roosevelt.

The Catskills fostered new talents. The opera star Robert Merrill and the comedians Red Buttons, Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers, Mel Brooks and Joan Rivers got their start here.

Many of the waiters were university students who went on to forge careers in the professions.

By the mid-1980s, the Catskills were on the skids. As a middle-aged woman says, “People stopped coming, it was as simple as that.”

Civil rights legislation of the 1960s banned discrimination in the hotel business, giving Jews much greater sway in selecting hotels.

Air travel, once a privilege reserved for the wealthy, became affordable, prompting American travellers to venture much further afield.

Air conditioning kept prospective hotel guests at home in sweltering summer weather, obviating the need to decamp in hotels in the mountains.

The resorts in the Catskills had their day in the sun for about seven decades, but time ran out on them.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,
Related Topics
Related Posts