As a child, my family took vacations. I don’t know whose idea these two week summer sojourns were but it feels accurate to attribute them to my late father. He’d grown up poor and while he could have played the Abe Lincoln poverty card (“I had to walk nine miles to school and back in Brooklyn with a cooked potato in my pocket.”), he never did. The stories he told were filled with laughter, mischievousness and family gossip.
When he returned home from war to help support his elderly parents, familial devotion did not usurp a need to get out and live a little. Before his enlistment, his world consisted of a post-Ellis Island-via-Vilna existence. He spoke his first English words at the age of five, having been nursed and raised in Yiddish. But now he’d lived and fought alongside ‘real’ Americans and discovered other cultures worth exploring. He learned to play tennis on cracked asphalt at the local community center. He took ballroom dancing lessons and joined a social group of Young Zionists. Dad went to Broadway shows and would forever claim that Paul Robeson was the greatest performer of all time.
Americans took vacations and so did we. For years, we frequented the Jewish mountain resorts that boasted Olympic sized swimming pools, day camps, shuffleboard contests, night clubs and obscenely sized meals. (Think “Dirty Dancing” without Patrick Swayze. Ever.) The respective children’s dining rooms were monitored by pimply day camp counselors; sullen boys sporting Elvis-coifs and freshman college girls with Lesley Gore hair flips and peddle-pusher slacks. After dinner, we children were tucked into bed, freeing our tuxedoed and evening gowned parents to Cha-Cha, Foxtrot and Twist the night away. The more lavish the resort, the bigger the names to grace the marquee: Don Rickles, Henny Youngman, Phyllis Diller, Chubby Checkers, Norm Cosby, Buddy Hackett, Totie Fields and Rodney Dangerfield were just a few of the entertainers that appeared in those heady, elysium days.
Either the mountains or Daddy changed because we began renting a cabin on the lake with one or two other families. We ate oatmeal on wrap-around porches protected with mosquito netting, toasted marshmallows, collected orange salamanders in jars and leapt off of fishing docks or swinging tires into the ice-cold waters that lay outside the front door. Our palms grew calloused from row-boating. Sometimes we went into town for a sundae or to see a movie, but mostly we stayed. When it rained we read, did jigsaw puzzles and played Monopoly, awaiting the precise moment when the thunder and lightning abated. In a flash, we sloshed out again in rubber galoshes and dungarees, anxious to experience more rural magic. These precious moments would have to suffice until such time as our tedious city lives might, once again, allow us to return to the serene and magical ‘country.’
The last family vacations I recall were camping trips. My siblings and I slept on wooden pallets in open-sided lean-tos while our parents shared a tent that was more substantial and boasted canvas cots. One year we towed a sleeping trailer behind our turquoise Chevy Impala station wagon, providing sleeping quarters for four. No other families wanted to join us on these no-frills holidays. By this time, my father was studying art and used the days to paint forest landscapes in oil. My most vivid memory were the bugs that stuck to the canvases as they dried. Dad didn’t laugh when I pointed out the differences between Realism and Impressionism but at 14, I was a pretentious riot.
I think my mother truly missed the Catskill night clubs and elegant ambiance of the earlier years but, by this time, most of those institutions were either dead or dying. On a recent Friday night, I attempted to share some of these memories with very Israeli grandchildren but my pressing need to impart the magic and nostalgia of the period felt forced. They couldn’t relate to stories that were beyond their ken. This doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate that I want to share my history with them, but to intuit the sounds of a crackling campfire, the subtly-sweet fragrance of squirming salamanders, or the tears and belly-laughs of first generation and immigrant American Jews on holiday is nearly impossible to transmit.
Not everything translates. Wee-glimpses into happy days allow me to find great comfort in moments that are, perhaps, best left to memory.
Reprinted with permission of San Diego Jewish Journal, Feb. 1, 2023