People have always tried to escape the intensely humid New York City summers.
In the days before air-conditioning, getting out of the city was something
everyone wanted, but few could afford.
The fortunate few who had the gelt, would build summer cottages for
their families. Early Jewish explorers "discovered" the rolling hills of
Sullivan County. This is the famed Catskill Mountain Region located 125 miles
north of the City.
What a difference those miles make! The air is cleaner, the temperatures are
cooler, and the scenery is breathtaking. "Going to the mountains" became the
traditional way a Jewish family spent their summer.
Relatives often asked for meals and accommodation when they dropped by for a
"short" visit. It soon became obvious money could be made by renting out spare
rooms to paying guests. The fee included 3 lovingly prepared kosher meals every
Unexpected "guests" were commonplace for the "mountain pioneers". It was not
unusual to look out the window and find several cars pulling up in front of the
Of course, the visitors expected to be fed.
Because the pilgrimage to the country was very long and tiring, an overnight
invitation was the minimum expected. Long lost relatives suddenly became "unlost"
as stories of your marvelous hospitality spread back home. Second; third; and
even cousins twice removed would surprise their country host with all of their
friends, and relatives, in tow.
The desire to be gracious, and the cost of entertaining, created a subtle
tension every time another "hacker" pulled into the front yard. Something had to
be done so everyone could be satisfied without the host losing his shirt.
Small ads started to appear in New York neighborhood newspapers. Friendly
invitations encouraged people to "be our guest this summer" for a nominal per
day fee. A night's lodging would include three sumptuous home cooked meals, and
special lower rates were charged for longer stays. Freeloading relatives now had
to make a reservation; and pay, if they wanted the privilege of staying at your
Make no mistake, the change of circumstance did not go unnoticed by certain
family members. Heated conversations resulted when kinsmen were presented with a
bill for their visit. Schnorers who were accustomed to "dropping by" with
their "gantsa meshpucha" for a mini-vacation now had to pay to eat the
same food, and sleep in the same beds they used to enjoy for free.
It wasn't a pretty sight.
Many previously "lost" relatives became "lost again". Before they
disappeared, injured relatives would "button hole" anyone who would listen, and
complain. Fabled exchanges of unforgivable insults grew to mountain legends.
In time, as the idea of paying to stay was accepted, and the family cottages
grew into an industry. The Catskill Mountain Resort was born!!!
The demand for accommodation was so great, owners began to build additional
rooms. Guests would occupy the new rooms as fast as they were built, and they
started staying for weeks rather than days at a time.
"Going to the country" was how families spent their summer. From Memorial Day
through Labour Day the hills were alive with Jewish vacationers. Many poppas
would work all week in the city and join their families every weekend.
Paying guests expect more from their host than porch space and three square
meals. You can only eat and rock so much before getting dizzy and nauseous.
Hotel owners were forced into show business to help their guests while away the
At first everyone was satisfied with amateur talent shows, bingo games and
movies. After a while, listening to Uncle Meyer's off colour jokes or watching
Cousin Miriam clog dance her way through "Bie mier bistu schein", would
bring back the taste of that evening's flanken.
Enter the "tumler"!!
Tumlers were responsible for entertaining the guests from breakfast
until bed time. During the day he would organize nature walks, volley ball
games, and scavenger hunts. At night, he would act as the master of ceremonies
to introduce professional acts that traveled up from the city. Vaudeville and
night club acts found new life performing in this growing venue.
The Catskill stages launched many famous careers. Danny Kaye, Buddy Hackett,
Eddie Fisher, and Jerry Lewis are some of the names that broke into the business
working as tumlers in "the Borscht Belt".
The appetites for entertainment, distraction and food grew every year. The
hotels expanded their facilities every season. Tennis courts, night clubs,
miniature golf, bowling alleys, and even 18 hole golf courses popped up where
once there were trees. Soon you couldn't attract a single guest unless you
offered both indoor and outdoor swimming pools. Even the "3 squares a day" was
expanded to virtually around the clock FRESStivals.
As the years passed, peoples tastes in vacation activities began to change.
World travel became less expensive, and the cruise ship industry opened up
travel to exotic places. The Catskill guests began to look elsewhere to spend
their vacation time and dollars.
The larger resorts continued to do well by expanding their menus to both
kosher and non-kosher gourmet food. Las Vegas style shows with "big name"
entertainment replaced the few remaining bingos and amateur nights.
Package deals with "cut-throat" pricing divided up the remaining visitors.
Little by little, the smaller hotels went out of business. Today The only a few
of the "Catskill Palaces" survive.