Issue: 1.08 6/1/2000
by: Michael D. Fein
Summering in the Catskills

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 day.

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 cottage.

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 country cottage.

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 time.

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.

Michael D. Fein is the Editor of the Gantseh Megillah.
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