Borscht Belt reds

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun May 13 17:32:00 MDT 2001

[I grew up in Sullivan County in upstate NY, an area that at one time was
home to a thriving resort area that catered to NYC's mostly working-class
Jews. Hence the term "Borscht Belt." The hotels began to go bankrupt one by
one after the 1950s, as Jews became more affluent and left the oppressive
tenements for the suburbs. As might be expected, many of these Jews were on
the left, especially those who were employed as garment workers. The needle
trades was traditionally leftist, divided between CP and social democratic
unions. By the 1950s, the leftwing culture had largely died out, not just
because of growing affluence, but because of the witch-hunt as well.

[About 10 years ago, I started asking around to see if any old-timers
wanted to be interviewed in relation to their radical past. They were still
too frightened to admit anything about their past. There is no better
introduction to this world than Phil Brown's new book "Catskill Culture."
Phil, like me, grew up in the area and now teaches at Brown University.
Every summer he hosts conferences on Catskill culture at a local hotel
about 2 miles from where I live. 

[A website ( on the conference
has some fascinating material, including reminiscences by Henry Foner, a
bandleader who had ties to the CP and who figures in the excerpt below. His
nephew is Columbia professor Eric Foner, a highly respected Marxist scholar
specializing in the civil war. I wrote a report on one of the conferences


The fervor of the 1930s was so strong that politics made its way even into
hotels that were not expressly radical. A waiter who worked at the
Huntington Lakeside told me how political entertainment might crop up in
the 1930s: One of his guests was the famous Yiddish actor Mikhl Rosenberg,
who organized a costume ball where he dressed the waiter up as Trotsky, and
they lampooned the Moscow show trials of 1936. One man who worked a variety
of jobs for seventy years recalls his own activism:

>>In 1934, we had a young Jewish group that studied Marxism. We had
classes; we had a dramatic class. The girls and boys from Monticello [were]
a very nice bunch. We had dances. And came May Day, we had a May Day
demonstration. We had a speaker on the corner with an American flag. There
was almost a riot there. The police department came out, the fire
department came out, [and] the American Legion. Some guy threw a tomato.
They thought the speaker picked up the flag to ward it off, but he didn’t.
They hit the flag [with the tomato] and it bounced off and hit him in the
face. Well, there was a trial in the fall, and our lawyers made monkeys out
of them and threw it out of court.<<

Three years later when this man was attempting to organize waiters at the
Flagler, he found it hard to sign up union members because a floating work
force typically didn’t return the next year to the same hotel—"I had my
head cracked a couple of times."

In her memoir of hotel ownership and local life, Cissie Blumberg notes that
the town of Woodridge donated an ambulance to the Spanish Loyalists in the
1930s. She and her husband raised money for the Progressive Party’s 1948
campaign to elect Henry Wallace as President, and they organized "Farmers
for Wallace" and "Women for Wallace." In the antiwar 1960s, they ran up
against roadblocks in organizing a meeting featuring Dr. Benjamin Spock
when officials wouldn’t provide a public building to hold the meeting. I
heard from others that Green Acres made a point of hiring blacklisted
entertainers such as Zero Mostel. A son of chicken farmers told me about
how his parents were active in the American Labor Party (ALP). His father
ran for state assembly in 1950, and his mother spoke and leafleted,
sometimes with his help—"They were part of an identifiable left-wing group
in the community." The ALP fought against the cold war mentality, racism,
and anti-Semitism, and it ran candidates for local and state elections,
supported the 1948 Wallace campaign, and raised support and money for the
Rosenbergs. (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as "atom spies."
Widely understood as a frame-up of political activists, the Rosen berg case
was a touchstone of McCarthyist repression on the one hand and progressive
politics on the other.) The son adds, "One of the most memorable and
important activities that I remember was organizing the black laundry
workers at the Sullivan County Steam Laundry" to help them win improvements
in their working conditions. One retired farmer, still living on the same
farm his father started in 1904, remembers a red-baiting attempt by the
local Liberal Party to defeat him when he ran for the board of the fire
insurance cooperative.

When people think about leftist resorts, three names typically come to
mind: Maud’s Summer Ray, Chester’s Zunbarg, and Arrowhead Lodge. At Maud’s
Summer Ray in the years before World War II, most guests were left ists.
Their numbers included socialists, communists, and Trotskyists, though the
communists predominated, at least as measured by the sales of newspapers:
the Communist Party’s Yiddish Freiheit (Freedom) was the top seller, as a
vet eran guest of Maud’s told me. Chester’s Zunbarg had leftist
entertainers such as Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Woodie Guthrie, Paul
Robeson, Leon Bibb, Ossie Davis, and Rubie Dee. Moreover, W. E. B. DuBois
even lectured in the Catskills.

Henry Foner speaks of working in the band at the Arrowhead Lodge, which was
affiliated with the leftist Jefferson School, an adult noncredit school in
New York City. Indeed, the Jefferson School handled all of the Arrowhead’s
reservations and supplied political lecturers twice a week. This was very
helpful all around: "For the hotel it was great because they were filled
throughout the summer. For the Jefferson School it was good because they
were getting a percentage of the take. For us it was good because a new
crowd was coming up each week so we didn’t have to worry about repeating
material." At this time, the Rapp-Coudert Commission, a New York State
forerunner of the McCarthy committee, forced the firing of about fifty
teachers from city colleges and pub lic schools. Foner remembers that:

Leonard Lyons, who was a columnist in the [New York] Post, wrote a piece in
which he said, "Some of the teachers suspended from City College are
forming an orchestra and they are calling it ‘Suspended Swing."’ So we
called our orchestra "Suspended Swing." We printed cards and that’s how we
were known—The Foner Brothers and Their Suspended Swing Orchestra.

As Foner recalls, they had a busy schedule:

>>While we were up there in ‘47, my brother, Moe [Foner], was the education
director for the Department Store Union, and he got the notion, based on
"Pins and Needles" [a very successful musical comedy created by the ILGWU],
that it was time to do another musical comedy for the unions. So Norman
Franklin and I were commissioned to write "Thursdays ‘Til Nine." So we used
that summer—since we were writing material, we were able to try it out
during the summer—and we wrote a full-scale musical comedy. The performers
were all workers of the Department Store Union. Irving Berlin came to the

Like any Catskill hotel, Arrowhead had weekly campfires, but in this case
they sang union songs and Spanish Civil War songs. Though the resort was
quite leftist, it still could attract talent that was not expressly
political. Foner continues: 

>>I had been teaching at Tilden High School with Sam Levinson, so we
convinced the owner of Arrowhead that she should hire Sam Levinson as the
MC [in 1941]. It was a very successful summer, and as a result, Sam became
well known, and from that year on he began to go up to the country and to
take a bungalow and go out to perform at the hotels throughout the

Another radical hotel lasted a shorter time. The Fur Worker’s Resort, later
called White Lake Lodge, started in 1949. As the education director of the
Furrier’s Union, Henry Foner therefore worked at that hotel, too:

>>It was [union president Ben] Gold’s ambition to have a resort that the
fur workers would be able to come to when they were on vacation. The
best-laid plans of mice and men . . . the busiest season for fur workers is
the summer, and why it didn’t occur to him I don’t know, but workers’
vacations were in the wintertime. So it became a resort for the progressive
movement. Howard Fast came up regularly and would lecture.<<

The hotel probably lost money each season. In 1955, the Furrier’s Union
merged with the Meat Cutters and they decided to stop operating the resort.
It was bought and became a Jewish camp, Camp Hi-Li.

But this radicalism was atypical. Harvey Jacobs’s novel, Summer on a
Mountain of Spices, offers a dramatic portrayal of the loneliness of
Catskill political activists in the late 1940s and 1950s, including a trip
across the Hudson to Peek skill to the famous 1949 Paul Robeson concert,
where the singer and his audience were stoned—while state and local police
looked on with encouragement before arresting them. Paul Robeson was a
frequent visitor at the Fur Worker’s Resort, and many people staying there
went to Peekskill to support the concert and protect Robeson. Radical
politics was a minority perspective, even in the turbulent 1960s; resorts
just couldn’t provide a fertile location for this, being too busy providing
entertainment that was geared to take people’s minds off such troubles.
Indeed, Mountain comics frequently used social activists and hippies as a
convenient butt for humor.

Zionism had an easier time in the Catskills. There were always many Zionist
camps, including training grounds for Jews going to Israel. Fund-raising by
selling Israel Bonds was quite common. I remember accompanying a friend to
a labor Zionist camp to visit his brother; it was shocking to see paying
actually living in more primitive conditions than the hotel staff quarters
that I was used to.

American Jews in the first few decades of the century were very often
connected to leftist politics. But this often innate radicalism diminished
as they became more Americanized, and as they moved away from working-class
occupations and unions. These trends, plus the fierce anticommunism
beginning in the mid-1940s, meant that the post—World War II Catskills was
not a likely place to find leftism. This was yet one more way in which the
Catskills formed a tracing pad for the transitions of Jews in America.

Louis Proyect
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