Forwarded from Paul Buhle

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Sep 7 12:49:48 MDT 2002

In the Catskills: A Century of the Jewish Experience in "The Mountains,"
edited by Phil Brown.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 415pp. [price] ISBN 0-231-12360-4

This is a warm, charming and valuable work. Phil Brown's monographic
combination of scholarship and recollection, Catskill Culture: A
Mountain Rat's Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area (1998)
demonstrated his own mastery of the social-historical issues. It also
revealed his family's part in them. Brown's parents ran an unsuccessful,
small hotel and lost the property. His own memories are consequently
more bitter-sweet than most. But he brings a sociologist's eye to the
details that participants knew only as anecdote, and that only the
elderly can now remember.

Catskill Culture grew out of History of the Catskills Conferences, but
could also be described as one of those rare books that practically
create a field around themselves. We now see a rush into print, and In
the Catskills brings together scholars and fiction-writers with
memoirists. Much of the writing is simply gorgeous, a mixture of
meticulously remembered details and the wisdom of the passing years.
Some is collected from old volumes, the more familiar commentary by the
likes of Herman Wouk (from Marjorie Morningstar), Isaac Bashevis Singer,
Moss Hart and Abraham Cahan. Even Joey Adams, arguably the most
untalented comic in the history of mainstream Jewish-American comedy,
makes an appearance by way of reprint.

But the best of the material is original here, and tackles issues beyond
the realm of nostalgia. What was the magic of Catskills entertainment,
that element that counted not only in Jewish American life but far
beyond it? The answer, as Joyce Wadler suggests, is the proximity of
artist and audience. The comics and singers who got $15 week plus room
and board (all they could eat!) in the 1930s-40s were hardly a step
removed from their audience. The stand-up specialists revived vaudeville
routines and worked up new ones; so did the musicians, whose greatest
contribution was no doubt keeping some klezmir bands working, but also
extended to a transethnic and transracial adaptiveness. A bad comic
would turn Harry Belafonte's 1950s calypso hit "Matilda" into "My
Zelda," but plenty of musicians were happy to play behind Belafonte, not
only one of the most appealing figures of the day to Jewish audiences
but also one of the most politically active (and this among audiences
that talked darkly about the prospects of neighborhood integration).

Why did the Catskills culture die so quickly, after a brilliant
efflorescence (it turned out to be a climax) during the 1940s-50s? Jerry
Jacobs' "Reflections on the Delmar Hotel and the Demise of the
Catskills" pinpoints the generational shift. On the one hand, Jewish
families of the middle 1960s had more options than "going upstate":
second homes for the prosperous, family flights to Florida or elsewhere,
and so on. Suddenly, the Catskills became a geriatric zone.

Behind and beneath this magnum shift, the details of vacation culture
were naturally changing as well. The shift from the Yiddish folk and pop
classics to medleys from Fiddler On the Roof did not seem to be such a
big one, mainly a shift to English; if an after-hours speciality in one
hot spot became the strip show, illegal gambling, mainly cards, was an
old vice. But the revolution reached the Mountains when the new
generation of waiters and busboys adopted Rock 'n Roll--notwithstanding
the formidable Jewish role in the music)--went for Janis Joplin
(actually promoted or "created" by former Catskills waiter Bill Graham)
and turned against the kind of "Americanization" that included Jewish
institutional support for the War in Vietnam.

That old stuff no longer made sense because so much of it had been based
upon memories of old Yiddishkayt and New Dealism that dissolved in the
rapid upward mobility and aggressive individualism of the 1950s. Suburbs
killed the spirit of the Catskills resorts before the body faded. The
stories of the teen romances (and sexual awakenings), the long hours,
big (or small) tips and camaraderie of the waitstaff, the recollected
yearnings after thirty years or more for sharpened memories of youth:
these spring from the same sources, life in the metropolitan Yiddishe
Gassen (Jewish streets) removed to summer air and green space.

Phil Brown's own distanced and analytically reworked reminiscences
extend Catskill Culture and help make useful sense of it all. His
parents' sad story demonstrates the hard and often little-rewarded labor
that kept the culture going; his own observations of young Catskill
workers illuminate the elements of solidarity, and the reality of
bullying managers, of lucky breaks and the shlock hotels were none could
be expected. The recollection of campfire singing to a bunch of hecklers
brings chills, along with the virtually forced relations of overabundant
female guests and specially imported college boys. It sounds as bad as
highschool. No wonder Brown and so many others left the mountains for
decades--only to return in middle age memories.

Paul Buhle
Brown University
Paul_Buhle at


Louis Proyect

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