If the Catskills are dead, may we all be blessed with such an afterlife: cold beer, slow-dancing and songs under moonlight that remind us of each other.
Of course, the Catskills aren’t dead. The population of Sullivan County, the heart of the Jewish Catskills, still triples in the summer, from 78,000 to more than 250,000 — down from a peak of 400,000, a few decades ago, but hardly dead.
Back in the 1950s, the approximately 2,000 square miles of the Jewish Catskills were perhaps the densest rural resort in the world. In 1953, by one count, there were more than 400 bungalow colonies (with 50,000 cabins), 538 hotels, and about 1,000 boarding houses. In the summer of 2007, pairs of Orthodox Jews are still frequently seen strolling along the two-lane blacktops.
Mark points to a current exhibit (through December) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. “The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity, and the Jewish-American Dream” is a history of Jewish resorts (Atlantic City, Miami and the Catskills among them).
Yes, there was once a time, the museum tells us, when “Gentiles Only” signs prompted Jews to create their own resorts, but in the end, Jewish vacations were less about external hatred and more about the insatiable love we had for each other. Imagine, we loved each other so much that when we had the slightest chance to get away from it all we chose to spend time with the Jews we already knew from work, school, shul and summers past.
The museum reports one woman saying that the mountains were a place “to dance, kibitz,” a place where many experienced their “first real crush.”
A first crush, then a second and a third. If you ever spent time in the Catskills there is probably someone reading this article right now who was in love with you then, and maybe still is.
Part of the museum exhibit is a home movie loop: "A family of four, hand-in-hand, wobbling while ice skating at Grossinger’s; movies shot from the window of the car as it drove up into the mountains; faded films of young mothers in polka-dot sundresses at the hotel pool, as children toweled off, squinting into the sun."
My own memories of Kauneonga Lake - where my maternal grandparents owned Sidney and Bertha Fink's Kauneonga Park bungalow colony - include hide-and-seek around the flagpole at night, pinball and the jukebox in the "canteen," salamander races in the puddles under the swings, picking blueberries behind the baseball field, the haunted house across the road in what became the West Shore Country Club and buying sweet corn and delicious red ripe tomatoes at Max Yasgur's farm - long before Woodstock was a glimmer in anyone's eye.
How could we city kids ever forget the summer that the cows (from the adjacent farm) broke through the baseball field's back fence and wandered all over the colony, frightening city mothers. Does anyone else remember the summer of the lost horse? We raided our mothers' kitchens for carrots, apples and sugar cubes, so the animal would stay around until its owner arrived.
I also clearly remember when my father took me down the road to the colony's dock on Kauneonga Lake - before the colony's large pool was built. We were going to fish for lox, he said, using a bagel for bait. I wasn't much older than 4 - a little kid. Initially, I thought it might have been possible. What did I know? We didn't fish much in the Bronx! Afterwards, as the story was told and family and friends laughed hysterically, I realized I had been "taken."
Fortunately, the Catskills Institute - founded by Prof. Phil Brown at Brown University - archives everything about the Catskills, preserving memorabilia, writings, objects and - most important - our memories.