Different summers, different mountains
The Jewish journey from the Catskills to the Berkshires
Comedian Sid Caesar and his future wife Florence Levy at Avon Lodge in the Catskills, from the forthcoming documentary When Comedy Went to School.
Photo courtesy International Film Circuit
August 21, 2013
My mother, of blessed memory, made few material demands. She rarely went to restaurants, clothing was barely replaced, jewelry dated back to her pre-married days. One thing she did demand and in this there was no compromise: summer in the Catskills.
And so, we, like hundreds of thousands of New York Jews, loaded up our car the last weekend in June and drove four to five hours to our summer home, a two-room bungalow. There we remained until Labor Day, with my father coming up for weekends and his two-week vacation.
There were four levels of accommodations, the lowest being a rooming house with a shared kitchen affectionately called a “kukhelayn.” That was followed by the bungalows, and then the small hotels. The pinnacle was the luxury hotels — the Concord, Grossinger’s, and others. The hotels, almost all kosher and on the “American plan” (three meals a day), hosted guests for shorter time periods but offered wonderful facilities: sports, indoor games, music, and comedy in the night clubs. You name it, they had it. Bungalow colonies also had a host of athletic activities and often had a club house with a tummler — a social director — arranging more modest shows than existed at the hotels. There were several small synagogues patronized primarily by the year-round residents, and perhaps a few “Orthodox” hotels hosted “shiurim.”
This was the Jewish culture of the mid-20th century, a Shangri-La in which the more enterprising spent their days on the ball fields, the less-so sitting around playing gin rummy or mah-jongg. All came together in the evening to watch the shows, which almost always opened with a singer or dancers and headlined a comic. As a sign of Jewish identity, the Catskills were called the “Borscht Belt” and many of our great entertainers, including Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Jerry Lewis, and Robert Klein, began their careers there. Surrounded by their own, Jews could relax.
For a number of reasons the Catskills suffered a great decline beginning in the 1970s. As the Jewish majority abandoned the Catskills for more exclusive vacation sites, the kosher hotels began to close. At the bungalow colonies, the “mainstream” Jews were replaced by the fervently Orthodox, or haredim. Nostalgia for the “old” Catskills remains on Broadway, in revues like The Catskills on Broadway and Old Jews Telling Jokes, and in the cinema, with films like Dirty Dancing and A Walk on the Moon. Larry King, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl, and Robert Klein appear in the forthcoming When Comedy Went to School, a documentary about Catskills comics.
From Brooks to Bernstein
But the generation that grew up in the Catskills hasn’t completely abandoned the “mountains”; they’ve just migrated to another range. The Berkshires in western Massachusetts are serving as a magnet for Jews from Boston and the New York metropolitan area. Though the region doesn’t have the same kinds of facilities as the Catskills, thousands of Jews trek to the area in the summer months.
However, the nature, quality, and content of the “Jewish” Berkshires are vastly different from that of the Catskills, and reflect the changes that have taken place in American-Jewish life. The nature of the entertainment is vastly different. The Borscht Belt highlighted comedians and, to a lesser degree, singers, mostly drawn from the middle brow and even low brow of American culture.
The cultural life of the Berkshires revolves around “highbrow” institutions like Tanglewood (the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Jacob’s Pillow (a summer-long modern dance festival), and numerous theaters offering pre-Broadway, post-Broadway, or original plays. In the Catskills, the Jewish icons were Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks; in the Berkshires, it’s Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland.
The daily activities in the Catskills centered on the ball field or the card table, and were considered “Jewish” by the fact that the players and banter happened to be Jewish. By contrast, there were recently 39 lectures and classes sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires and local synagogues. These lectures may be one-shot deals or classes with three to eight sessions. There were three series showing films of Jewish interest, six concerts of Jewish music, weekly prayer hikes hosted by Chabad, and viewing parties to see the play The Chosen or the film Hava Nagila. Many of these programs are held in venues like Shakespeare & Co. and Lenox High School. Jewish culture has hit the public square and has received a warm welcome.
What has caused such a drastic change in Jewish culture? The answers are many and they reflect the change in Jewish life and comfort in these United States. There are more Jewish film festivals because there are many more films of Jewish interest than existed in the mid-20th century. As anti-Semitism declined, Jews joined the cultural “mainstream.” The expansion of Jewish studies on the campus has created a market for Jewish scholarship that barely existed 70 years ago, and many of these scholars summer in the Berkshires. This renaissance of Jewish culture has created a Jewish literacy unknown to previous generations of Jews.
At the same time, Jewish “ethnicity” has declined. There are no “Jewish” hotels in the Berkshires. While it was fairly easy to find a kosher meal in the Catskills, one is hard pressed to find one in the Berkshires. In the Catskills, people came from many classes, but everyone was Jewish. In the Berkshires, people come from many backgrounds and religions, but almost everyone is upper-middle class. In the Catskills, three generations of a family would crowd into a hotel or kukhelayn. In the Berkshires, many of the Jews tend to be retirees or empty nesters, their kids doing their own things during the summer.
The local Jewish federation and six well-functioning synagogues give a year-round stability to Jewish life in the Berkshires that was not present in the Catskills, so dependent on summer residents. Cultural institutions like Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow, Canyon Ranch, and the theaters will continue to serve as a magnet for Jews. But how I miss those summer softball games and the shows in the evening. They were easily worth the trek there and back.