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11th Annual Conference: Recap by Irwin Richman

The comedy “Ladies Night in the Turkish Bath” was a scandalous one for its time – pre-WWII.  Women out of place, but times have changed.  No one laughed uncomfortably at “Ladies Turn at the Catskill Institute.”  It was a universal success when our 11th Annual Conference was cosponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive.  Not that we had ignored women previously.  This time the accent changed and the genders shifted a bit.  However, a few familiar male faces were still in evidence.

Greeting us as we registered was the Yiddish music coming from Sal Kluger’s bazaar, which, as always, was stocked with an irresistible array of books of Jewish interest, and all matter of Yiddish themed bibelot and novelties that one had to have.  I couldn’t resist a box of “Shlomo’s Matzoh Ball Soap – The Chosen Soap.”  If only I had had it when the kids were small and saying naughty words!

As always Phil Brown was our major domo and he opened the conference with a Powerpoint cum live music presentation featuring unfamiliar klezmer melodies, playing piano along with Jamie Forrest on mandolin.  It was an appetizer worthy of the intellectual feast to follow: Just as the cocktail franks and chicken wings at the opening reception, earlier, had prepared us for dinner.  As the conference progressed, Phil would introduce each presenter with erudition, kindness, and general menschlichkeit.

Joining Phil in welcoming us on opening night was Joyce Antler, Brandeis University Professor and Chair of the Academic Council of the Jewish Women’s Archive, who also explained the work of the Archive.  It is a 21st Century institution preserving a rich heritage, whose “Collections” are web-based.  The printed program had promised us “special surprises” and we were treated to one as we viewed a video that Caroline Offit, Carrie Komito’s great-granddaughter, made to commemorate her great-grandmother’s 100th birthday.  The tape included segments taped at the veteran hotel (The Aladdin in Woodbourne) owner’s Centennial party.  It was a treat.

Next day, the first speaker was Rachael Kranson, who had wowed us at our last conference with her presentation on the Furriers’ Resort at White Lake, which she did with Henry Foner.  Today she went solo.  Her presentation, “Staging the Ideal Jewish Community: Women Hotel Owners in the Catskills, 1950-1970” was well prepared, and gracefully presented.  She noted that many women hotel owners adopted a Yiddishe mama persona for their guests – one that might not be their own.  Otherwise Jewish women, most of whom co-owned their hotels, worked very hard behind the scenes as did their husbands and, often, their children.  Several past and one present owner – Helen Kutsher—were in the audience.  Their comments matched Rachael’s observations. 

After a brief intermission Joe Dorinson did his turn.  Joe, a many-time presenter, talked about two Catskill favorites in “From Alan King to Billy Crystal: The Changing Face of Catskills Comedy.”  As always, Joe was informative and entertaining.  A surprise feature came at the beginning of the Q & A session when Joe and Henry Foner sang an a cappella duet of “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime.”  The remarkable Mr. Foner, later in the conference, charmed us all with his performance of his Catskill song par excellence, “Shoot the Strudel to Me, Yudel.”  It was a pleasure many of had experienced before, and we all hope to hear again.  The words and music are printed in Phil Brown’s In the Catskills, but Henry’s unique presence, alas, can not be captured in a mere book. 

The afternoon session began with Samantha Goldstein’s “For the Amusement of Guests: How Gertrude Berg Brought the Catskills to Radio and Television.”  Gertrude Berg was a hotel owners’ daughter in Fleishmanns, in the northern reaches of the Catskills. Her presentation was a very interesting one, showing how Berg’s experience, growing up in the hotel business, was reflected in her radio and television shows, especially “The Goldbergs” in which the college educated, well spoken Gertrude Berg, adopted the accented persona of Molly Goldberg who, along with her husband Jake and children “Sammy and Rosalie,” often vacationed at “The Pincus Pines” in the Catskills.

 The second presentation was very dynamic, and slide-illustrated, and performed by Melissa Martens, Curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.  In “Catskills and Context: Putting Together a Museum Exhibition on Jewish-American Vacation Culture,” Melissa described the upcoming exhibition she is working on, which centers on where Maryland’s Jews vacationed.  Prominently featured are the Catskills, Atlantic City, and Miami Beach.  The catalog, which atypically precedes the exhibition’s opening, was available at our registration/sales desk along with other books by several of our presenters.  The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity and the Jewish American Dream is a handsome full-color soft covered book, which includes essays by our own Phil Brown (Catskills) and Deborah Dash-Moore (Miami Beach), as well as “Atlantic City: A Place in the Sun …” by presenter Martens.  Her enthusiasm and knowledge, along with her well-chosen slides, made us all want to travel to Baltimore soon.

Saturday evening’s program was very special.  Our first presenter was Joyce Antler, whose Catskill ancestry is impeccable.  Her mother was even born here, even if her own experience was more limited.  Her presentation was done with all the polish of an accomplished senior academic and was clearly the professional role model for our grad students and junior faculty to emulate.  Her presentation, “My Yiddishe/Red Hot Mama: A Short History of Jewish Women in Comedy,” was well-paced and expansive, especially given her time constraints.  Joyce was able to cut to the essentials as she started with the European Jewish tradition, and came to America with Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker, and ended with the most “today” of Jewish comediennes, those who appeared in the amazingly vulgar movie, “The Aristocrats.”  Viva Estrogen!  One reason Dr. Antler made sure she kept to her timeslot was because she didn’t want to infringe on the time allotted to her comedienne daughter, Lauren Antler, who followed.  Joyce no doubt knew full well that when you open for a comedian, you must perform well or be subject to murder by comedy – never a pretty sight!

Lauren Antler’s “What to Wear When You’re Fighting the Patriarchy: Lessons from a Jewish Feminist’s Daughter,” was hilarious.  She began by saying that she wasn’t going to talk about the Catskills but she invited us all, “To make believe that you’re in the Catskills, listening to comedy.”  Her routine, which gently roasted her mother and her mother’s circle, was wonderfully funny and heartwarming as well.  It inspired everyone who was wide awake enough to go to the nightclub for the subsequent show and dancing.

The next morning, Sunday, was the end of the conference.  The first presentation was by Miami-based, South African born, author Yvonne David whose talk was entitled, “Catskills Revisited: Creating a Book for Young Readers.”  Much of her time was spent reading from her book Out of the Apple Orchard, which is set in Sullivan County in 1910.  Just published by Arbiter Press, it is the first of a series of children’s books based on the Catskill experience that the author plans.

Our last speaker was clearly not our least.  She is a giant in the world of women’s studies as both a university professor and an often produced playwright whose specialty has been dramatizing the lives and careers of Jewish comediennes.  Sarah Blacher Cohen gave the audience a choice of “the most vulgar or the least vulgar” versions of her talk, “The Unkosher comediennes: From Sophie Tucker to Joan Rivers.”  By applause, the audience chose “the most vulgar.”  Mild looking and confined to a wheelchair, her material is surprisingly racy.  Her presentation was as fully polished a performance as was Lauren Antler’s the previous night, with the scholarly punch of Joyce Antler, who had admitted that she can’t tell a joke.  Clearly Sarah can!

It was then all over but the goodbye lunch with promises to be in touch and to come back next year.  We hope that Kutshers will still be here – it is one of only two family-owned hotels left (the other being the Raleigh) and it itself is an artifact we can study.  Indeed, Rachel Kranson and Yvonne David went on record as having done and continuing to do research there – by interview and observation.    Outside of the meetings we had been offered the usual swirl of activities and on both Friday and Saturday evenings there were nightclub shows after our sessions.  And the food in the dining room … dinner, breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch … was bountiful and a gastronomic museum, with all the reliable favorites as well as a few vegetarian and pop culture titled features.  At dinner you could have brisket or “Buffalo Chicken Wings: both kosher, but Buffalo Wings without blue cheese dressing?  The Catskills have always offered us the best in tradition and wonderfully quirky simulants.

For the first time I was not able to stay for the farewell lunch because we were scheduled to go to an afternoon concert at Bard College in the Hudson Valley, so we ordered a box lunch instead of the dining room experience: a tuna salad sandwich, an apple, and a cookie.  Is this what a yiddishe mama would pack?  We felt we were in grade school cafeteria rather than the Catskills as we munched on our way.  Fortunately a stop at Cohen’s Bakery in Ellenville let us fill the void with rugelach and apple turnovers.  Next year we’ll be sure to stay at Kutshers for lunch!