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12th Annual Conference: Recap by Irwin Richman

It is now absolutely official that Kutshers is the last of the great family-owned hotels in the Catskills.  The Raleigh, along with the remains of the Heiden House (the Lorraine of “Sweet Lorraine”) have been bought by a Hassidic group and will be converted into a camp.  The Town of Fallsburg and Sullivan County’s tax bases have taken another hit.  Being at Kutshers is a wonderful reminder of the Catskills we study: a Catskills with all too few living specimens within the resort world.  Complaints of “no towels,” “no toilet paper: and “no lights” aside, it was good to be back and we wish this last resort a long life.

Among the first arrivals at Conference #12 was Sal Kluger, our own shtetl peddler, whose pack of goodies was luscious – and an expensive encounter for this author.  Sal’s prices are good and his products range from the scholarly to the schlocky.  A favored item this year is a button commenting on that great Judeophile, Mel Gibson.  As always, music wafts from Sal’s peddler’s table attracting us like flies to flypaper.  The results, however, were less fatal and more engrossing and help sustain us from conference to conference.

Registration began at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, followed by a cocktail party at 6:00.  Oh how the mountains are changing…there were no cocktail franks.  They were replaced with a fruit platter!  Fortunately there were plenty of fried wings and fish sticks to keep the manufacturers of Lipitor and Zolcor happy.  Shmoozing with friends we hadn’t seen since last year, or acquaintances we hadn’t seen in 50 years, makes one hungry for dinner.

We entered my favorite Catskill relic: the fully functional Kutshers dining room complete with its August 25, 2006 vintage menu.  Who could resist the gefilte fish (“Stuffed Fresh Water Fish, Beet Horseradish”) or the matzo ball soup (“Consommé with Fluffy Matzo Ball”) followed by brisket (“Braised Fresh Brisket of Beef, Bean and Barley Cholent”), flanken (“Boiled Beef Flanken with Bouillon Vegetables”), or chicken (“Steamed Selected Plymouth Rock Pullet, Boiled Potato”)?  Vegetarians could resist.  Our Jewish vegetarian brethren could chow down on “Clear Broth, En Tasse” and “Bouquetiere of Garden Vegetables, Steamed Potato.”  Fortunately, all but the diabetic could enjoy “Hungarian Apple Strudel,” “Clover Honey Cake,” or “Raspberry Gel”” for dessert.

Waddling (except for the merely refreshed vegetarians) back to our meeting room, located just steps from the dining room, we were fortified for the evening program.  As always, Phil Brown provided us with a Power Point Slide show (second year for retiring carousel slide projectors) accompanied by a live keyboard presentation which this year featured music composed by recently deceased klezmer maestro, German Goldenstein.  Once again we owe a debt of gratitude to Phil’s mother for making him practice the piano.  Next Phil officially welcomed us, and memorialized our fallen Catskillers of the past year.  On a joyous note he even could announce a birth: a child born to Rachel Kranston, who many remember from presentations in 2004 and 2005.  Mazel Tov!

Next we were ready for our evening presentation – a real reel treat when we watched “Hester Street” a film introduced by its writer-director, Joan Micklin Silver, who gave us many anecdotes about the problems of making the film.  Especially amusing is the information that only one horse was used in the film because of expenses.  Between takes the horse was painted to changes its persona.  Following this, the hardiest among us went off to the nightclub.  The rest of us went to sleep.

Shabbos dawned and the dining room opened on a limited Sabbath morning menu.  We had to forego omelets and pancakes and survive on cereal, bagels, Danish, lox and herring.  Fortified, we were ready for our morning.  First up was our unofficial novelist and short story writer in residence, Eileen Pollack, who provided us with a “Sneak preview of her novel in progress, Two Nipples for a Dime,” which is set in the Catskills and Las Vegas with Murder, Inc. tip-toeing throughout.  A black comedy like her previous novel, Paradise, N.Y., it whetted our appetite for the completed work.  Did any of us recognize the thinly disguised Concord as the family resort-on-a-lake that is central to the story?

Eileen was followed by film director-writer Joan Micklin Silver and her producer and husband, Raphael Silver.  The team has created several wonderful films, including “Hester Street” and “Crossing Delancy” and they are now working on a documentary about the Catskills, which they hope will be picked up by a major cable outlet like HBO or Showtime.  Their aim, they said, is to tell the Catskill story against the background of the larger American experience and to create a documentary that has crossover appeal.  Their project description elicited lively commentary and many suggestions from the audience.  A lively good time was had by all.

Now we were ready for lunch, which, naturally, offered “Cold Beet Borscht” with or without boiled potato – this depending on which shtetl your ancestors came from.  Blintzes called – and we answered.

Next we were ready for the return of a popular feature – a bus tour organized by Phil Brown, entitled “The Living Archaeology of the Catskill Resorts.”  We traveled along the back roads of the towns of Thompson and Fallsburg as we pointed out ghost sites and redeveloped resorts now functioning as religious camps and yeshivas.  The high point of the tour was a visit to the now defunct Mayflower Hotel in Fallsburg.  A small family hotel founded in the 1920s, it is now owned, but not operated, by a poor evangelical Christian group from New York City who keep the grass cut.  In preservation circles we all know that poverty is often the best architectural preservation force.  Very little modified, the now abandoned hotel-camp even retains some original furniture.  We had free rein to explore the property—being careful to avoid rotting floors, falling ceilings and the like.  All of us returned to the bus intact after exploring this elegiac memento.  The tour was narrated by the Catskill Conference Three – Alan Barrish, Phil Brown, and Irwin Richman.  We know which one was Curley, but who were the other two?

After dinner—if this is Saturday it must be roast beef night—we were faced with the first big problem of the meeting.  Henry Sapoznik did not turn up—or call or grunt!  We were saved, however, by Phil who, like a good Boy Scout, was prepared.  He had the program on his computer of a presentation on religion in the Catskills he had given at KlezKamp a few years ago.  As always, Phil was in top form as he rescued us from sloth, before we went over to see the Saturday night show.

On Sunday morning the griddles were in full operation—and we did not have to suffer any further privations. Lox and onion and egg omelets were everywhere, along with our cold fish and pancakes.  The vegans ignored the lox.  The miniature cheese and prune Danish were succulent.

At 10: a.m. Irwin Richman presented “Borscht Belt Bungalows, Chapter XVI: Leaving the Catskills.”  This was a follow-up on Irwin’s XV Chapter book on bungalows, in which he wrote about his family place in Woodbourne, “I know that I will try to keep the place after my mother passes away.  I am ambivalent about Woodbourne, but it is a central aspect of my family’s American Dream.”  Why did Irwin decide to sell?  The story is a case study of the causes of the decline of the traditional Catskills.  Briefly, Irwin and his wife Sue live in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania … five hours away from Woodbourne.  Their children live in Alabama and Pennsylvania and can’t often make the trip.  Their American Dreams have changed.  The presentation sparked a lively, and occasionally heated, discussion about the Catskills, the future, and what are Jews.

Wrapping up the presentations was Jackie Horner.  Her husband, Lou Goldstein of “Simon Sez” fame, who was scheduled to appear, had oral surgery instead!  No matter, Jackie easily filled the time with her stories in “A Walk Down Memory Lane: Show Biz in the Catskills from the 1930s to the Present.”  Jackie had a long career here centering on Grossingers, then the Raleigh, and now at Kutshers.  She was the inspiration for one of the dancers in the movie, “Dirty Dancing.”  Over the years she has met a Who’s Who of American popular entertainers and sports figures.  She shared samples of her vast collection of memorabilia with us.  Everyone loves celebrity stories and her presentation was enthusiastically received.  Jackie made Catskill Institute history.  She is the only presenter who didn’t allow Jeff Gold of Creative Seminars Recording to record a session.  Recordings of all of the other sessions are available from Creative Seminars 845-679-6885 or www.cstapes.com.

All that was left were the fond farewells and a last feeding.  Well reinforced with potato pancakes and smoked fish we left—culturally uplifted and calorically enhanced.