The new tradition carries on. Our second History of the Catskills Conference, like any golden age resort, was "bigger and better" than last year's success. Held at an artifact, the Sunny Oaks Hotel in Woodridge, a farm-turned-family hotel, with strong bungalow colony overtones in its architecture, the conference site is a lively, warm relic of the culture and history we gathered to study, discuss, and immerse ourselves in. You could engage in serious dialogue or to paraphrase Catskills humorist, Joey Adams, "You could be up to your ears in shmaltz." Most in attendance enjoyed an intellectual and cultural smorgasbord as rich as a Saturday night cocktail party at a top drawer 1950s hotel as we listened to, discussed with, interrupted and challenged fiction writers, non-traditional and traditional scholars, and dedicated civilians. Most speakers were certified Borscht Belt survivors. To use two favored grant writers' buzz words, the conference was accessible and diverse. Artists and scholars mixed with nostalgic laity as equals. We not only studied the "sour cream sierras", but we almost revived the legendary land of "mink and money". Of course, it was only a Sullivan County "Brigadoon!" We ate. We listened to readings. We ate. We discussed. We ate. We heard scholarly presentations. We ate. We questioned scholarly presentations. We ate. We reminisced and networked. We ate. We shmoozed with comedian Freddie Roman. We ate. We enjoyed a klezmer band, a belly dancer, and we ourselves danced. We ate. There was borscht, blintzes, lox, brisket, flanken, and gefulte fish. There was even vegetarian fare for those who have abandoned a few of their gastronomic roots while glorying in the rest of their heritage. Ranging in age from about 13 to 90, we were alive and vibrant.
We bought books from recent authors and bought historic memorabilia and records from a dealer-member. Video cameras recorded some of our rituals and many of our characters. Creative Seminars of West Hurley, NY audiotaped most of our sessions and within minutes of the end of each session you could buy a professionally recorded cassette of the proceedings.
In good Catskills fashion we began the conference with a party, followed by Kabbalat Shabbat and a meal. Afterwards Phil Brown and Shalom Goldman welcomed us and reported on the progress being made in Catskill studies and the Catskill Institute. Sessions began after breakfast on Saturday, and there was a free coffee and cake bar at all times, naturally, to help us through the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Hunger never had a chance to distract us.
The first session, "Catskills in Fiction," began with a presentation by Shalom Goldman . He was followed by Eileen Pollack, director of the University of Michigan's creative writing program, whose family had owned a hotel. Skillfully, and often with hilarious effect, she read from her autobiographical novel-in-progress, Paradise, New York. Her published collection of short stories, The Rabbi in the Attic, has received critical acclaim. While Eileen read, her aunt and uncle, now retired from running Pollack's Hotel, shepped noches in the audience. Bungalow proprietor's son Martin Boris, whose Woodridge, 1946 explored the tensions in the postwar Catskills, read from his autobio-graphical novel-in-progress Once a Kingdom. It was a tantalizing hours d'oeuvre, and Martin's wife, brother, and sister-in-law were basking in his accomplishments.
After lunch Irwin Richman of Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg presented a paper drawn from his soon-to-be published manu-script, The Bungalow Colony: From Kuchalein to Cottage. His mother who ran A. Richman's Bungalows per-sonally vetted each remark from her front row seat. His presentation was followed in the "Big Room" by comedian Freddie Roman who was passing through on his way to a gig at the Fallsview Hotel in Ellenville. He talked about his struggling early days and his more recent successful career. Freddie, who had performed at Sunny Oaks 40 years ago, arrived and left in a stretch limo!
After a cocktail party and dinner, the session "Preserving the LegacyóFilms and Exhibitions" began with an international flavor when Canadian filmmaker Karen Shopsowitz talked about her award winning film, My Grandparents Had a Hotel. Her grandparents owned Montieth Inn, north of Toronto, which catered to a Jewish clientele. Proclaiming himself as the "oldest person here", band leader-turned-film-maker,Zinn Arthur, who had played at Grossinger's in the 1930s, talked about his early life and showed part of his Catskills documentary-in-progress, which features footage about Grossinger's and many celebrity interviews. He was followed by our youngest presenter, Jerry Beck, director of Boston's Revolving Museum, who discussed his work-in-progressó an 80 foot long "Borscht Belt"óa combination historic exhibition and artistic happening. Brave souls stayed up to watch a late screening of Sweet Lorraine. Mechanical problems mercifully sent these determined souls to bed shortly after midnight.
The next morning Maurie Sacks of Montclair State University, who is spearheading an exhaustive study of Catskills synagogues, presented an informative lecture on "The Synagogues of Sullivan County".
Shira Dicker of the Jewish Theological Seminary dynamically spoke of "The Culture of Bungalow Colonies Today,"óa recounting of her recent experiences as a tenant in a bungalow colony in Monroe, NY. Contrary to those who feel that the bungalows are a thing of the past, Ms. Dicker believes that the colonies close to NYC can be revived because they provide a perfect escape for two-career married couples with children.
Bringing down the house with both an insightful paper and a performance piece, Phil Brown's "Hotel Life in the Golden Years" drew heavily on his and his parents's experiences. After lunch My Grandparents Had a Hotel was shown. Many were struck by the similarities between Catskill and Ontario Jewish resort life, and we, too, fell in love with Karen's grandparents.
The following session "Hotel and Bungalow Owners" began with Sonia Pressman Fuentes' reading of short stories drawn from her early life as the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants who built and operated the still existing Pine Tree Bungalow Colony near Monticello. Lawyer and NOW founder, Fuentes followed her reading with humorous reminiscences. Cissie Blumberg, owner of Green Acres Hotel and author of the recently published Remember the Catskills: Stories by a Recovering Hotel Owner followed. She explained her resentment of the phrase "Borscht Belt" and authors who write critically of the Catskills; she feels that the founders of the hotel and resort industry are not honored enough for "making something out of nothing."
Next on the program was a showing of the film Let's Fall in Love: A Singles Weekend at the Concord. Made by Connie Marks, the film explores the modern manifestation of the long time Catskills functionómatchmaking. Sad and funny, it made married folks in the audience turn to each other and vow to "never get divorced." The last event of the day was the lively concert performance by the Brooklyn Klezmer Trio: trumpeter Frank London, Ted Reichman on accordion, drummer Kenny Wolleson. The performance was followed by a Catskill "Labor Day Sunday" traditionómidnight supper featuring the quintessential Jewish-American soul food: bagels, cream cheese, and lox.
Monday morning's session moved away from the resorts to focus on "Jewish Farmers of the Catskills." Shalom Goldman of Ohio State University discussed "The Legacy of the Jewish Farmers" followed by an inspired reading of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story The Yearning Heffer.
The last speaker, author David Gold, whose anthology The River and the Mountains: Readings in Sullivan County History is a valuable resource for the study of Catskill lore, presented "The History of the Jewish Farmers." He suggested that more attention be paid to the ways in which Jewish farmers were like Christian farmers and how the Catskill Jews were members of most of the social, political, and economic groupings which the region's year round community had developed. To emphasize the point, he wore his "Fallsburg Rescue Squad" T-shirt. A member of the family which owned Cutler's Cottages in South Fallsburg, one of the largest bungalow colonies in Sullivan County, David was supported by his father who sat in the audience. The Catskills are about family, and this idea was constantly reinforced at our meetings.
After lunch, it was all over. The conference was like a Catskill Hotel kitchen in the golden age. Sometimes it looked a bit disorganized and harried, but the guests were all intellectually well fed, and we all waddled away with a feeling of contentment.