The seduction began before we could even register. What "Catskillphile" could resist the blandishments of Sal's bazaar. Yiddish music poured from the phonograph and many of us were immediately wrapped in a veil of nostalgia. We were sitting ducks. With the exception of part of Friday night when it rained, the entrance to the Main House at Sunny Oaks Hotel, our conference headquarters, was flanked with temptations. All the records filling the air were for sale, as were books and memorabilia. Judaica-collector-and-peddler- extraordinaire Salo Kluger offered some amazingly up to date merchandize and a vast array of older books There were books on the old neighborhoods, books on entertainers, books on the remotely Jewish. Who could resist. Few of us even tried. We all needed more books and more records. To say nothing about a business card from a hotel in Ulster Heights where one's brother played in a band in 1948. Phil Brown got first dibs on the memorabilia, collecting choice menus and business cards for the Catskill Institute Collection. Where but at Sal's would an Aaron Lebedeff record stare at you; the one featuring "In Odess[a]" which was never the hit that his signature nostalgia song "Romania" was. But one simply also had to listen to the Yinglish "A Yiddish Maidel Darf a Yiddish Boy."
Festivities officially began at six with a welcoming "happy hour" where we nibbled, drank and met up with people we hadn't seen since the last conference. After a very non-traditional Shabbat Dinner our program rolled into action. Phil Brown and Shalom Goldman officially welcomed us and brought us up to date on Institute happenings. Then we were ready for the evening's star turn, a dramatic reading of Phil's short story "Return to the Mountains" performed by the eclectic and never-to-be-ready-for-prime-time "Sunny Oaks Troubadors" a pick up crew that included Phil's son, Michael , as a bus boy (He has worked as a busboy, Phil noted quickly adding, "On the Cape, not the Catskills." With too many of us going to the Cape and the Hamptons the Catskills declined.). Deborah Dash Moore even appeared in costume. M. Susan Richman neglected to bring her tiara to add a touch of verisimilitude to her role as a hotel guest in the "Golden Age." Other performers included Phil, Irwin Richman, Deborah Dash Moore and Jerry Schwartz. A mysterious hackie picks up an odd assortment of 1990's characters and takes them to work at the Brigadoon-like "Greenstein's Meadow View Hotel," where they share mysterious and life altering experiences. Daniel Goldman once again ran the Ping Pong Tournament. The prize was a 10% discount on the winner's hotel bill, courtesy of the Arenson family.
Saturday's program began with a talk "Musicians in the Catskills" presented with great wit and charm by Henry Foner whose family, including the well known scholar Philip Foner played in Catskill bands and were active in many left wing causes of the 1930's. While working at the Arrowhead Lodge in Ellenville in 1941, Foner wrote the song "Shoot the Strudel to me, Yudel!" Lorraine Foner, Henry's wife of almost fifty years was in the audience, and this Saturday (August 31) was the 50th anniversary of their meeting - in the Catskills, naturally -- and they got a big mazel tov.
After the now traditional cold borscht lunch, Irwin Richman from Penn State Harrisburg presented "A Bungalow Colony Slide Show" which briefly traced the growth of the resort industry of the Catskills from the visions of Hudson River school artists including Thomas Cole and Fredrick Church. Then using the imagery of other artists and photographers he explored the conditions of the new Jewish immigration which led to the growth of "The Jewish Alps." Turning to the story of the bungalow colonies he showed many images that will not be appearing in his forthcoming book, Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memories of Catskill Summers to be published in January 1998 by Temple University Press.
Irwin's wife, Susan, perked up when he showed a slide of a group of day camp counselors, identifying a long past summer romance. His mother Bertha was especially interested in the next session "Hotel Owners Keeping Alive the Mountains" because as a relative kid herself (81 years old), she is a long-time-acquaintance of Carrie Komito who at 92 still runs the Aladdin Hotel in Woodbourne which Carrie saved by adding many bungalows to her operation. Carrie Komito is the model for Mrs. Mandheimer in her son-in-law Sidney Offit's novel He Had it Made, (1959). Ellen Halbert of the Raleigh Hotel talked about the problems of getting people to put aside their negative stereotypes about the Catskills and to get them to come to her hotel, which, she believes, offers a lot of value for the money. "Three meals a day and facilities starting at $60 a day." A daughter of the owner of the Raleigh, she is a dynamic businesswoman, mother of a young daughter and wife of the man who now runs the kitchen of the family's resort. Both the Aladdin and the Raleigh are among the very few Catskill hotels that are current on their taxes.
After a cocktail party and a dinner that offered guests gefilte fish, brisket, and kasha, we enjoyed a reading and commentary by author Vivian Gornick, who spent childhood summers in bungalows and college summers working at hotels. In Fierce Attachments, a memoir, she recalls stories her mother told her about life at a leftist kuchalein in the 1930's. Most intriguing was her account of traveling spiritualists who visited kuchaleins and who profited by entertaining or terrifying the guests. She also read from "The Catskills Remembered," an essay in her collection Approaching Eye Level (1996), which recall with irony, insight and flashes of anger her summers working at various hotels, most notably at a hotel she later identified as being Grossinger's. After Ms. Gornick's session we were treated to a concert by two fine young classically trained musicians, Amy and Jonathan, friends of the Arenson family. Following this unannounced delight, the hardiest among us watched the best Catskill film to date "Sweet Lorraine."
Sunday morning, building on his triumphal reading at last year's conference of Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Yearning Heifer," Shalom Goldman now of Emory University, presented an insightful paper "Isaac Bashevis Singer in the Catskills: A Literary and Personal Turning Point" in which he noted that within mere miles from where we were meeting, Singer would meet his future wife (then inconveniently married to another man) and here too he would decide to write about the American themes that introduced him to the larger world. While Singer in his later years, carefully cultivated the image of the sweet old man, those who knew him, knew him to be a SOB.
Next, Jenna Weissman Joselit, a very insightful author of many books on American Jewish culture including The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950 (1994) discussed the Jewish attitude toward vacations (positive, even among those of the pre-War European Jewry who could afford them) and rabbinical and conservative organizational American commentators who deplored the fact that the ever more popular vacations caused synagogue attendance to drop during the summer. Other observers worried about the vulgar images vacationing Jews might present to the non-Jewish World.
After lunch we watched two films on the same subject "A Single Weekend at the Concord." In an eerie coincidence both featured the same bizarre dentist who was looking for "a woman with perfect teeth" among the interviewees the film makers and reporters followed.
Clarence Steinberg, co-author (with Abraham Lavender) of Jewish Farmers of the Catskills talked about the lives of Jewish farmers, successful Jewish-organized co-ops, and Jewish farmers' problems with government farm programs. Steinberg who grew up on his parent's farm in the Catskills has just retired as a Public Affairs Specialist with the Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. The next day there was a very nice account of his talk in the Middletown Times Herald Record complete with a fine picture.
Next, we watched the film "The Rise and Fall of the Borscht" with its marvelous mix of interviews with hotel keepers, Catskill comics, and bungalow guests, and ending in the performance of a "mock marriage," once the quintessential Borscht Belt entertainment.
After dinner, the Conference rolled on to a spectacular conclusion. Unlike many scholarly meetings, this writer has endured, our Conference didn't peter out from exhaustion but ended like a long exquisitely choreographed fireworks and laser show. Instead of such easy ingredients, we had talent and food. No one who was there will ever forget, lively sprightly 80 year old Henry Foner singing his 1941 song "Shoot the Strudel to me, Yudel" accompanied by his friend, the very accomplished musician Alice Levinson. Henry followed with a surprise encore of another of his compositions "She's More To Be Pitied Than Censured," which told the tale of an unfortunate maiden and a Catskill waiter. Foner passed out the words for the chorus so we could join the general sing along. This would have been dayenu. But there was more great stuff to come. We were treated to the Sullivan County premier of Phil Brown's original Catskill song, "Yener Welt" performed by him and his 15 year old son, Michael Littenberg-Brown.
On to the Klezmer concert featuring New York's Metropolitan Klezmer with Eve Sicular on drums, Ismail Butera on accordion, and vocalist Debbie Karpel. Philadelphia's KlezMs' Susan Watts Sandler on the trumpet was a surprise addition. They really cooked, spicing the klezmer songbook with a couple of torch numbers. Right on cue, as the klezmorim played their "Oriental Dance," hotel proprietor Julie Arenson performed a belly dance as her proud family looked on.
On this Sunday of Labor Day weekend it is obligatory to end the day with a Midnight supper -- and we celebrated tradition, except that at Sunny Oakes the midnight supper was at 11:30 P.M. Bagels, cream cheese and lox were there. Fixings were there. Fruit and drinks were there. Who could ask for anything else.
As always Creative Seminars recorded the individual presentations, and new this year, the Moores videotaped many of the features for our archives. The Conference was a success and on Monday the Advisory Board met to plan for next year. Remember "Next Year in Woodridge, Again. God Willing."