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5th Annual Conference: by Irwin Richman

Borscht Belt Past, On-line Future:


As a technophobe, one hates to admit that the Internet and the World Wide Web are our future. Besides there was nothing more low tech than the Catskills, in their prime. Our fifth conference drew people from the far corners of America and even a couple from the Netherlands. How did they all learn about us? On-line, of course! Sunny Oaks was all sold out and nearby hotels and bed & breakfasts took an overflow that spread all the way to Kerhonkson.

Because of threatening weather, Sal Kluger had to move his bazaar from outside the front door, where it had welcomed conference goers the last four years, into the lobby where his selection of Judaica didn't disappoint. Books written by past speakers were there, as were items on the Catskills and Sharon Springs. There were business cards and menus from long closed hotels and even yearbooks from the Catskill, New York high school. Not all of us could resist his boxes of "Punching Rabbi" hand puppets "That Fought for Three Thousand Years of Knowledge."

After a dinner which offered the traditional minded among us gefilte fish, brisket, and kasha with vaniskas, Phil Brown opened the conference with a piano medley and then welcomed us in a gesmache Yiddish. His Yiddish lessons, like his piano lessons, many years before, really worked. After translating for the non-"Yiddophonics," he introduced Thane Rosenbaum who movingly read his short story "Bingo by the Bungalow" from Elijah Visible (St. Martin's, 1996). "Thane Rosenbaum, Elie Wiesel wrote, is totally obsessed with the HolocaustÖHis stories reflect that obsession." The doings at Thane's fictional "Cohen's Summer Cottages" where "Leisure Macht Frei" are never far from the ghosts of Europe. In the grand tradition of Catskill eclecticism, Thane was followed by comedian Andrew Silow-Carroll making his debut before a Borscht Belt crowd. He was more cerebral than much golden age comedy -- so was the crowd -- and there wasn't any liquor in sight. We all laughed. In real life, Andrew works for CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, an organization dedicated to fostering harmony between reformed, conservative, and orthodox clergy, so dealing with the absurd is his usual. Because in the Catskills "too much of a good thing is never enough," those who were able, stayed up to watch the film "A Walk on the Moon."

Saturday, after a buffet breakfast, our sessions began with a presentation by Henry Foner on "The History of Leftist Politics in the Catskills." One of the remarkable Foner brothers --musicians, academics, and left wing activists ñ Henry is the retired president of the furriers union. He relied heavily on reports in the Daily Worker, as well as Cissie Blumberg's Remember the Catskills, to discuss political activism and labor relations during the Borscht Belt's glory days. He was followed by Ellen McHale of the New York Folklore Society, whose slide-enhanced presentation on "The Jewish Resorts of Sharon Springs in Schoharie County" provided us with a view of a world parallel to our SullivanñUlster County universe.

Cold borscht with potatoes --and in this health conscious age, yogurt -- was as usual the feature of Saturday lunch, followed with a choice of boiled or smoked white fish. Properly fortified we were ready for Leslie Paris's beautifully prepared and professionally presented "Jewish Summer Camps in the Catskills." A graduate student at the University of Michigan whose dissertation deals with Jewish camps in New York State before World War II, she observed that while the Catskills had fewer camps than other New York resort areas, it had a more varied assortment of types than did other regions, with a strong emphasis on the ideologically-based camp experience. Next, all of those who couldn't stay awake the night before, had another chance to see "A Walk on the Moon." Dinner featured the Saturday night resort favorites of a choice of prime rib or roast chicken (with a new age ginger-soy flavoring). For the semi-non-traditional, there was vegetarian strudel. We needed all of our strength for the long evening program. Irwin Richman gave a slide presentation, "Catskill Postcards" which traced the development of shared resort imagery of American vacation spots to the Catskills and, especially to the depictions of the Catskill Mountain House, America's premier scenically located resort. The stars of his presentation were the slides of postcards magnificently prepared by the same photographers who prepare medical slides for use by the faculty of the Milton S. Hershey Medical School of the Pennsylvania State University. It pays to be affiliated with a multifaceted university. But this well received presentation was only an appetizer before our "star turn" when we all went ga-ga and Hollywood.

Pamela Gray, the screenwriter of "A Walk on the Moon," flew from California to be with us and her presentation of how her script for "The Blouseman" finally, after five long years, became "A Walk on the Moon" was gracious, humorous and frank. There were celebrity and Hollywood insider names -- Tony Goldwyn, Dustin Hoffman and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. These people ultimately were responsible for the making of the movie whose original (and final) script was too Jewish, too Jewish, too Jewish for most in tinsel town. Her presentation answered many of the questions we had while watching the movie. No, she never saw a blouseman who looked like the one in the movie. Why wasn't the movie made in the Catskills? "It would have cost too much." After her presentation, it seemed as if everyone had a questions. For fans who missed her presentation, and the rest of our outstanding program, once again Creative Seminars of West Hurley, New York recorded all of the talks and you can order the tapes directly from them. How could we have resisted Pamela Gray? How many other movie makers could say from the heart, as she did, "You are the people I made the movie for."

Sunday morning was lox breakfast. You could also pad your meal with blueberry pancakes, eggs, sausage, cereal and fruit. The morning program began with Phil Brown reading his newest short story "The Make-Believe Hotel," inspired by his daughter's questions about the Catskills, it is a magical realist tale of a young girl's fantasy adventures in bringing a vanished hotel to life. Next, Phil presented "Ruins and Reconstruction: The Catskills in Our Memory," a brilliantly insightful slide-enriched lecture that in many ways showed us the real life counterparts of his literally fantastic story. The presentation blended episodes from his Catskill boyhood with the fruits of his adult searches and research.

Our final speaker came to our attention via the Internet. If you have AOL you can log on to the Baby Boomer site, from there you can go to the Catskills site and then to the Bungalow Colony site. It was here that Arthur Tanney started to post his stories ñ his memories of growing up at the bungalow colonies. His stories are now also on the Catskills Institute web site. Arthur is even better in person than he is electronically. He not only wrote a story about the legendary Ruby the Knishman. In person he was Ruby the Knishman making an announcement over a colony PA system. He was poignant and funny. When he was finished there were, metaphorically speaking, a lot of wet pants. After a very healthy lunch, all but the die-hards left. The rest watched the film "Let's Fall in Love: A Single Weekend at the Concord." We all ask the question now that the Concord is closed, where does the dentist go! It was also a pleasure seeing so many people carrying Catskill Culture and Borscht Belt Bungalows like siddurim.

This past year marked a milestone in our history. The Catskills Institute is now a recognized educational institution chartered by the State of New York. Next we will strive to get our tax exempt status. As a chartered educational institution, we held our first general meeting on Sunday morning and elected our first officers, Phil Brown, President; Deborah Dash-Moore, Vice President; Irwin Richman, Treasurer; and Alan Barrish, Secretary. At our executive committee meeting we discussed where to have next year's meeting. Sunny Oaks is for sale. On Friday, several groups of Hasidim, tape measures in hand, were seen roaming the grounds. And we are also outgrowing the facilities at our familiar location. We would like to stay in the Catskills so we are exploring our options for next year.

Irwin Richman has volunteered to start a register of bungalow colonies. Please write him with the names of bungalow colonies you knew. Please give the town location as well. Any additional bungalow colony information is also welcome. Who knows there may be a Borscht Belt Bungalows II. His address is Pennsylvania State University/Harrisburg, Middletown, PA 17502. His telephone is 717/948-6196. But, even if there is no BBB II, there is a growing interest in Catskill Studies. It seemed like every fourth person at the meeting was writing a Catskill book or making a documentary. A bungalow colony data bank will help future scholars. Have a great year!