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6th Annual Conference:

"Yesterday's Borscht and Knishes Return as Today's Reading List"

New York Times: August 31, 2000

MONTICELLO, N.Y., Aug. 27 -- The Catskills have always been synonymous with comedy, with the shtick and shpritz of Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks. But the glorious mountains here and the flavorful summertime crowds they drew have also proved to be a fertile ground for more thoughtful dramas, fiction and films about love, betrayal, even struggles with faith.

In the bungalow colonies -- the Jewish working-class family's chance to flee the city's sweltering apartments on the cheap -- wives and children would be left on their own during the week until the husbands drove or bummed rides back for the weekend.

That premise inspired Pamela Gray, a bungalow baby herself, to write the screenplay that became the 1998 film "A Walk on the Moon," which tells of the affair between one of these stranded wives and a hippie "blouse man" who comes to the colony to peddle clothes during the Woodstock summer of 1969.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, in "Enemies: A Love Story," mined the poignant contrast between the carefree exterior of these summertime Edens and the inner melancholy of refugees who just a few years earlier had lost their families in Hitler's war.

More recently Allegra Goodman, in her first novel, "Kaaterskill Falls," looked at soul-searching among pale-faced Orthodox Jewish men and their long-sleeved wives spending their summers as anomalies in the bedrock American villages of these mountains.

Though it may seem too grandiose to say so, the Jewish world of the Catskills that thrived from the start of the 20th century until the 1970's seems to be accumulating something of a genre worthy of serious literary and cinematic study. Add Herman Wouk's 1955 novel "Marjorie Morningstar," the 1987 hotel movies "Dirty Dancing" and "Sweet Lorraine," and a library shelf of Catskills memoirs, and you have enough for an academic conference, which in fact was staged last weekend for the sixth summer at one of the surviving dowager hotels here, Kutsher's Country Club.

Amid classic Catskills ambience -- clamorous dinners of borscht and boiled beef, games of shuffleboard and a nightclub performance by four gray-haired doo-wop singers, the Elegants, who joked about their triple bypasses and enlarged prostates -- 100 Catskills alumni, hotel owners, writers and sociologists spent three days reading from and analyzing Catskills novels and memoirs.

Of course they could not escape the laughter.

Arthur J. Tanney, who frequented the bungalows as a child, read excerpts from short reminiscences he has placed on a Web site ( Institute) that evoked the single phone shared by all of a colony's denizens, the invasive loudspeaker announcements, the flickering movies shown in the casino. (Year after year it was always "The Guns of Navarone" and something with Rock Hudson and Doris Day.)

A Simon says game at Grossinger's in Liberty in 1985.

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

And he remembered Ruby the Knish Man, who drove up to the colony to sell his goods and announced his presence in a gravelly Yiddish-inflected voice: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ruby the Knish Man. I'm now on the premises with my homogenized, pasteurized and recently circumcised potato knishes. Please folks come. I need the money."

Kidding aside, what was it about the Catskills that still fires the literary imagination?

"Some places simply seem to be the repository of stories," said Terry Kay, a Southern writer who read from his 1994 novel "Shadow Song."

The book tells the story of Madison Lee Murphy, known as Bobo, a Georgian so provincial he knew only one Jew, who comes up to the Catskills to work as a waiter and falls irrevocably in love with a beautiful Jewish girl. Mr. Kay, who comes from Ty Cobb's northern Georgia town, Royston, did in fact work for three summers in the 1950's at the Colonial Hill in Pine Hill to help pay for college, though after one grueling weekend washing a mountain of dishes, he told his brother he did not want to go to college anymore.

What gives Mr. Kay's novel much of its emotional power is the contrast between Bobo and the Jews who people the hotel, some of them with numbers tattooed on their arms. In real life it sometimes made for comedy. "I made a lot of money saying 'Gut morgen, y'all," he says in a resonant Billy Graham voice. But it also gave him a more serious theme for his fiction.

A grandfather and grandsons in Kerhonkson in 1969

Barton Silverman/The New York Times

"It was a place where the guests were made to feel they belonged, and to them belonging was important," he writes of the hotel. "Most were Jewish refugees from the First and Second World Wars. They understood what it meant to be displaced, and they understood, even more keenly, what it meant to belong."

Mr. Kay's narrator, after all, is as displaced in the Catskills as the guests are in America.

It was in such contrasts between gentile and Jew, between cornbread and challah, between community and loneliness that his story blossomed and, he says, much of the other Catskills literature has found its voice. "The most essential thing in writing fiction is understanding contrast, and that world was a great contrast to this boy from the rural foothills of the South," he said.

The vulgarity and excess associated the Catskills have been easy to mock, and the hotel comedians were more than willing to do so right in the face of the summer revelers. But writers have also felt a need to portray with tenderness the impulse that brought tenement Jews who had known hunger during wars or the Depression up to these mountains in the hope of seizing some relief in pine-scented air, bracing lake water and merciful shade.

"They didn't have to be like the greenhorns and stay in tenements," said Phil Brown, a 51-year-old professor of sociology at Brown University (no relation). "They could come up here and have a regular vacation like the Americans."

Mr. Brown, the child of a family that operated a Catskills hotel in the late 1940's and early 1950's, has made the Catskills his passion. He is a founder of the Catskills Institute, the year-round organization that runs the conferences, and he has even taught a seminar at Brown on the Catskills experience, complete with a five-page reading list.

The world of the Catskills was rich in the kind of quirky and colorful situations that writers love to milk. The bungalow colonies, for example, were not just clusters of cottages around a lawn but a distinct culture. The heart of this necklace of cramped two-room shacks was the loftily named casino, a social hall where the only gambling involved bingo or the cigar-flavored poker games that men played on weekends.

The author Terry Kay, at the Catskills Institute's meeting at Kutsher's in Monticello

Chris Ramirez for The New York Times

In the daytime it was where teenagers gathered to play Ping- Pong and take their first stabs at sex. In the evenings it was where their parents came to watch third-rate comics, hypnotists, magicians, even an occasional stripper sent up from New York by the Broadway Danny Roses of that time.

Mr. Tanney captures the pleasure children took in sneaking peaks into the casino and relishing their hard-working parents' rare forays into merriment.

At the hotels, which had a slightly more upscale crowd, the sexual attraction between the vacationing women and the staffs of muscular busboys and waiters inspired "Dirty Dancing" and "Marjorie Morningstar." Mr. Wouk had been the children's waiter at the Tamarack Lodge in the 30's, and in his novel, Marjorie is a camp counselor who, like thousands of counselors and bungalow inmates in real life, sneaks into a hotel, where she falls in love with its social director, Noel Airman. Marjorie's parents though want her to marry someone traditionally successful, and a songsmith is not what they had in mind.

Those at the conference were profoundly aware that they were visitors to a vanishing world; one guest compared her capering at Kutsher's to getting a chance to sail on the Titanic before it sank. A world that in its heyday had more than 500 hotels and bungalow colonies and a million summertime visitors has been reduced to a handful of hotels surrounded by decaying bungalows and swimming pools with trees growing out of them.

For writers, that sense of loss gives their works an extra piquancy. Mr. Kay, in his novel, describes the mountain towns he visits decades after his waiter days as "ghost towns."

"Each moment is a visit with the ghost of who I used to be, and with the ghosts of all the people I knew," Mr. Kay writes. 'I see them. They are walking in their toddling steps on sidewalks and they are sitting in the fold-out lounge chairs beside the neglected ruin of the swimming pool. They ask me for water -- 'Wasser! Wasser!' -- in the dining room."

Many of the Catskills tales are seen from the point of view of children coming of age savoring the freedom to roam and experiment in pastoral safety rather than the dicey streets of New York.

"I had my first kiss in the woods behind the bungalow colony," said Ms. Gray. "And the people writing about the Catskills probably had those experiences back then."

She knew that in writing her screenplay she was aiming not just for a wide public but for Catskills aficionados grateful that their little-known world was finally getting an airing. But at last year's conference purists quibbled with the size of the kitchen in Ms. Gray's movie -- she acknowledges that it had to be made big to squeeze in a film crew -- and with the fact that there never was a vendor that looked like the handsome lover of her film.

"They looked more like Dom DeLuise," Mr. Tanney said.

Much of the Catskills fiction of course has been seen through rose-tinted glasses of adults looking back nostalgically at their impressionable youth. And there were some at the conference who were not shy about pointing out the discrepancies.

"They say those were the good times, but that's baloney," said Bob Fuller, an 82-year-old real estate owner in Brooklyn Heights who remembers renting a kochalayn ("cook alone") -- a room in a boarding house with a common kitchen -- for $75. "I was poor. I envied the people in the hotels. When I wanted to go back to the city, I had to hitch a ride. That wasn't a good time. Now is the good time."

But the reason for the sunburst of Catskills writing is that writers are eager to look back at their youth, when as Mr. Tanney said, the days seemed endless and most complicated thing he had to think about was what was for lunch.

"We're more connected than we've ever been in history, with the Internet, cell phones and cable TV," Mr. Tanney told the conference. "As connected as we are, we're more disconnected than we've ever been. And that sense of community that I experienced in the bungalows, of belonging, of being in the same place together is gone."