For the Jewish boy Coming-of-Age is 13 when he is Bar Mitzvah; our Catskill Institute was certified of age at eight when we achieved our tax-exempt status under IRS regulations. Send Gelt! The announcement of this long-awaited recognition got our 8th Annual Conference off to an optimistic start. As always, Sal Kluger’s wondrous bazaar was set up next to our registration table at Kutsher’s Country Club. As always, his offerings - music, memorabilia, books, and tsatckes was luscious. Who could resist a “Proud Litvak” baseball cap, except if you are a Galitzianer. An equal opportunity merchant, Sal also had “Proud Galitzianer” caps as well.
Our registration table featured Phil Brown’s new book, In the Catskills; A Century of the Jewish Experience in the Mountains (Columbia University Press, 2002), which sold like heise arbus. An updated anthology, it includes a wonderful annotated bibliography. Mazel Tov, Phil!
Our first event, in true Catskill fashion, centered around food: our cocktail hour reception where we feasted on enough finger food - including cocktail franks - to satiate any appetite, but this was Friday night at a Catskill Hotel and we were now primed for a dinner of gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, brisket and all the trimmings … or even a vegetarian alternative. Room was discovered within our digestive tracts.
Our first formal conference event was Phil’s welcome followed by a brief musical introduction cum slide show, which, in turn, was followed by a 2002 Conference innovation. By popular demand we had a “Speak Out Session.” Launching it was our first-ever Powerpoint presentation created by technophile Cynthia Belis, whose kuchalein and bungalow years were 1941-1968. First summering at Sherman’s Rest House, and then from 1950 at the Hodes Bungalow Colony, both in Parksville, Ms. Belis’s presentation provided wonderful graphics and movie clips. In the audience were a coterie of Belis relatives and Gertie Hodes, who had run the colony.
Next we heard from Fred Feibusch, “Treasurer for Life” of Spring Glen Corners Bungalow Colony in Spring Glen. How do you become “Treasurer for Life”? “You miss a meeting.” Fred continued, “A co-op is where a few people do all the cooperating and a few people do all the complaining ….” Fred gleefully told us about the joys and sorrows of democratic bungalow colony ownership. He emphasized that co-ops are living bungalow colonies, where many traditions carry on. As one of Fred’s friends observed of the colony, “Spring Glen Corners, if you lived here we’d be talking about you now!”
Thelma Feit Wolf remembered her parents’ "Feit’s Colony"on the Old Liberty Road and her uncle Morris and his family who owned the Spring Lake House next door, which was the inspiration for her cousin Harvey Jacobs’ novel, Summer on a Mountain of Spice. Her remarks were graceful and pungent and reminded us of Harvey’s appearance at our 7th Conference.
Thelma was followed by photographer and poet Norma Bernstock, who often visits the Catskills to take pictures. Her memories trace to the 1940s and 50s when her family summered at Fialkoff’s and Lieberman’s Broadway Mansion, both in Monticello. She read three of her beautifully crafted, poignant pieces, “Photograph on the Lawn, Fialkoff’s Bungalow Colony, 1950,” “Inventing the Truth,” and “Comfort in the Catskills.”
Jill Fuchs read a letter-as-memoir written by her mother, Abigail Jacobs Burton (who was attending the conference but was suffering from a sore throat) about her father, Dr. Harry Jacobs (1890-1973), who practiced medicine in Hurleyville and Loch Sheldrake for an astounding 63 years, and who died while on his rounds at the local hospital he had helped to found. A 1910 graduate of New York University’s College of Medicine, Dr. Jacobs was active in community affairs “and delivered most of the babies born in the County” during his years of practice.
Alan Fishman, a notable collector of Sullivan County memorabilia was next. Earlier he had set up an exhibition of a sample of his vast collection adjacent to the registration table. Both of Alan’s grandparents owned colonies and he, as his father before him, is a plumber. “Someone had to open and close the bungalow colonies and hotels” - as well as respond to all of those summer emergencies. His story of his grandfather making a paint roller of his wife’s mouton-lamb coat was unforgettable. Alan is writing his own book, Tales of a Catskill Mountain Plumber. Good luck!
Next Clair Warga regaled us with a secondhand tale of 1970s bungalow experiences. Pot smoking on handball courts and life at the “Love Bug Colony” (whereabouts unknown) where hippies co-existed with and eventually mated with nudists.
Returning us to the mainstream was Paul Wildheif, who worked at Zalkin’s Hotel in Greenfield Park in 1964 and has been collecting anecdotes about hotel waiters and busboys. He has plans to establish a website devoted to the project. Also at the "Speak Out Session" was Darah Oshinsky Deitz, whose father was the legendary Ruby the Knishman, the picaresque knight-of-vendors whose fans have even established a “Ruby the Knishman Website.” She credited The Catskill Institute with helping her to learn how much her father impacted on the lives of thousands of people in the Catskills. When the session ended those who wanted more of the Catskill experience could go down to the night club to dance and catch the show.
Saturday morning’s breakfast featured herring, lox, bagels and cereals. Because it was shabbos the only eggs available were poached.
Our sessions began at 10:00 a.m. with Phil Brown reading one of his magic realist stories, “The Boss’s Visitor,” which told the hotel story from the owner’s vantage in Phil’s evocative, yet detailed, style.
Next John Weiner talked about “White Roe before World War II.” Beginning his presentation with a ten-minute film gleaned from the hotel’s professional 16mm film footage, which showed the resort and its people. John, one of three brothers who ran the hotel founded by their father and mother, captivated us with his account of The White Roe. He recalls being the only kid growing at the singles-only-hotel. How many kids ever got to trail after comedian Danny Kaye, who got his start as a tummler? Courtly, but with a twinkle in his eyes, John said that he would like to write a short story, “I was a sexually abused teenager, and I loved every minute of it.” His accomplishments are even documented! Actress Betty Garret wrote about their summer romance in her autobiography. John remembered his summers at White Roe, “as the best and worst of my life.” The best were when he was growing up; the worst when he was CEO of a failing business. John and his brothers are survivors who made successful lives for themselves after the loss of their hotel. He is today, as his son characterizes him, a lively “octo-cocker.”
After a luncheon featuring borscht on demand, we were ready for another 2002 innovation: a bus tour. This one was conducted by Irwin Richman and was based on his book Borscht Belt Bungalows. The tour followed a loop running from Kutsher’s to Kiamesha, through South Fallsburg to Woodbourne, up through Hasbrouck to Loch Sheldrake and back to Kutshers . - all in 3 hours.
Highlights included stops on the shore of Kiamesha Lake, where we saw the site of the Jewel Box Revue, entertainment sensation of the 1950s, and the Ambassador Hotel site, where the Catskills’ first night club, “The Moulin Rouge,” stood. We left the bus at Fallsburg, “Old Falls”, where we learned about the site’s industrial importance (tanning) and the role it played in the resort industry. Our second disembarkation was A. Richman’s Bungalows in Woodbourne. We saw the site of the bungalows, now located at the former Aladdin Hotel, and we toured the “Big House,” now the summer home of Bertha Richman. The house preserves three of its kuchalein kitchens and houses Bertha Richman’s amazing collection of vintage refrigerators.
Among the other sights on the trip were The Concord, The Heiden House (where “Sweet Lorraine” was filmed), The Raleigh, the South Fallsburg Railroad Station, the Rivoli Theater, Crystal Run School (formerly The Flagler), Woodbourne Prison, B’nai Israel Synagogue, the Aladdin Hotel, and Bum and Kell’s (formerly Herbies.) A good time was had by all. The bus was full. Those who couldn’t join us on the bus could watch the film “A Walk on the Moon.”
After a gala Saturday evening dinner, we heard a presentation by Bunny Grossinger, wife of Paul Grossinger (and daughter-in-law of Jennie) about “My Years at Grossingers.” Her talk was charming, warm, and wonderful. Her remembrances of the antique scandal of the Eddie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds/Elizabeth Taylor triangle was delightful. After her presentation and Q&A session, Bunny showed a tape on Comedy in the Catskills, which was enjoyed by many who passed up the nightclub show.
Next morning, after a good solid breakfast - the grills were going so lox-and-eggs was a possibility - we had our last program … a special session assembled for us by Clarence Steinberg, co-author of Jewish Farmers of the Catskills. Joe Cohen, the longtime Manager of the Inter County Farmers Co-Operative Association, spoke about the history of this amazing Jewish farmers’ self-help group, now being liquidated because of a decline in farming in the region. David Levitz, a second-generation farmer, told many stories about his Catskill farming experiences, but it was his wife, Rose, who brought down the house with remembrances of her transition from a New Jersey office worker to a farm wife. She stole everybody’s heart as she explained what she, “did for love.” This included milking cows and hand washing thousands of eggs. Why didn’t the Levitzs ever go into the resort business? “Well,” David recalled, “I guess I liked cows better than people!” These three spry octogenarians are a national treasure.
All that remained was another Catskill lunch. This year the food was abundant, as always, and delicious. The service was so efficient and pleasant that it reminded me of the days when all dining room staff worked for the tips of satisfied customers.