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INTERVIEW WITH HARVEY JACOBS


Harvey Jacobs wrote Summer on a Mountain of Spices (1975 Harper & Row) over a quarter of a century ago, and it has been an underground favorite since then with the Catskill reading crowd. Jacobs' aunts and uncles ran a small hotel that provided the model for the Willow Spring Hotel of this book. He provides an all-around slice of hotel life in a particularly humorous fashion. The novel is a coming of age piece, and by definition must be full of se for lead character Harry Craft and many others. This book provides eceptional glimpses inot the minds of the hotel owners. Jacobs describes the hotel owner's fascination with building a modern casino, and also gives us a very realistic account of small hotel entertainment. Jacobs finishes with a touching return visit, years later, by protagonist Harry. We hope this book gets reprinted.

Phil Brown: What led you to write Summer on a Mountain of Spices?

Harvey Jacobs: That's a difficult question to answer. I don't know. I'd been working in the television industry. When it became possible I quit to write full time. My wife and son and I went up to the Berkshires and I sat down and wrote the novel without any notes or outline. I'd done a series of radio dramas for the Earplay project produced by the University of Chicago for National Public Radio based on my experiences at a small Catskill family hotel. Those sketches won a Writers Guild of America script award which told me the material resonated with a wide audience. I think that was the immediate reason for taking on the subject. The story was vivid to me and I had a sense that the Catskill hotel experience was flying backward in time and deserved to be remembered. Everything I'd read or seen about the so-called Jewish Alps struck me as hoaky and one-dimensional and I wanted to do something more worthy, meaningful and honest. There was also the fact that my family ran one of those small family hotels and the people involved were not getting any younger. I suppose part of my motivation was to give them some small gift. As it turned out, some appreciated the gesture more than others.

What were your roots in the Catskills?

Back around 1927 my father's two sisters and their husbands bought a little hotel called Spring Lake House on the old Liberty Road near Monticello. I was born in the 30's and spent my first fifteen summers up there. At age 15, I ran the concession hustling Nu Icy sodas, cigarettes and candy bars. Let me say that while "Summer" is somewhat autobiographical it is a work of fiction. One of my biggest problems in writing the novel was the fact that many of the events and characters are based on real experience. It isn't easy arguing with characters who want to write their own histories. I finally had to yell at them reminding them that this was my novel, not theirs, that my job was to transform specific memories into fiction, to find the deeper truth that hides behind the obvious.

How long were you at the hotel after age 15?

The family sold the Spring Lake House, then took over another hotel, the Willow Lane. After that, they moved to a hotel on Kenoza Lake. By that time I was in my first year of college. During the summer I ran the day camp at Kenoza Lake. Amazingly, some of the campers survived.

Did you go back to the mountains after the stint at Kenoza Lake?

No, not for 27 years after I'd finished the novel. Just as I was polishing what I thought was the last chapter, my Aunt Dora Feit died. She was the matriarch of one of the two principal families, the Feits and Manishors. I had to make a hard decision. I felt that if I stopped working on the book and went to New York for her funeral I might lose the book. It's difficult to explain. I decided that finishing the novel was more of a tribute to Dora. I added another chapter. I took my wife and son to Monticello to visit the old Spring Lake House to see what was left of the place and wrote about that strange voyage.

In the book you encounter "Schlomo Ferinsky's marinated ghost" on that trip.

That ghost represented many people who had passed on, including Dora. In the novel, it is Uncle Schlomo, the "salad man," who dies.

Your words: "Schlomo Ferinsky's marinated ghost had already left Forest Hills where it never felt comfortable since he made the move from Brooklyn. The ghost would stand near the Washington Bridge and bum a ride up to the Willow Spring where it belonged." This feeling resonates with endless stories people have told me of the importance of returning to their Mountain roots. Was that in your head when you wrote this?

I did feel that Schlomo's ghost was more comfortable in the Catskills than it was in Forest Hills where his family moved when they left Brooklyn. While I was writing that last section of the book, a tornado hit West Stockbridge, Mass. It was the first tornado in a century up there. It killed several people and leveled many homes. It bounced right over our house. I watched it fly past a picture window where the manuscript sat on a table. Since there were no copying machines easily available up there in those days, only one copy existed. All summer I'd carried it around with me like a kangaroo. And here comes a tornado. It was something of a miracle that our family was spared, not to mention the manuscript. I had to wonder if Schlomo's ghost kept those pages from blowing away with the wind. I'd like to think so even though I doubt Schlomo knew about the Berkshires or any other mountains than the Catskills. As for the desire of people to return to their Monticello roots, you could say it is the desire to return to the scene of the prime--for many of them those summers in the sun were prime time.

You wrote this when the Mountains were in sharp decline. I assume you were aware of that, so how did that affect the book?

That sense of loss was what motivated me to write the novel. I wanted to preserve something of those remarkable days and remarkable people.

Apart from Reuben Wallenrod's "Dusk in the Catskills," no one but you has written about the Holocaust period in the Catskills. Why do you think that is, and what made you pick that era?

The novel is set in the week the first atom bomb exploded over Japan. That came soon after revelations of the Holocaust in Europe. The euphoria of impending victory in WWII was tempered by emerging knowledge of the death camps. I was livid, and still am, that we never knew anything of "the final solution." Somebody knew. I never recall any discussion of the horror before we were forced to stare into the blank eyes of the few survivors and confront those brutal images of insane cruelty. At that time I was an adolescent, shooting out buds and wanting my turn at bat. My focus was a young man's focus, optimistic and egoistic. I was forced to think about my equivalent shadow, a pile of ashes in some German concentration camp. At the same time, I wanted to revel in the moment of blooming. I wanted to feel proud of America and happy that we won the war, that my brother and the other young men were coming home in triumph. The conflict of emotions at that moment in time was the end of innocence. It was also the beginning of the end of the Catskill experience. The Mountains faded as a vacation destination after WWII though many hotels tried to hold on for many years.

How did this book affect your later fiction?

Most of my work is very different from "Summer on a Mountain of Spices." I think that had to be my first novel. I had to free myself from the pull of that material. Many of my stories do contain Jewish themes, including the most recent novel "American Goliath." But without question, "Summer" is the most "Jewish."

Tell us about the hotels you used as models for the Willow Spring, the Elsmere Arms and Henderson's Hillside Hacienda.

Aside from the Spring Lake House, there was a hotel called the Rose Glow, another called the Anderson, and a bungalow colony called Silverman's, all on the Old Liberty Road. Silverman's was the enemy because they had no lake or pool. Spring Lake had a tiny excuse for a lake. When I took my family up there to see it, the lake looked like a melted ice cream pop. But at the time, it seemed splendid. The Silverman people kept trying to sneak into our lake. When they came, our people would sound the alarm. The waiters and busboys, along with a few Uncles and guests, would grab sticks and bats and go off to do battle on the lake road. My Uncle Max would always get clobbered but most of the time the barbarians were stopped at the gate.

You had a very interesting story about the antipathy that hotel people had for the colony people. Why did that antipathy exist?

It was a funny kind of elitism. The ones who could afford the thirty bucks or so it cost to stay at a hotel for a week felt superior to those who stayed in the colonies and cooked their own meals. They were considered lower on the social scale. Why? It's the way of the world. Did it make any sense? Absolutely not.

Were the Rose Glow and the Anderson also pretty small hotels?

The Anderson was small but to us, posh. They had a swimming pool, a sexier casino and buildings made of concrete. High class. The Rose Glow started small then tried to join the big leagues under new management. I think it finally turned into an Ashram, another marvelous twist of history. Mantras where mambos once ruled.

No other Catskill novel touched on gangsters. How did you come to include them?

Another reminder that "Summer" is a fiction, but the part about the gorgeous gangster's moll stashed up there is close to the fact. This incredible girl appeared out of nowhere. Years later I was told she was the doll of a Jewish Mafioso who got himself on a hit list and was worried about her safety. It would have been a great waste if they got to her, believe me. I think she gave the other ladies chronic heartburn. It was like finding a centerfold inside a latke manual. Talk about zoftig exotic--

Early in the book, Willow Spring Hotel partner Al Berman crashes into a hack full of passengers on their way to the Catskills. He turns the blame on the hackie, the recruits some of the passengers to his hotel. This seems emblematic of the chutzpah and talent of the Catskill hotel owners. Talk about this episode a little.

I'll tell you about the incident it's based on. One summer morning I was picked up in New York by my Uncle Max for the drive up Route 17 to Monticello. Max was a former musician, then a salesman for a milk company. He worked hard and he was tired. So he dozed off at the wheel. I was sitting next to him in the front seat of his sedan and thought it was a little strange that he was snoring. I also noticed there was a car parked at a light not far ahead of us and that the space between the two cars was closing fast. I dived under the dashboard. We slammed into what turned out to be a hack. The hackie ran away because, lucky for Max, he had no license. Unlucky for Max, he broke a few ribs. Before they took him to the hospital he handed out a few Willow Spring Hotel cards to the traumatized hack passengers. Business is business.

Your characterizations of the in-law owners is one of the fine points in the novel. Talk a little about the role of these kinds of partnerships in the Catskills.

There were two couples who ran the Spring Lake House, Dora and Morris Feit and Fanny and Max Manishor. Dora and Morris were the kitchen workhorses. They worked 18-hour days shopping, cooking, supervising the non-stop meals. Fanny took care of reservations and the hotel staff. Max had a job in the city and came up weekends like most of the husbands. From May to September, the families yelled at each other and broke a few hundred glasses and plates but there was never even a suggestion that the partnership would fracture. It was a mom and pop operation like a big candy store.

You write about the owners as the "Owners and Proprietors" in caplital letters and also the "Band of Music." Are those used primarily as Yiddishist idioms or as other devices?

They were just the ways I thought about them. When people talked about certain things they added capital letters to their conversations. They were self-contained entities, icons, that deserved capital letters.

Tell us about Al Berman's obsession with building a grand casino.

Al had a dream not dissimilar from Max Manishor's. I repeat, for the record, that this is fiction, not a documentary. But Uncle Max began his career as a musician in Roumanian bands and loved the role of entertainer. Very few small hotels had their own casinos, much less their own Social Director/Tumler. Spring Lake had Joe Kaminsky who would do skits, dramas, anything in a weird combination of Yiddish and English. And the hotel had a live band--not unusual for Grossingers, Laurels, the Flagler, Browns, but really unusual for a place the size of Spring Lake. The guests were drafted as part of the entertainment and Friday night was Kiddie Show Nite--everybody got into the act. The casino with the attached concession stand was the centerpiece of the hotel, aside from the dining room. Al Berman saw it as his secular temple, his monument. The fact that the stage had a trap door and a velvet curtain was his ultimate pride. The problem was errant bats that lived up in the eaves. Fighting bats while the women defended their hairdos gave Al, and Max, a splendid nobility.

How many people did the hotel hold?

The main house had about twenty rooms. There were six bungalows around the grounds. There was a children's dining room, oil-cloth basic, and a nifty adult dining room replete with tablecloths, bentwood chairs, silverware and fancy lights humming three meals a day.

Virtually everyone in the hotel is related to one of the partners or is a business or organization contact. How did this tightness affect communal life in a small Catskills hotel?

Tremendously. Most of guests were repeats. They came every summer. They did come originally through some contact with the owners or with my Dad who was a dentist on the Lower Eastside. Then they brought their own friends and families. People grew together up there. There was a definite sense of knowing who was who, and, more important, who was you. It was really a family hotel. There was a strong sense of family even among the guests. In those days, people didn't analyze other people. They accepted what they saw sitting next to them. If fat Murray stayed at home while his wife made money making hats, so be it. He was who he was. Period. You didn't ask why or what. What was, was. People weren't too judgmental. Most of the guests shared similar concerns: work, the wife, the husband, the kids, health, the quotidian, President Roosevelt, God's grace or lack of it. They recognized one another's humanity and were very forgiving of an occasional tantrum.

You have a marvelous description of the owners playing poker with the guests at night, something I remember well. In your book, it served as a way of letting go of the ownership authority and letting their hair down. Tell us about this kind of connection.

Poker and Mah Jong for the women, serious pinochle for the men. They played under trees, in the card room, on the porch. Both sexes went at each other with a vengeance. Epic battles and curses resounded through the halls and frightened animals in the woods. You would swear that after those "friendly" games the players would end up on the front page of the Daily News accused of murder or worse. But somehow, when it was over it was over. The fact that an Owner Proprietor attacked a paying guest for being a shmo, schlemiel or shmendrik was of no consequence. Most of the games were for small money but money wasn't the issue. Winning or losing turned largely on luck but luck wasn't the issue. Either you could play or you couldn't play and if you couldn't play how come you're playing was the issue.

The interesting thing about that card game is that the owners are having this sort of put down session with new guests. And finally they all trade insults and they're included in the family.

That was the mystical transition. The ultimate rite of passage. If you could handle the terminal insults and stay vertical, it was OK. You were made.

At the Willow Spring, evening tea is not served by bellhops in the card room as was common, but is self-service in the kitchen. Further, staff joined the guests eating there. Was this the way of things at Spring Lake House?

Bellhops? Who had bellhops? The nightly scene in the kitchen was a hamish cabaret. There was Baba, ancient, out of it, standing in brown sackcloth and Russian boots, drinking hot water and lemon with a sugar cube between her teeth. On a table there was an enamel pail and a dipper where the kids filled their glasses. If the mothers insisted, the milk could be warmed on the wood stove, still hot from dinner, or supper as it was called. There were plates of cookies and cakes along with a few leftovers spread around. Guests sat around sipping tea or coffee swapping stories or listening to somebody like Reuben Radish singing songs from the old country. The songs were sentimental, about villages like Beltz, that brought back mysterious memories. It was all very remote to me, this coming together of Hungarians, Galicans, Russians, Roumanians united by a past I couldn't begin to fathom. It was the Spring Lake sunset, the official end of the day, more final than the red ball that fell in the Western sky. Soon people would drift away and my aunt and uncle would clean up and put away the "live stock"--the food that managed to remain uneaten. Taps was my Aunt Dora giving out an Oy Vay.

You have some chapters on a mock wedding, a mock marriage which was a mainstay of amateur entertainment in the Catskills. Do you have any idea why this form of entertainment was so appealing and widespread?

Dr. Freud, call surgery. That is one hard question. In a Mock Marriage, the guests played the parts of bride, groom and wedding party. They reversed gender roles. The bride was, say, Cousin Donnie, the groom was, say, Mrs. Fishbine. Everybody was in their own creative version of drag, including the Rabbi. The humor was broad, to put it mildly, and coarse. It was Milton Berle running around in a dress multiplied by ten. The result was a mix of pratfalls and pranks, vulgar and high spirited, not very subtle. To explain the hidden dynamics of a Mock Marriage would probably take a batallion of shrinks two lifetimes. There was a suspension of restraint. There was outlet for complaint and puzzlement over the grand canyon that separates the sexes. There was open revolt against propriety and convention. Much of the mockery was self-derision with a smattering of wails over the human condition. Whatever it was, it was funny, gut-busting funny, or unspeakably awful or both.

Why the cross-dressing and why the marriage? Why do it that way as opposed to just sort of other kinds of humor that was self-deprecating?

Maybe it was a short cut to a dangerous place that was attractive in its outrageous invitation to freedom of expression. It was the opposite of everything even mildly pretentious--politically correct in today's terminology. For the women it was linked to the social environment--women had few outlets and many constraints. For the men it was, at least in part, a chance to vent hostility toward the women who'd domesticated them. For both it was possibly a way to get back at the parents who structured their lives. And for both it probably was linked to unspeakable fantasies and fears as complicated as sexuality itself. All of which adds up to, I dunno--

Like in Eileen Pollack's novel, "Paradise, New York" and in the film "Sweet Lorraine" the impending sale of the hotel looms over the action. We get a sense that there was always a threat of decline, even in the World War II era. Why did you put this in?

Endings are often bittersweet and summers have a way of ending. I could feel the separation of the generations. I knew my own path would be far different and alien to that of my parents. I wanted to escape from my identity as a victim in an oppressed minority. I wanted a different America and a different set of flesh memories than that which bound the hotel guests together with such strong glue. I wanted out. At the same time I think part of me recognized that what was being lost was very valuable. The continuity of family was very much dependant on those summers together. That was as comforting as it was stifling. At the time, I resented my attachment to any roots, much less roots that extended to foreign lands that were kingdoms of hatred and oppression. Sensing the end of the Catskill era was as positive as tossing away old clothes, or so it seemed to this snobby adolescent. Many years later, looking back, when the sense of loss came into focus, when what was lost became clear, I wondered long and hard about my feelings back then. Time is a tricky window. Writing "Summer" was, in part, an attempt to save some remnant of what was already long gone, an act of contrition and appreciation if not regret. Times change. Whole worlds vanish. One reason we sensed that the Catskill era was dying is that so many of the people in that world were getting old and that passing summers, however splendid, eroded our own youth.

Novels and films about the Catskills aways give significant attention to the rampant sexuality up there. "Summer on a Mountain of Spices" goes beyond all those others in the amount of sex. Why is that?

I noticed you commented on that in the website description of the novel. I never felt that the sexuality was so rampant. I told it like I saw and felt it. For the young, the opening of the Age of the Atom brought an awareness that it was very likely that if we didn't score quickly we might die virgin, a fate much worse than death for the more imaginative. Sex was the subject of adolescent conversation, dreams and fantasies. Nothing seemed more important. Was that unique? I doubt it. Most of the older, married-with-children set were probably faithful spouses but the environment was charged. For the week, most women were alone while their husbands were away. Some of those women needed to play around for whatever reasons--boredom, dissatisfaction, affirmation, all of the above. Many hotels encouraged their male staff to be available to service the restless. That's a fact. I remember being traumatized by a musician named Red who came to play his trumpet at the hotel carrying one suitcase. It was filled with a pair of shorts and ten boxes of condoms. I was rather confused about who Red was planning to mate with considering his targets were probably my blood relations. There were those who screwed around and those who didn't, no more, no less. There were lovers, lusters, and the ones who worried about the stock market. When "Summer" was published several family members and a few readers were shocked by what was seen by them as "bad for the Jews." Well, sex is what makes new Jews. The title "Summer on a Mountain of Spices" derives from "The Song of Solomon" which is the most beautiful and sensual love poem ever written.

How was the book reviewed and were there every plans for a movie or a play?

The novel got terrific reviews but little support from the publisher though Paula Diamond of Harper & Row knocked herself out to get her company to promote the book. Film rights were optioned and stage rights were acquired by Hal Prince. When nothing came of those options film rights were acquired by Alan King but, alas, nothing came of that either. Someday somebody will get the message.

Are you glad you wrote "Summer on a Mountain of Spices?"

The question is, is anybody else glad I wrote the book?