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Mountain Memoirs and Historical Essays

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Yiddish theater was dead. Grine Felder rekindled the magic for a few glorious summers at:


It must have been quite pastoral back in July 1938 when Isaac Bashevis Singer first glimpsed the bungalow colony grounds after a long, tedious drive from Manhattan. He might have stood at the entrance off the narrow serpentine road, beneath a jade-green canopy of tall, resin-scented cedars. Ahead of him lay a flowing, even more verdant landscape rising sharply into a series of tree-studded hills. But Singer must surely have questioned what he was doing in this "wilderness" so far from his tiny, one-room flat in lower Manhattan and why he'd allowed his young friend, Zygmunt Salkin, to inveigle him into journeying up to the country.

Three years earlier, Salkin had waited at Ellis Island with I.J. [Israel Joshua] Singer, Isaac's older brother, to welcome the 39-year-old Polish immigrant to America. Since his arrival, the younger Singer hadn't fared as well as he wished in his writing career, so when Salkin, a budding theater director, approached him with a plan to move his fledgling troupe to a Woodridge, N.Y., bungalow colony to rehearse an English version of I.L. Peretz's At Night in the Old Marketplace, Isaac consented to oversee the project.

In his pitch to Singer, Salkin had painted a very bleak picture. "There was a time when I dreamed about reviving the Yiddish theatre. But I've convinced myself that this is a waste of time," said Salkin, as reported in Singer's memoir of his salad days in Manhattan, Lost in America. "Something has to be done for the theatres."

Salkin's despair was well founded. The Golden Age of serious Yiddish theater was over. Maurice Schwartz's grand and noble Yiddish Art Theatre, established in 1918 at Manhattan's Irving Place Theatre with high hopes and higher aspirations, with plays by stellar Yiddish playwrights such as Perez Hirshbein and David Pinski, had, over the next two decades, devolved into offering a menu of mostly lighter, crowd-pleasing fare-still Yiddish in language, but grandiose in production, the stage often filled chock-a-block with actors, singers, and dancers, the choreography ornate, the scenes many in order to boost attendance. Schwartz had become what noted actress Celia Adler called "a slave to spectacle."

Jacob Ben-Ami's Jewish Art Theatre, with even loftier aims, had lasted two seasons, from 1919 to 1921. By the '30s, all that remained of Yiddish theater was ARTEF (Arbeiter Teater Farband), a vibrant but leftist group more interested in propaganda than artistry.

And, of course, there was the Second Avenue fluff of sentimental comedies, overcooked melodramas and mindless musicals, known collectively and pejoratively as shund, which purist critics defined as trash.

In 1937, the great author-critic Alexander Mukdoiny wrote, "The Yiddish Theatre is finished. It is no longer even bad theatre. It has no actor, no repertoire, no directors and no designers. Professionalism, talent and ambition are practically dead."

Zygmunt Salkin's attempt at a solution that summer of 1938 was to gather a group of stage-struck youngsters and present them with his own English translation of the I.L. Peretz play, to be produced under Singer's guidance. The practical part of his agenda was the free use by the troupe of a gathering hall in the bungalow colony known as Grine Felder (Green Fields). But this was no ordinary Catskill resort for the families of middle-class Jewish shopkeepers and businessmen who would come for a respite from Manhattan's swelter. When Salkin and Singer arrived, Grine Felder had been for two years summer home to the most concentrated assemblage of Yiddishist elite anywhere on Earth. While other groups-artists, leftists, Bohemians-organized their own colonies, none equalled the caliber of talent at Grine Felder.

Indeed, not anyone could vacation at the unique colony. Malvina Fainberg, 93, a summer resident from 1947 to 1987, describes the admission practices: "There was a long waiting list, composed of only those recommended by Grine Felders already there. I was considered because my brother-in-law [Jules Fainberg] was one of the original founders. One had to be first interviewed, parents and children alike, by the membership committee. Next, we were evaluated by the cultural committee as to his or her possible contribution to the various cultural activities going on. The colony's origins are almost mythic. In the autumn of 1936, a delegation from nearby Mirth bungalow colony had approached Raphael Kasofsky and Meyer Arkin, owners of the popular Avon Lodge a mile outside of Woodridge. Representing 32 families dissatisfied with their present summer accommodations, the delegates asked the two owners to build them a modern enclave of approximately 40 units on 35 acres of unused Avon Lodge property. The group would then assume all aspects of managing the colony, from maintaining the grounds to collecting the rents and paying the owners' fees.

By the next spring, the spanking new colony was ready for occupancy. Its name would be Grine Felder, after the enormously successful play and movie by Perez Hirshbein, who was among the colony's founding fathers. At the eleventh hour, however, Hirshbein decided to remain at Mirth, out of loyalty to its owner.

Those making the transition couldn't have been more pleased with the two- and four-unit structures, its modern kitchens and screened porches, and the large recreational building which they promptly named the Amphion Theatre and stocked with rows of benches and three massive Melodigrand pianos. They especially appreciated the illusion of isolation and solitude, the bungalows scattered helter-skelter, each on a small hillock and hidden from the rest by stands of maples and oaks.

Among the notables who pioneered Grine Felder were David Pinski, a major Yiddish playwright whose work a decade earlier had dominated both Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre and Ben-Ami's Jewish Art Theatre; Mendl Elkin, one of the founders of the Bronx's Unzer Theatre and a writer, director, teacher, and lecturer also involved with Pinski and Hirshbein in various ripples of Jewish and cultural life in New York City; Nahum Stutchkoff, author and playwright, whose radio series Tzores bei Leiten ("Trouble Increases") ran for 20 years on WEVD in New York City, "the station that speaks your language."

Samuel Charney, who wrote under the name "S. Niger," was also an original at the colony. Editor, journalist and historian, founder of the Zionist Socialist Party and president of the Shalom Aleichem Folk Institute, Charney was considered the dean of Yiddish literary criticism.

Musical excellence was also well represented in the persons of Lazar Weiner and Moishe Rudinow. The former was a famed composer of orchestral works and the conductor of the Mendelssohn Symphony Orchestra, the latter chief cantor at prestigious Temple Emanu-El on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

And from the world of labor: Joseph Schlossberg who, in 1914, helped found the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and later served as a member of the New York City Board of Higher Education, as well as writing several books on the American labor movement.

In his journal as recording secretary of Grine Felder, Abraham Shiffrin, a noted poet, short story writer, and former president of New York University's School of Journalism, describes some of the day-to-day cultural activities at the colony.

He writes of Grine Felder's children putting on a performance of Robert Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois, followed by a more Yiddish-centered production of I.L. Peretz's Two Brothers.

Under Shiffrin's direction, the parents of these children presented another Peretz play, Arendar, a stirring three-acter. Other evenings, David Pinski would command the Amphion stage with talks about the lives and works of his fellow artists: the two Sholems, Asch and Aleichem; Peretz; and Ossip Dymov.

Wednesday evenings were especially glittering. The women's cultural committee would take charge of "Tea Parties," at which Lazar Weiner would often play an original composition or accompany an invited guest such as Alexander Zadri, the world-renowned violinist. They'd play Mozart and Brahms, but more frequently Yiddish folk music.

At another Wednesday gala Jacob Ben-Ami, the quintessential Yiddish actor, would give a dramatic reading. At another, the great Russian basso Sidor Belarsky, a recent immigrant and star of the City Center Opera Company, would sing solo or duets with Moishe Radinow to the accompaniment of the Melodigrand piano.

Refreshments would be served after, and the conversation was rich and heady-the fate of European Jewry; the tense situation in Palestine; the paintings of Marc Chagall; the German-Soviet Pact of 1939, which badly splintered the left; the American economy, still ailing from the Depression.

Rosina Fernhoff, an actress who has performed in America and Israel, recalls that her father, Dr. William Fernhoff, "would often make after-hours calls to this most unusual colony. I would be his driver, and for me, an aspiring young actress and dancer, nothing was more exciting than to be in the presence of such artistic giants as Perez Hirshbein and Lazar Weiner.

"Long after my father treated his Grine Felder patient, we'd linger to listen to the music, to absorb the poetry and drama, to speak with creative people whose common bond was the preservation of Yiddish language and culture."

During the day, Pinski would hold classes in Yiddish history for children and adults. In addition, Shiffrin noted that "we have a reading circle in Yiddish, to which about 30 residents come each Tuesday, in the open meadows, to listen to readings of works from our Yiddish classics."

In his journal, Shiffrin also tells of the colony's own weekly newsletter, The Locust, a breezy two-pager that he edited and to which Elkin, Pinski, Niger, and other Grine Felders were happy to contribute.

Involved in his directorial and re-editing chores, I.B. Singer nevertheless took note of his hosts. In Lost in America he recalls with amusement that each bungalow was named for a Yiddish writer or Socialist leader: Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman.

But, sourly, Singer carps that "when the Yiddishists learned that I was getting ready to dramatize something by Peretz, I became an overnight target. Yiddishism in America suffered from a lack of young forces. I was comparatively young, and my book (Satan in Goray) had already received some notice among the Yiddishists, even though the critics complained that I failed to follow in the path of Yiddish classicists and gave myself over exclusively to sex, as well as demonstrating a lack of concern for social problems."

This being the case, it is difficult to imagine two more antagonistic extremes in the spectrum of Yiddish literary culture. Singer, always the self-absorbed loner, demonstrated his antipathy to the Grine Felders in this acid-etched group portrait: "They seethed with those offering ready-made remedies for all the world's ills Some placed all their hopes on Freud, while others hinted that Stalin was hardly as bad as the capitalist lackeys painted him."

By summer's end, though but a novice at directing, Singer had helped whip into shape At Night in the Old Marketplace on the Amphion's stage, when unused by the Grine Felders. Salkin talked of receiving financial backing and booking a theater in Manhattan, but neither materialized. Peretz's anglicized play never opened.

Grine Felder, however, continued for almost 50 more years, despite the deaths or the defections of its most illustrious founders and the shift to more mainstream families. In 1973 a neighboring ski lodge bought the colony and ran it for five years; eventually it fell into bankruptcy. Finally, the town of Fallsburg took the colony in lieu of unpaid taxes.

The grandeur and glory of Grine Felder is forever gone, in ruins like so many Catskill resorts and hotels. Its Amphion Theatre, the site of so much poetry, drama, and music has collapsed into itself, only the three pianos remaining upright, their keys faded and frozen tight, their rotting hulks evidently not worth stripping or stealing.

The bungalows themselves are slowly rotting, the screened porches festooned with cobwebs, the kitchens gutted except for corkscrews of flypaper still hanging from ceiling beams, their victims long ago turned to fossils.

Nature has all but reclaimed Grine Felder, leaving scant indication of what a bountiful feast had once taken place there, summer after joyous summer: An extraordinary band of Yiddishists had endeavored to hold onto a fast vanishing world while America was struggling with its own problems of the Great Depression and later, World War II; when the stars shone a bit brighter and Grine Felder was the closest its founders would ever come to paradise on Earth.

Martin Boris, author of three novels, including Woodridge 1946 about the post-World War II Catskills, has written many articles on Yiddish theater and is currently working on a biography of Maurice Schwartz. Special thanks to YIVO Institute.

This article first appeared in the Sept./Oct. 1998 issue of the B'nai B'rith International Jewish Monthly