Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed November 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Phil Brown

Take My Memories, Please: Keeping the Catskills Alive

By Phil Brown
Phil Brown is professor of sociology at Brown University, co-founder and president of the Catskills Institute, and author of Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat's Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area published by Temple University Press.

"In 'the mountains,' Jews of Eastern European descent could have a proper vacation and become Americanized while preserving much of their Jewish culture"

I was born to a Catskills hotel family and was awash in memories this past summer when that resort area's great Concord Hotel went bankrupt and closed its doors. I wondered what happened to the one million people each summer who took Catskills vacations in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s? What about the tens of thousands of workers who served them? Do the comics' jokes still reverberate in abandoned casinos? Do the singers' voices pierce the mountain air? Do the sweet romances made there still hold up?

It was a glorious place, those resorts of Sullivan and Ulster County, the playground of New York Jews for the better part of the century. In "the mountains," Jews of Eastern European descent could have a proper vacation and become Americanized while preserving much of their Jewish culture. They imported their music, humor, vaudeville revue style, cuisine, language, and world views. These vacation spots were not merely resorts - they were miniature societies shaped by the vacationers' urban culture. The collective enterprise, woven with humor, food, entertainment and Yiddish culture, built intricate relationships as well as a giant community.

Sadly, it is mostly gone. A handful of hotels remain; the rest are rubble or overgrown. Skeletal handball courts and tree-sprouting pools dot the landscape, testimony to the vibrant communities that once pulsated in summers gone by.

Henny Youngman, the icon of the Catskills comedian, may be gone, but - like his one-liners - the memories of this marvelous area remain. Since 1995, a devoted band of Catskills veterans has worked to preserve the Catskills legacy through the activities of the Catskills Institute. They conduct an annual History of the Catskills Conference each summer at Sunny Oaks Hotel in Woodridge, one of the last of the small hotels. It is the setting for a wide range of speakers on a multitude of topics: food, farmers, sex, entertainment, religion, architecture, and sports. Comedian Freddy Roman recently shared the stage with writers like Vivian Gornick, Eileen Pollack and Steve Stern, and historians like Deborah Dash Moore and Jenna Weissman Joselit. Leading klezmer musicians like Henry Sapoznik perform and lecture.

There may not be two handfuls of hotels to vacation in, but there are countless memories to visit through such books as Abraham Lavender and Clarence Steinberg's Jewish Farmers of the Catskills, Myrna and Harvey Frommer's It Happened in the Catskills, Stefan Kanfer's A Summer World, Irwin Richman's Borscht Belt Bungalows, Terry Kay's novel Shadow Song and Eileen Pollack's novel Paradise, New York.

Thanks to this growing interest in what some may call "Catskills studies," the memories are kept alive so that aging hotel owners and guests, middle-aged waiters and busboys can come back for another look at the magical life of Catskills summers past.