One room had a half-dozen ovens and refrigerators. Opening one fridge, I half expected to find a cold can of Tab. No dice. In the corner of what appeared to be the living room, there was a public telephone. I picked it up. No dial tone. Most of the bedrooms were disheveled or empty, but in one I found toiletries and a shoeshine kit carefully arranged on the dresser, three drab but clean dresses hanging in the closet, and a shelf filled with unused legal pads and blank paper.
Tucked into the mirror was a photograph of four happy-looking elderly couples posing in front of the lake out back that was now obscured by foliage.
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There was also a date: August Who were these people and why did they leave? What purpose did this odd house serve? Were the people in the photo still alive? When was the house last occupied? The simple part was figuring out who lived there.
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An address label affixed to some shelves in the bedroom with the shoeshine kit read Goldberg. That matched the name on a Jewish National Fund Tree-in-Israel certificate posted on the wall in another room. Over the course of several conversations, including one in which we went through old pictures at her kitchen table, Judy and her sister, Paula Goldberg — now 60 and 63, respectively — told me the story of what had transpired half a century ago in that house, why it represented the best years of their lives and how it all came to an end.
This is their story.
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A pharmacist from the Bronx, Nat Goldberg began bringing his family to this kochelein, called Fairhill, in , when Judy was still in diapers and her sister Paula was 5. The rest of the house was filled with cousins and close friends, all from the same working-class Bronx neighborhood. Everybody, of course, was Jewish.
There was practically no privacy: Parents and their children slept in the same room, all the families shared only two bathrooms and everyone ate their meals in the shared dining room. After the rain stopped, the kids would run outside to hunt salamanders. On Saturday nights, when the adults went out, the kids left to their own devices smoked, played kissing games and did whatever else they could think of that their parents had forbidden.
For the adults, the bungalow colony was both an extension of and a break from their lives in the crowded Jewish enclaves of the Bronx. It was mostly the same people, but there was cleaner air, less privacy and less testosterone. During this period of popularity, more than a million people came to the Borscht Belt in the summers. The general trend was for "stay-at home" mothers, grandparents, and children to live in these rustic to resort dwellings all summer, while "working" fathers came for weekends.
Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memoirs Of Catskill Summers
The larger resorts became known for their grand kosher all-you-can-eat feasts and higher caliber entertainers. However, whether small or large, all the establishments tried to feed the "American Dream" of leisure time and excess: advertising exaggerated the caliber of entertainers, the quality of food, and the size of basketball courts and other recreational facilities.
Conversely, Jewish guests who were trying to assimilate into mainstream American culture sensationalized, to themselves and others, what was really available to them. Despite exaggeration, the Borscht Belt birthed innumerable nationally known figures, especially in the entertainment world. Many Jewish entertainers started in the Borscht Belt because of anti-Semitism that excluded them from working in other venues.
Additionally, their work included Jewish cultural references, not understood outside the Jewish world. However, as these entertainers became nationally popular, the Jewish content of their work became more familiar and understood in the mainstream and their work became more mainstream—with less specific Jewish content. Jewish life became known and integrated into American life and vice versa, often because of Borscht Belt entertainers. Jack Barry, for instance, was a standup comedian who met and teamed up with Dan Enright in Borscht Belt clubs.
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They started Winky Dink and You, a children's show known for the special transparent covers children had to put over the TV screen so they could draw the "hidden pictures" during Winky's adventures. Barry and Enright were also instrumental in producing and hosting early game shows, such as Concentration and Tic Tac Dough. Cultural changes beginning in the late s brought on the downfall of the Borscht Belt. As airplane transportation became more affordable, it was both easier and more enticing to travel to places further than the Catskills. Women, especially middle-class women, again entered the work force en masse, which prevented them from spending entire summers in the resorts.
Many Jews became more assimilated and felt less of a need to be in separate establishments. Anti-Semitism lessened and many Jewish entertainers did not need to start in Jewish-only establishments.
By the s and s, only a few of the large hotels remained, and their cultural influence was virtually non-existent. Some smaller establishments were burned for insurance and some were sold as meditation centers, ashrams, or drug rehabilitation centers. Bungalow colonies were bought and occupied by Orthodox and Hassidic Jews, whose lifestyle necessitated separate communities.
Borscht belt bungalows : memories of Catskill summers
Some Yiddish culture, however, periodically still came alive in the Catskills through the s. Hundreds of thousands still do. While much has been written about grand hotels like Grossinger's and the Concord, little has appeared about the more modest bungalow colonies and kuchaleins "cook for yourself" places where more than 80 percent of Catskill visitors stayed. These were not glamorous places, and middle-class Jews today remember the colonies with either aversion or fondness.
Irwin Richman's narrative, anecdotes, and photos recapture everything from the traffic jams leaving the city to the strategies for sneaking into the casinos of the big hotels. He brings to life the attitudes of the renters and the owners, the differences between the social activities and swimming pools advertised and what people actually received. He reminisces about the changing fashion of the guests and owners—everything that made summers memorable.
The author remembers his boyhood: what it was like to spend summers outside the city, swimming in the Neversink, "noodling around," and helping with the bungalow operation, while Grandpa charged the tenants and acted as president of Congregation B'nai. A Rickman Woodbourne New York. Unzerch Menschen Our People.