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Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memoirs Of Catskill Summers

Irwin Richman

Publication Year: 2010

Every year between 1920 and 1970, almost one million of New York City's Jewish population summered in the Catskills. 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.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

I have consciously thought about writing this book for thirty years. My mother and my wife have urged me on. I have observed thousands of people in the resort industry, and I have talked to hundreds of them over many years. I thank them all, but I won't attempt to make a list. My major library resource has been the Heindel Library of Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, where...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-17

"Vie a Heen Zol Ieh Gayn" and "Mein Yiddishe Momme" are two songs that Borscht Belt singers could count on to bring down the house. l If you wanted to leave your bungalow or hotel audience on their feet, stomping, applauding, shouting for more, end your 1950s or 1960s act with one of these workhorses. "Mein Yiddishe Momme" ("My Jewish Mother") evoked the image of the self-sacrificing,

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2. A. Richamn, Woodbourne, New York [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 18-34

Grandpa was born in Russian-ruled Lithuania near Wilna, in the 1880s. He was about ninety-six when he died in 1978. We were never certain of his age because his accounts varied, and some of his friends claimed that he lied about when he was born. Grandpa was a liberated, worldly young man who ran away from home at thirteen, after his mother died and his seventy-year-old...

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3. Farmer's Life

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pp. 35-62

While many resorts emerged from farms, this was not always the case. Hotel and bungalow colony owners came from differing backgrounds. Some used the mountains as an escape; several saw the industry as a way to move up in the world; others had more personal reasons. Most were immigrants or children of immigrants. As spring approached, European-born...

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4. "Unzerch Menschen" (Our People)

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pp. 63-70

If here are few, if any, of the traditional bungalow colonies remaining in Sullivan County-the colonies of my youth, the resorts that catered to mostly nonobservant or semiobservant Jewish families with children. Mom and the kids spent the summer; father came up on weekends and stayed up for his week or two summer vacation. Today there are colonies in which the major portion of this lifestyle is practiced,...

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5. The River and the Woods

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pp. 71-86

Right after lunch the whole colony, except Grandpa (who always napped after lunch) and Grandma (who manned the post), would come together for the trip down to the river to swim. This was a substantial operation. While most colonies offered access to a river or a lake, usually cottages were set back from the water because of the perceived bugginess around water in the evenings.

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6. Noodling Around: Kids at Large

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pp. 87-93

W hen we weren't doing chores, swimming, or playing in the woods, what else did we do? Diversions can be divided into two major categories: the eternal and the trendy. Swings and the see-saw were popular well into our teens; admittedly, the older we got, the more the aim of see-saw play was who could bounce the hardest and make the other kid fall off. We also had the big sandbox...

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7. To Town: The Escape [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 94-100

One of the best antidotes to boredom was to go off the site. Going to town was always an exciting prospect. Seeing the same people day after day was a drag and the town offered the allure of stores, albeit with a limited range of choices. Sidney Offit, in He Had It Made, describes a fictional town that is clearly Woodbourne: "There was a sign that said. 'Woodmere, bungalows and hotels for your pleasure.'

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8. Daily Life: Mostly Adults

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pp. 101-119

After paying for accommodations, the most traumatic part of the summer for most adults was getting packed and traveling to the mountains. How families arrived varied with time and economics. The trip could be quite luxurious or a crowded and uncomfortable ordeal. Joey Adams remembered an early mountain experience, a summer at Boxer's Dairy Farm near Ellenville.

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9. The Quest for Entertainment [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 120-142

Entertainment was always very important to Sullivan County. The list of performers who got their start in the Borscht Belt is long and legendary and their stories have been told to death. While live professional entertainment came to the bungalow colonies in the 1950s, prior to that much entertainment was home grown or stolen-that is from the perspective of hotel owners who often looked at bungalow people...

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10. Religion

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pp. 143-148

Before Joey Adams's mother would rent at Mrs. Boxer's kuchalein in the 1920s, she insisted that the place be strictly kosher. The "farmeka"assured her, "We have two stoves-one for dairy and one for meat, and even our iceboxes are kosher."

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11. Summer Emergencies and Other Unforgettable Events

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pp. 149-156

For the bungalow colony owner, the summer season was a series of disasters waiting to happen. Providing you rented, what could go wrong? Plenty. Would your tenants show up? After all, the only assurance you had was a deposit of twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred dollars. At larger, very popular colonies, most renting was done at the end of the summer and they had a payment schedule that would...

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12. The Day Camp [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 157-174

I n 1953 when I first worked at a day camp, my salary was one hundred dollars, payable at the end of the summer, plus tips. My first paycheck from Meyer Furman's Day Camp bounced, returned for insufficient funds- Meyer soon made it good. I worked for him for two more summers because I liked the head counselor. When he left, so did I. Like much in the bungalow business, the day camp...

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13. Crime and Punishment

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pp. 175-180

Dominating Woodbourne was its other, its most enduring industry-the Woodbourne Prison-which loomed on the skyline for many years. Established in 1934, the red brick pile has been expanded over the years, but its great smokestack was torn down a few years ago.

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14. An Age of Change [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 181-204

I n 1961, the Kassacks were very upset because a number of their best, long-time tenants had bought summer homes at Emerald Green, at Lake Louise Marie near Wurtsboro. Emerald Green was the first successful post-World War II summer home development in Sullivan County, and it was a portent of doom for major bungalow colonies. Those former tenants who could afford it would now enjoy the communal life...

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15. Ghosts along the Road

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pp. 205-209

A s I drive along the roads in Sullivan County, especially those that lead into Woodbourne, I see ghosts. I see hotels that have been converted into schools, drug rehabilitation centers, or bungalow colonies, or that have completely disappeared. I go by bungalow colonies that are now orthodox, and I go by colonies that have vanished. My mind's eye remembers a Sullivan County of vital towns,...


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pp. 211-224


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pp. 225-233


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pp. 235-242

E-ISBN-13: 9781439904503
Print-ISBN-13: 9781566395854

Publication Year: 2010