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American Jewish History 87.4 (1999) 395-397
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"Unearned nostalgia" is how the late literary-cultural critic Irving Howe styled, with a mixture of impatience and regret, the efforts of the children and grandchildren of the immigrant generation who sought to recapture the lost Jewish worlds of their parents and grandparents. "American Jews suffer these days," Howe continued, "from a feeling of guilt because they have lost touch with the past from which they derive." 1 One of the virtues of Phil Brown's unapologetically nostalgic memoir of growing up and working in the legendary Catskill Mountains--as busboy, cook, waiter, musician, and all around "mountain rat"--is that his particular nostalgia is profoundly earned. Indeed, he is deeply in touch with the vanished Jewish world of his parents who labored their entire lives in the mountains. Catskill Culture amounts to a love letter (or is it a kaddish?) to their story, and perhaps to his own. Brown offers an insider's--a native ethnographer's--account of this region and the astonishing Jewish culture it spawned. Its story can be said to incarnate the chronicle of American Jewish life itself, from an enclosed new world shtetl in the 1920s, through the region's heyday in the late fifties, to the area's eventual decline, and then to its rebirth, ironically in the form of Orthodox separatism, in the vibrant Hasidic bungalow colonies of today's Catskills.
Blending personal narrative, oral history, literary representations, and rich images (photographs, family memorabilia, hotel menus, and the like), Brown tells us how the mountains indelibly shaped his own social, political, cultural, and, above all, Jewish consciousness. The hotel world of the Catskills taught him important lessons in hierarchies of labor and class. He learned how kuchalayns, low-rent living arrangements where families shared kitchen facilities, compared with modest bungalow colonies; and how declasse colonies competed with luxurious upscale hotels. Shifting narrative perspectives from outward interpretation to insider intrigue, he discloses the secrets of the hotel kitchen, where waiters vied for special attention and gained profound lessons in human nature, as well as some of the secrets of Jewish cuisine (like how to make the perfect egg creme). Above all, we learn how, beginning in the late forties, the Catskills nourished [End Page 395] the then undiscovered comic geniuses of Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, and a host of lesser tummlers, memorably enshrined in Woody Allen's own sweetly Jewish Catskill homage, Broadway Danny Rose.
But the most important dimension of Catskill Culture, certainly its most moving and suggestive aspect, is Brown's own story, which both shapes the narrative and yet rests outside the larger story of decline and loss. From the beginning Brown, an unabashedly proud "mountain rat," imbibed deeply from these Jewishly-saturated mountains. His parents lived, worked and, sadly, died in the Catskills, as did their closest friends. Their mountains-obsessed world emerges as an authentic subculture of obscure Catskills laborers, lower-middle class folks whose lives were literally governed by the seasons of Jewish migration, from Passover through Labor Day. Brown both loves the world his parents made for him and, yet, remains profoundly ambivalent about it. A professional sociologist, he is both "a voyeur and researcher" in that world--an exotic, yet utterly familiar, summer civilization--where he "learned hotel life as a preadolescent ethnographer" (pp. 16, 163). His Catskill rite of passage occurred when he became a waiter for a night, his personal mountains bar mitzvah.
Catskill Culture contains no apparent argument about the world of the Mountains per se. It offers no in-depth investigation of the political economy of the region, or the divisions of labor in the mountains, or the rich traditions of Jewish humor and vaudeville that help contextualize the substantial achievements of a Sid Caesar or a Danny Kaye. Therefore, we might ask, why is Brown so moved to remember...