Geographically, the Catskills are a mountain range in upstate New York, traversing Sullivan, Ulster, Greene, Delaware, and Schoharie counties. But in popular lore they are less a region than a state of mind conjuring up images of Borscht Belt hotels, fast-talking comedians, bungalow colonies—a haven of hedonism and escape for generations of Jewish immigrants and their children from the early 20th Century through the postwar era. As it turns out, they also had a Gentile life—one dating back to the origins of European settlement and continuing well after the last tummling resort had closed its doors. So, while the Jewish Catskills are very much part of the story, that narrative is only an episode in a saga that starts far before their beginnings and continues well after their demise. It is the telling of how This Other Half lived that is the burden of The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America by the biographer and journalist Stephen M. Silverman and the late Raphael D. Silver.
In an earnest effort to compress a tremendous amount of history within a single volume, the authors take us on a lengthy journey whose digressions can at times make us feel as if we are on the congested Route 17 to the mountains in stop-and-go traffic on a holiday weekend. But any history that encompasses Henry Hudson, Henny Youngman, and the Arts and Crafts movement should be commended for its sheer ambition.
The Catskills take their name from the Dutch word “kill” for creek combined with “catamount’’ for the mountain lions that once roamed the hills. And it is with the Dutch that the story begins. In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would bear his name and, after the fog of a September morning lifted, got his first glimpse of the Catskills. What he did not glimpse was a northwest passage to Asia, the goal of the mission he’d been sent on, so he headed back to England. Hudson was not so prudent on his next journey, a fatal voyage to what became Hudson’s Bay where he was abandoned by a mutinous crew.
Hudson may have been gone, but the ghosts of his men lingered in legend to be spun into literature two centuries later by Washington Irving with the tale of Rip Van Winkle’s fateful slumber in the Catskills. Not wishing to miss another good story, the authors then reprise for our benefit Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a village that is not in the Catskills, and not even in the mountains.
Expanding the boundaries of the Catskills and the scope of the story is a tic that recurs throughout the book, beginning with the following section on the nation’s first major novelist, James Fenimore Cooper. The authors write that Cooper’s stories “are set in the mountains and conceived in the vast American wilderness.” But the mountains in which Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” take place are the Adirondacks. “The Last of the Mohicans” is set around Lake George, and the author’s home in Cooperstown is in Otsego County, far to the northwest of the Catskills.
The Catskills region offers much to commend it historically and when the authors evoke the cultural phenomena emerging directly from its environs they are on surer footing. They provide a detailed account of the Hudson River School—the artists Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Frederic Church, who were inspired by the Catskills to paint landscapes that were distinctly American in their celebration of the untamed, natural beauty of the wilderness while acknowledging the awareness of its passing.
The authors address this transition in a section on the emergence of the tanning industry, propelled by the cataracts and rushing waters of the Catskills together with the region’s abundant supply of hemlock used in the process. The tree-felling denuded large swaths of the forest but it also brought roads and jobs, creating fortunes for enterprising businessmen as well as establishing towns such as Tannersville and Prattsville.
The authors are good at documenting the Catskills’ symbiotic links with New York City. If the tanneries produced leather for the shoes with which the city’s residents were shod, bluestone from the Catskill quarries literally provided the sidewalks of New York on which they trod. Probably the most important aspect of this relationship are the Catskill reservoirs that supply the city with water fed by an aqueduct that travels 100 miles by gravity. And then there is tourism. By the mid 19th Century, tourists were starting to arrive from the city, first aboard Hudson River steamboats and eventually by rail.
The Catskills offer a plenitude of good social history, not the least of which involves the violent 1840’s rent-strikes by tenant farmers against their absentee landlords, which led to New York State abolishing the feudal system under which the tenants had been exploited since colonial times.
If the region’s hardscrabble earth proved obdurate for farming, it provided rich soil for a Utopian transplant to our shores—England’s Arts & Crafts movement inspired by the critic John Ruskin and the designer William Morris. The guru of this experiment was a well-to-do Briton named Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and the rural site he chose for his Utopia in 1907 was called Woodstock. Although the colony—which celebrated weaving, pottery and metalwork—eventually faded, it attracted kindred spirits who established their own communes, a phenomenon that would inspire the American handicraft movement and, ultimately, the legendary ’60s Woodstock rock concert whose flower children might well claim indirect descent from the sedate Radcliffe.
The Jews arrived in the Promised Land of the Catskills in two ascents. The first, from the 1880’s to the outbreak of the Great War, comprised a mix of assimilated German and Sephardic types together with an influx of East European Jews who flooded to America after the 1881 pogroms in Russia. These hardy souls preferred the rigors of farming to the exploitive conditions of the city’s sweatshops. By the turn of the century, there were 1,000 Jewish farms in Sullivan County, which, when agriculture proved marginal, became “Strictly Kosher” boarding houses. They provided a heady attraction for a surging number of New York’s Jewish workers who sought to escape the stifling city summers. They also furnished a haven where Jews—unwanted at Gentile hotels—could be comfortable among their own.
The second wave, which the authors call “the Golden Age,” began in 1919 after the end of World War I and continued through the early ’60s. It hit its stride during the Jazz Age, survived the Depression, and flourished during the postwar years.
This was an epoch of transition where the Mom and Pop boarding houses were transformed into the great hotels, with a declension of bungalow colonies for the less affluent. Some had Jewish imprimatur—Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s—while others bore more assimilated monikers—the Raleigh, the Laurel. But what they all had in common, big or small, was a mandate to feed the palates and egos of their demanding clientele: the men depositing their families for the summer and driving up for the weekend on the traffic-clogged Route 17 to “the mountains.”
As critical as the compulsion to feed was the obligation to entertain—for a tough audience. The Catskills provided a hard-earned boot camp for a generation of comics who honed their acts in the Borscht Belt and went on to project their talent for a national audience on radio, in the movies, and through the burgeoning medium of television. A short list: Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Buddy Hackett, Alan King, Don Rickles, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason and Joan Rivers. These “tummlers’’ cast the mold for what was to become stand-up comedy and the entire gamut of late-night shtick that has become a staple of American entertainment.
The Borscht Belt, as it became known, came of age with Prohibition. And it was certainly no Bible Belt. The notorious Jewish gangsters of the era used the Catskills as a playground, a stomping ground, and a proving ground for their various criminal undertakings. The authors reprise the doings of Legs Diamond (a Shabbos goy) who operated along the Hudson, Dutch Schultz (Ulster County), and Waxey Gordon (Sullivan County). Murder Inc. kingpin Louis “Lepke” Buchalter basked at a hilltop estate in South Fallsburg, and his associate Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro kept his wife and kids at the accommodating Plaza Hotel while entertaining his tootsie in Loch Sheldrake.
The authors tell some engaging tales of the bootlegging, shakedown, and gambling rivalries that spiced the rural environs but, although they provide some added color and detail, there’s a sense that we’ve been down this road before. The lives of the Jewish mob have been limned elsewhere—most notably in Rich Cohen’s Tough Jews,” which is duly credited—prompting a feeling of déjà vu all over again.
Oddly enough, one area of criminality that the book ignores are the college basketball scandals of 1949-51, a strange omission, since this is one social phenomenon that actually started in the Catskills and was exported to New York. The story is told in Stefan Kanfer’s memorable account of the Jewish Catskills, A Summer World.
In 1986 Grossinger’s was dynamited, an event that came to symbolize the end of the Jewish Catskills. The hotel had closed four years earlier after a losing battle with demography. The fate of Grossinger’s mirrored that of the myriad hotels and bungalow colonies that had once blanketed the region. They were replaced by yoga centers, Zen retreats, ashrams, Hare Krishna colonies, and a different kind of Jew, the Ultra Orthodox. More recently, the mountains have become a retreat for a new generation of affluent homeowners, together with the accompanying gentrification of village streets that now boast gourmet coffee shops, organic grocery stores, and boutiques.
But the Borscht Belt is a tough show to follow, and perhaps one of its fading voices should have the final word. At the demolition of Grossinger’s, the tummler Lou Goldstein, who presided over the “Simon Says” routine at poolside for 37 years, observed, “I look at it with mixed emotions. It’s like watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff. In your new Cadillac.”
Mixed emotions may be an apt way to summarize this book. Although we think we may have read some of this in different form elsewhere, it puts everything—or almost everything—together in one place, providing texture, context, chronology, and a narrative framework for a region with a history as rich and abundant as the fare served at any of its storied hotels.
Jack Schwartz was formerly an assistant culture editor at The New York Times, the editor of Newsday’s book pages, and is the author of The Fine Print: My Life as a Deskman.’ He also spent a summer writing for the Grossinger’s Tatler.