Sunday, August 13, 2017

Catskill Memories

To my knowledge our family when I was a youngster never stayed at Grossinger’s or the Concord, the two dueling grande dames of the Catskills serving Jews seeking refuge from sultry summer days in Brooklyn and Queens or looking to spin a few circles in an ice rink or slush down a slope in winter.

We stayed instead at Brown’s where Jerry Lewis once was a busboy. And at the Granit. And the Pines. And the Pineview. And the Nevele. All venerable Borscht Belt hotels during the heyday of ethnic entertainment getaways in the 1950s and 1960s.

Those were my pre adolescent years. At least once each spring we would pack the car for a weekend in “the mountains,” the pleasureland of eastern European Jews seeking shtick, sunshine and lots and lots of food. (For a change of pace, sometimes we would go to resorts in Lakewood, NJ. It was on one of those alternate trips that my sister Lee, two years older, admonished me to tell anyone who asked that she was 16, not 14.)

To get to the “Borscht Belt” (for the uninitiated, borscht is Yiddish for beet soup, an acquired taste among eastern Europeans, served either warm or, more often, chilled, usually with a dollop of sour cream swimming in the middle of the bowl), we would drive from Brooklyn through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, waving to the policemen assigned to patrol the walkway along the tiled tunnel, up through Manhattan along the cobblestoned West Side Highway into the Henry Hudson Parkway to Westchester. Passing the Hawthorne Circle signified we were halfway there. 

We would cross the Hudson at the Bear Mountain Bridge then head up Old Route 17 to whichever town was home to the hotel of our moment. Along the way we would pass billboards for each hotel, the most memorable being that of the Brown’s featuring a huge caricature of a laughing Jerry Lewis in profile.

The weekends did not happen haphazardly. They were the brainchild of Mr. and Mrs. Clubs of our temple or Hebrew school. Bonding times for families, though to be honest, I do not recall any of my temple friends or classmates ever showing up for these weekends. (One weekend in the Catskills, though, was different. Harry Weissman’s bar mitzvah was celebrated at the Pioneer Hotel in Greenfield Park. Unlike the other hotels, the Pioneer was strictly orthodox. It was there I first encountered the novelty of the sabbath elevator. It automatically stopped at every floor. For some reason rabbis had absolved one from the sin of riding in such a conveyance on the sabbath because it was self propelled.)

Back at “normal” hotels without friends to play with, my brother, sister and I would roam the grounds, play some ping pong, maybe get included in a father-son softball game, though our dad never played, or watched our parents play poker. Essentially, we waited around until the next meal which was served in a large, loud dining hall. Your waiter could bring you anything on the extensive menu, as many appetizers or entrees or desserts as you desired. All accompanied by soft, round, sweetly delicious egg or onion rolls.

At night everyone would repair to the show room. You’d sit at rectangular tables set like wheel spokes emanating away from the rounded stage where a singer and a comedian performed. Many were quite good but invariably too many of the comedians’ punch lines were spoken in Yiddish. While the rest of the audience exploded in laughter my siblings and I were left in wonder and ignorance.

Grossinger’s and the Concord were too expensive for our parents’ crowd. Like other hotels in the mountains their time passed, though as The New York Times reported there is hope of a revival (

I finally made it to the Concord as a college freshman during a winter break ski weekend. I discovered skiing was not for me.

Years later Gilda and I almost registered there but turned away after being turned off by a yoga instructor more fit to be a sumo wrestler. For a more complete tale of our attempt at a romantic Catskill weekend click the link to my borscht-belted blog entry