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Magic Mountains

A new history explores the making and unmaking of the Jewish Catskills.

Stephen Silverman / Alfred A. Knopf

There’s a moment in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing when Max Kellerman, owner of Kellerman’s Mountain House, a family resort in the Catskills, reminisces about the long history of his establishment. “Bubbah and Zeda serving the first pasteurized milk to the boarders, through the war years when we didn’t have any meat, through the Depression when we didn’t have anything…You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want.” It was the best summation of the slow decay of the region that had begun during the time when Dirty Dancing was set, in 1963, and had nearly finished by the time the movie premiered in the late 80s. “It feels like it’s all slipping away,” Kellerman concludes. It’s a speech that serves as one of those schmaltzy looks back at early 1960s innocence that filmmakers were so fond of in the 1980s, but it also perfectly summed up the uncertain future for a region that established the all-American vacation destination.

The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America is a sprawling new history of the mountain range that sits about 100 miles from the mouth of the Hudson River, where in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European immigrants and American Jews, many experiencing financial prosperity for the first time, spent the warmer months at resorts, summer camps, and bungalow colonies during an era when many leisure spots were closed to them. Kellerman’s was modeled partially on Brown’s, one of many enormous hotel complexes in the “Borscht Belt,” which flourished from the 1920s to the 1970s. It was a time that helped reshape American entertainment for a new age and also saw American Jews rise from second-class citizens to a new, albeit still uncomfortable, position of acceptance. Brown’s decline began in the late 1960s; by the 1980s, most of the area’s largest hotels had closed, and in 2012 the abandoned Brown’s burned to the ground, a fulfillment of the fictional prophecy of Max Kellerman. The rise and slow fall of the Catskills mirrored what Americans had come to expect out of their leisure time, with warm beaches and hot deserts and fancier resorts replacing the family-owned businesses in the mountains. But for American Jews in the twentieth century, the creation of the Catskills was as necessary as the leaving of it. 

Although there had been Jews living and owning property in the region since 1773, when a lessee known as “Jacob the Jew” took control of land near Woodstock, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that those who had escaped the shtetls of Eastern Europe made their way first from Ellis Island, then through crowded New York City streets, and finally to the region’s peaceful farms, an area similar to their homeland. In 1883, the Hungarian-born Charles Fleischmann, founder of Fleischmann’s Yeast, (“the present-day equivalent of an industrial, biotech empire,” explains a Fleischmann descendant) purchased 60 acres of land, thinking the mountain air would be good for his respiratory problems. While the Catskills boasted plenty of mountaintop hotels that were popular among people of means, they were reserved for “the Wall Street and Tammany Hall power brokers who partook of the rarefied Victorian elegance at the Christian resorts.” The gentile hotel owners banded together, producing a sort of gentleman’s agreement summed up in 1877 by the owner of the Grand Union Hotel, Judge Henry Hilton (no relation to the hotelier), instituting the rule that “no Israelites should be permitted to stop at this hotel.” Several more hotels followed suit with similar slogans: “No Hebrews Need Apply” and “Jews and Dogs Are Not Welcome.”

The Mohonk Mountain house maintained a Christians-only policy and shared information about guests with other Catskills hotels.
Stephen Silverman / Alfred A. Knopf

By the turn of the century, a new sign would start to appear outside of up-and-coming hotels: “Dietary Laws Observed.” As Jews slowly started to buy up inexpensive property in the area, families realized they could make a living by entertaining fellow Jews who couldn’t afford to move out of the city, but who wanted a little time to relax in the country. The Grossingers owned a popular Lower East Side restaurant that served kosher food, and like Fleischmann before him, Selig Grossinger, suffered from fatigue living and working in the city and saw the Catskills as the perfect place to resettle. Grossinger was of more modest means than the wealthy Fleischmann, and he purchased 35 acres of land in the town of Ferndale, moving his entire family to a landscape that looked just like his birthplace in the Austrian Empire.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the Catskills had been developed in large part by a number of Jewish gangsters and bootleggers, some of whom, like Waxey Gordon, filtered the money they made into new resorts and hotels. During the World War II, Grossinger’s would become the gold standard, other resorts, including The Concord, Hotel Brickman, and many others, prospered as a playground for upwardly-mobile Jews who came to enjoy fresh air, golf, dancing, great food, and most of all, entertainment. The list of comedians who tested their material out on the notoriously tough crowds is like a who’s who of twentieth-century American comedy: Jack Benny, Joan Rivers, Shecky Greene, Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller, and nearly every big name from the vaudeville circuit, radio, the early days of television, and the Yiddish theater.

The Stardust Room at the Nevele, 1969.
Stephen Silverman / Alfred A. Knopf

Ellis Island may have been where many Jews started their paths to citizenship, but the Catskills provided Jews with an opportunity to feel more authentically American—it was where Jews went to get away from the city and be themselves, away from gentiles, and maybe most importantly, away from other Jews who didn’t wish to familiarize themselves with the ways of their new country. The Catskills may not have been a training ground for assimilation, but it gave Jews a better opportunity to see what life was like away from the crowded streets and prying eyes of their New York neighbors, to cut loose and have fun. The Golden Age of the Catskills also took place during a time that saw more American Jews assimilating into their country, no longer observing kosher dietary laws, marrying outside of the faith, and in some cases, changing their names to sound less ethnic; old world traditions were left behind in the streets of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. 

However, for the next generation, Europe was no longer the place to escape but rather the destination of well-to-do gentiles; the charms of the Catskills were nothing to those of Paris or London. “Immune to their parents’ values, including those formed by tragic memories of Europe that might have discouraged them from visiting there, a younger generation ... sought different outlets for spending their leisure time,” the authors explain; the younger generation had the means to travel and was curious to explore the world beyond the pool at Kutsher’s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 contributed to the decline as well: hotels that had previously shunned Jewish families were no longer able to say who could and couldn’t be guests. The Catskills had given many Jews a place to assess their comfort level as Americans, how much they were willing to keep and what they were willing to give up in order to gain wider admission into American society.

The ruins of the pool at Grossinger’s, which closed in 1982.
Marisa Scheinfeld / Alfred A. Knopf

This newfound acceptance was a large part of why the Catskills started seeing a decline in tourists beginning in the 1960s. In an attempt to lure new visitors, some hotels enlarged their nightclubs and added tennis courts; the Nevele resort, which had been strictly kosher for over 70 years, started serving bacon, shrimp cocktails, and lobster. In 1985, after the family sold the property, Grossinger’s was shut down, and while the golf course remains open, the ruins of the resort—still with many of its original details, including poolside lounge chairs—have become their own attraction. 

Even though it was no longer a major tourist destination, people still kept moving to the Catskills, seeking peace, quiet and fresh air. Some were hippies lured there by the utopian promise of the late-1960s—the Woodstock music festival was held in the town of Bethel. Others have been lured by the capitalist promise of the late-2010s—fuel companies have started trying to lease land around the area, hoping to tap into the region’s natural resources through fracking, and New York state approved plans in December 2014 for a resort casino near Monticello costing upwards of $750 million. And then there’s the claim of a Manhattan “nightlife guru” who just this past June proclaimed to the New York Post that the area once known as the Jewish Alps was now “the new Montauk.” He might not be wrong: look up the Catskills on Instagram and you’ll find thousands of pictures of beautiful 20 and 30-somethings basking in the splendor of the natural surroundings, wearing Pendleton flannels, hiking boots, and perfectly-slouched beanies. 

Jews never totally left the Catskills; the close proximity to New York City makes it the perfect place for dozens of Orthodox summer camps, and recently, a plan to build 396 townhouses for Hasidic Jews in the small village of Bloomingburg, which has nearly as many citizens living in it year-round, has run into heavy opposition for locals, one of whom told The New York Times in 2014: “It’s no longer my village...It’s a Hasidic village.” Shut out of the New York housing market, the Satmar community was no longer able to find affordable apartments in their Brooklyn neighborhoods, and the Catskills have once again provided an inexpensive solution. It’s a strange addition to the latest chapter, but whatever the future holds, for better or worse, people are returning to the Catskills once again.