What seems like eons ago when I was a tyke, my maternal grandmother schlepped (Yiddish to drag or pull) me from our home in Brooklyn to the Catskills in New York state, where we took a room in a farmhouse and my grandmother cooked our meals there. Usually, there were quite a few other women also cooking over a number of gas burners in the kitchen. I learned that the place we stayed at was called a Kochalayn (Yiddish for “cooking alone”). I remember the refrigerator containing bags and boxes with people’s names written on them in Yiddish. Some people would join together to eat, but each had his or her own different Kosher food. Voila, such was the money-making use of a farmhouse on a usually non-producing farm.
Historically, the Borscht Belt, also known as the Jewish Alps, was settled primarily by New York city Jews in Ulster, Orange and Sullivan counties in New York state from the 1920s to the 70s. This was the place to go to escape New York city’s summer heat and congestion. The word borscht is a Yiddish word for a beet-based soup brought here by Ashkenazi Jews. For those disinclined to stay at a Kochalayn, there were options of hotels, bungalow colonies and summer camps.
Most people who traveled year after year to the Catskills had their favorite large, medium or small hotel to stay at. The two biggies were Grossinger’s and the Concord. The meal experience usually took on as much importance as the entertainment provided in the hotels. Stuffing oneself with food was a big part of the experience. Grossinger’s was kosher and the Concord served kosher-style food. If you desired, you could have two or three main dishes and desserts. Some people argued that so much was eaten because they starved in Europe, and here the Depression kept them as hungry. For anyone who was a fresser (Yiddish for big eater) rather than a nosher (Yiddish for snacker or small portion eater), Grossinger’s provided a U-shaped path in front of their main entrance for an after-eating or after show shaptsir (Yiddish for walk). Perhaps a short walk could prevent a heart attack from either eating too much or laughing too hard from a comedian’s joke.
Additionally, most of the hotels had male and female tummlers — a Yiddish word describing a man or woman who was a prankster, live wire, social director or group leader — who kept things going by getting people up and into activities. From my recollection, Simon Says, a group activity that depended on listening ability, was the most popular activity.
Furthermore, the bragging about one hotel or another often centered on the evening’s entertainment and star. Some of the stars who started their careers in the Borscht Belt hotels were Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett (who lived around the corner from me on 15th avenue in Boro Park, Brooklyn, and answered to Boach), Shelly Winters, Fanny Brice, Mel Brooks, Phyllis Diller and so many more.
As I recall, the movie Dirty Dancing provided audiences with a somewhat realistic idea of a bungalow colony with the dancing, plays and other amenities. I think back to watching the movie where a woman was looking for a man she thought was passionate about her. She ventured to the bungalow row where the help lived, and there was a white towel on his door knob. As she reached for the door knob to open the door, I uncontrollably jumped up and yelled, “No!” Everyone around looked at me startlingly and thought I was nuts. In the lore of “making out” at that time and in that place, a towel on the door denoted a couple was in flagrante delicto and you should not enter the room, but leave.
Depending on the colony, you cooked in your bungalow, or, in some cases, the main house kitchen that sometimes acted as a Kochalayn. One of the undertakings of someone staying at a bungalow colony was to try to sneak into the show at one of the bigger hotels. Up to World War II, an important reason for parents to visit the Borscht Belt was to find a mate for a daughter or son. At that time, there was still an emphasis on the mate being of the same religion. Post World War II, however, there was more emphasis for their sons and daughters to find their own mate. Interestingly, for many of their children, a mate’s religion became less important. The popularity of the Catskills as a place to summer as well as a place to send one’s child or children to a resident or sleep-away camp began to lose its charm and importance when post-World War II city people began moving to the suburbs. Obviously, you could save the cost too.
In sum, with our need for affordable Vineyard housing as noted recently by the Edgartown planning board’s long public hearing, maybe some creative thinkers and builders could update the Borscht Belt summer Kochalayn concept to help solve some of the Vineyard’s need for affordable housing. To really consider the Kochalayn concept as a viable solution, one would have to be knowledgeable about the local zoning regulations, the respective town boards involved in such an endeavor, and, perhaps, related road association bylaws.
Nevertheless, at least by reading this reminiscence, you learned about the past of an earlier group of immigrants who came to America, summered in the Catskills of New York state and by prospering, broke with the need for the experience and eventually, for the most part, stopped going. Just as World War II veterans are passing away, so too are those primarily Jewish New Yorkers, along with the waiters, busboys, dishwashers, comedians and athletes who entertained them, and the tummlers who kept everyone moving as they participated in and lived that Borscht Belt experience.
Herbert Foster is a trustee of the Edgartown Free Public Library, tri-author of Martha’s Vineyard in World War II and completing the manuscript for Ghetto to Ghetto: Yiddish and Jive in Everyday Life.