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Jewish Women in the Catskills

Lawrence Bush
August 1, 2003

by Ruth Lehrer
Photo of Catskills SignSummer in the Catskills, circa 1935. In a crowded bus, a hired hack, or Uncle Benny’s new DeSoto, my family escaped from our hot apartment in the Bronx to the healing luft (air) of “The Mountains.” We trekked up Old Route 17, stopping when any of us kids became carsick, or for lunch at the Red Apple Rest. For over 70 years, small shtetl-like villages in Sullivan and Ulster Counties such as Monticello, Loch Sheldrake, Ellenville, and Liberty were summer homes to Jewish vacationers.
Mama first sampled a kokhaleyn (an “Ameridish,” i.e., American Yiddish word for a rooming house with communal cooking facilities) in Fleischmanns, high in the mountains, where she shared a huge kitchen with more than a dozen other women.
“It wasn’t easy, each of us scrambling for a gas burner or a place at the sink,” she repeated over the years,

but the luft was better up there. It was during the Great Depression, and inexpensive, maybe $25 or $50 for the whole summer. After that, I found a small hotel in South Fallsburg, the same money for a two-week stay. We dressed up every night, our meals were served to us, it was luxury. But I wanted to get out of the city for the whole summer, so we ended up in a bungalow colony.

Our small family, along with aunts, uncles and dozens of cousins, spent eight glorious summers in one- and two-bedroom white clapboard bungalows, set on a forest-rimmed clearing in Woodbourne, each with a large, screened-in porch. It was women and children only, those weekdays in the summer Catskills — except for my grandfather, afflicted with polio and confined to his armchair on the porch. Only during a week-long vacation stay were husbands and fathers to be seen midweek on our campus.

I suspect it was not only the luft that brought the women to the mountains. They appeared to enjoy their brief escape from traditional housewife roles. They read, had intimate discussions, skinny-dipped in the Neversink River, and played cards. Rarely had I seen my mother laugh before, or with free time on her hands. Meals were simple: vegetarian dishes like noodles with cheese and bowls of huckleberries with sour cream. Mothers and children went berry-picking most days and took long walks on country roads into the nearby villages to shop. Sometimes we even dared to hitch-hike.
Yet my warmest memories center around preparing for the weekend: cleaning the bungalow, helping my mother shell peas and chop onions, washing my hair and putting on my best clothes. It was Friday, and the Daddies were coming up from the city, bearing bialys, challah and an assortment of tchotchkes. The aroma of mandel bread and blueberry pies baking in the oven filled the air. The early 1940s were much the same, overshadowed by the absence of our male cousins gone off to war — and the emerging news about family left behind in Russia and Poland slowly entering our consciousness.
I never saw the elegant, resort side of the Catskills — the Nevele, the Concord, Grossingers, Kutshers, Brown’s, with their indoor-outdoor swimming pools, golf courses, tennis courts, ice-skating rinks, and nightclubs — until after I was married in 1948. For our honeymoon, or a week’s vacation or a weekend getaway, we’d pull out the dressy clothes that we wore at our friends’ weddings and head up to a Catskill hotel. In the ’50s and ’60s, when our children were growing up, we introduced them to our vacation destination. Around the same time, a triple whammy — air conditioning, women going back to work, and cheap air fares — began to have an impact on the Catskills. We and many of our friends and relatives abandoned the mountains. By the time my children were teenagers, they went off to summer camp in the Berkshires and we flew off to Europe for sightseeing vacations.

Thriving villages became ghosts of their former selves, depressed and depressing. In its heydey, the area was blanketed by six hundred hotels. Today, they number fewer than twenty. By the 1990s, most had succumbed to lightning fires, bankruptcy and the real-estate market. A few still stand as empty shells awaiting redevelopment.
More than five hundred bungalow colonies existed in the 1950s and ’60s. Now about two hundred remain, some converted to co-ops. Seniors from Florida come for the summer, and some bungalows are occupied by singles seeking less expensive alternatives to the Hamptons or Fire Island. Most have been bought by Brooklyn’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities; the town of Woodbourne, my old stomping grounds, has particularly been revitalized by their presence during the summer and early autumn season. During the week, Hasidic women in long sleeves and opaque stockings can be seen strolling the hot country roads with their children. I imagine them enjoying their midweek summer break, much as my mother did, with husbands and fathers back in the city.

Ruth Lehrer is a coordinator with Sullivan County Community College Elderhostel. A retired New York City elementary school teacher, she has had personal essays published in the New York Times, Hadassah, Newsday, and numerous other publications.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.