Back to the Catskills

Back to the Catskills

The map of the Borscht Belt ended in Parksville, New York.

Some would say it extended to the town beyond, the elegantly named Livingston Manor, but my geography came from my friend Robert, a retired lawyer these days, who earned his summer college money in 1955 by showing movies at area hotels. I shlepped along with him and saw “The Glenn Miller Story” at least two dozen times. Not to mention many nights with “Rear Window” and “The African Queen.”

Robert’s boss sent him, equipped with projector, screen, sound system, and film — which often tore and had to be interrupted for emergency repairs — to hotel movie nights stretching from the Fallsburgs to Loch Sheldrake to White Lake, to Swan Lake, to Kiamesha Lake, to Liberty, and ending at Parksville. Those were the parameters for movie nights in the Jewish Alps.

No. Livingston Manor was not a part of the Jewish Catskills.

My home base was in Parksville, a small hamlet where I knew all the Jewish locals. Parksville’s village, the downtown, was completely Jewish-owned. Its back roads, on the other hand, consisted of long narrow roads intermingled with Jewish-run hotels and bungalow colonies, and the non-Jews who worked at various trades to service the local businesses.

At its peak, reportedly there were about 100 places of lodging in tiny Parksville alone. The rest of the Borscht Belt was home to many, many more.

If you never went to the Catskills, I hope you soon will. I have a dream that the Catskills will stage a comeback, that Jews will look for those wonderful summers, and later other seasons as well, surrounded by beautiful vistas and friendly resorts, with kosher food being the centerpiece of an enormous variety of sports activities, entertainment, and, yes, a truly fabulous place for young Jews to meet each other, and, dare I say, fall in love and marry. These days that’s a pretty lofty goal. But why not?

Could I be mistaken that each of you readers knows at least one couple who paired off at Grossingers or the Concord, or even, as my husband and I did, at the Tanzville in Parksville?

My grandmother, a woman of determination and vision, became a small hotel operator in the 1920s. She worked herself to death, but the Bauman House stayed within the family for the next six decades. That place was where my mother met my father, and where numerous other married couples met up as well. It was down the road from the Tanzville and fully responsible for my husband and me meeting each other.

We can’t return to life as it was those many years ago. But the mountains still are beautiful. The starlit nights still are romantic. The waterfalls in Parksville still roar as majestic foam pounds down onto the boulders below from the whirling upper level.

And young Jewish couples still fall in love.

I heard on the radio the other day that Atlantic City is making a giant comeback, to the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars in resort-building investments . Well, I thought, why not? It’s close to an enormous amount of people. The infrastructure is there, and these days, flying to more exotic places has lost some of its pre-pandemic luster. Why suffer through canceled flights when you can jump into your own car and be at your destination in a mere few hours?

I’ve hardly ever been a fan of Atlantic City, except for once. My late brother-in-law, Zeev Goren, came to America for his first visit about 35 years ago. He was a Romanian-Israeli who arrived with my sister and their two kids and who often had chauffeured us around Israel. It was time to return the favor, and Atlantic City was one of our chosen destinations.

We decided to visit a casino, and Zeev put an unfamiliar coin into a slot machine. No sooner had that quarter reached its magic than bells started ringing and coins started pouring out at him. This was his one and only play, and I will always remember the look on his face, and his comment, “America! What a country. They throw money at you.”

Smart guy that he was, he wasn’t convinced to try to perform that amazing feat again. He took his money and ran.

Other than that, I thought that Atlantic City was home to Miss America and lots of sand. I never enjoyed beaches. Still don’t. For me and mine, it was always summer vacations in the Catskills, and eventually winter sojourns as well. Now I’m thinking, why can’t the Catskills make a comeback too?

My grandmother Peshka was a visionary. She had grown up in a resort village in Poland known as Augustow. Perhaps that’s where she learned the hospitality business. She was smart enough to flee that pretty town as a young married woman. Some of her siblings stayed on, sadly.

Parksville too was charming, with a lively stream running through it. That was where Peshka transplanted her roots at the newly named Bauman House Hotel.

Parksville grew to be a center of Jewish hotel ownership. One after another the hotels lined up on the narrow roads, dotting the landscapes with waiters and busboys who had left places like City College for the allure of big-paying summer jobs and the chance to meet girls who worked as counselors and office help at places like the Youngs Gap, the Lash, the Sunnyland, the Ideal, the Tanzville, the Paramount, Kleins Hillside, and many, many others.

Adding to its success was Parksville’s very busy stop on the Ontario and Western Railroad. Hotel guests could take the train from New York City and be picked up at the station, reputedly the second most busy stop on the line, and be driven from the village to the hotel of their choice. The Bauman House, named for my grandparents’ last name, had a car; one of my uncles, either Charlie or Dave, would pick up the new arrivals up at that station and bring them to the hotel.

Going to the mountains, Parksville in particular, solved many problems for the visiting city folk. First and foremost they escaped the un-airconditioned tenement apartments where many of them lived. Secondly, food was always included, and the food was always elaborate and very delicious, a big change from their typical simple home meals. Mimeographed menus came with every meal, and everything was always kosher, albeit often unsupervised. Eating was so much a part of the routine that many guests didn’t partake in any other activity. Meals merged with one another and always were supplemented by a tea-room at night. Leaving there hungry was unheard of. Every meal was served by one of those college boys who earned their tips in the days when $5 per person was a generous tip for the waiter and $3 for the busboy.

As time evolved, standards did too. Outdoor pools came first. Then indoor. Then golf. Tennis. Handball of course. Casino entertainment nightly created the need for day camps and night patrol. Famous or would-be comedians very often got their start in the casinos of those hotels. In the Tanzville, where I met my husband, Jackie Mason was the previous summer’s fired social director. It was reputed that he couldn’t organize volleyball games. Too bad for him!

Hotels became fancier and fancier. Our Bauman House had communal bathrooms and outdoor showers. That was primitive indeed— but not as important to the guests as my grandmother’s cooking. The newer hotels, of course, came with private baths, which was an evolutionary process from down the hall to shared baths and showers. Every step toward modernization came with overstated advertisements that lured the guests, most of whom were loyal and would return every summer.

Some brilliant marketers decided to remain open all year, instead of Memorial Day through Labor Day. They added heat and more indoor activities and gave their clientele a full year of activities. They appealed to groups who would rent the entire premises and hold events for like-minded people to have annual get-togethers. Pesach became an attraction, and so did the High Holy Days.

But then, the inevitable! What happened? People began to discover other places, places that required flying to elaborate resorts and exotic foreign countries. Going to the Catskills became so unfashionable. So declasse.

Places closed. The mountains had lost their allure. The Borscht Belt was in decline. Some thought gambling would save it but by the time gambling ultimately was legalized it was too late. One property rebuilt and introduced gambling. It is still there but it’s a mere shadow of what was.

Which brings me back to Atlantic City, and my dream of returning to the beautiful mountains of my youth. Some say Jews are no longer interested in eating through their vacations. They want cruise ships and ski slopes and fascinating historical sites throughout the world. That’s certainly true, but I think they also would love to hop into their cars and drive a couple of hours to wonderful resorts filled with other Jews. I think they would like to see their young adult children fall in love with other young adult children. I think they would like to feel comfortable with people much like them.

I think that if Jennie Grossinger were still alive she could remember the days gone by, and rebuild, restore, and recreate them with newer generations. And I think someone with the determination and gusto of my grandmother Peshka could do it too.

I hope someone does.

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!