The peak of Jewish life at the Catskills probably came in the 1950s, when millions were shelled out for new construction, and guests spent $55 million in a single summer. But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance decades later — the Catskills got hip.
I was at the National Museum of American Jewish History not long ago, and there on the second floor, in a glass case preserved as if it were a treasure from Tutankhamun, was a keychain (with key attached) from the legendary Grossinger’s hotel in the Catskills. There was a menu, too (“No fried orders on the Sabbath”), and a brochure titled “THIS IS GROSSINGER’S.”
Seeing these items, as well as others from the Catskills, I was suffused by a tearful nostalgia; I could smell the clean air and the fresh-cut grass, could hear the long tweet of the lifeguard’s whistle over the splashes and shouts of the children.
Mind you, I was entitled to none of these memories, as I’m not yet 50, and entirely missed the heyday of Grossinger’s and its ilk — I’ve never even been to the Catskills.
But such is the hold the Borscht Belt has on the popular Jewish imagination — thanks, in no small part, to the movie Dirty Dancing. And while misty-eyed sentimentalism is not particular to Jews, boy oh boy, are we good at it.
The peak of Jewish life at the Catskills probably came in the 1950s, when millions were shelled out for new construction, and guests spent $55 million in a single summer, according to The Forward. But it was not to last.
The 1960s would transform the region, as other vacation venues removed ethnic restrictions, and air travel became increasingly accessible.
Jewish families began to go elsewhere for vacation — to go abroad, even — forcing gigantic resorts like Grossinger’s and the Concord to shift emphasis. No longer did they hire tummlers to amuse the crowd; up to one-third of the visitors weren’t Jewish anyway. (A tummler might have amused a non-Jewish crowd, but perhaps not in the way that was intended.)
In 1986, the Grossinger family sold the resort, effectively putting an end to the dance- and music-besotted Jewish idyll in the mountains of New York.
A funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance, though — the Catskills got hip.
Starting a couple years ago, headlines about the Catskills changed from “Ruined Splendor” to “Not Your Granny’s Vacay” and “The Catskills Gets Its Groove Back.”
New York magazine, in 2014, pointed to “a new crew of city dwellers heading there for the utter, rural remoteness … and to join the growing, tight-knit community of expat ‘hicksters.’” Last year, The New York Times put the Catskills on its list of “52 Places to Go in 2015,” noting, “The Catskills are being reshaped by a new generation of fresh-air-seeking urbanites.”
In many ways, the beauty of the Catskills is the same today as it’s always been. There’s a Thoreau-like satisfaction to be taken in the fragrant pine forests, the slow-running streams, the cascading waterfalls and miles of trails winding through mountain meadows and farmland. Peace and quiet and an unambiguous remove from car horns and TV screens and all the pressures of modern life.
At the same time, it’s not so lonely that you’ll turn into Richard Proenneke: You can emerge from a sun-streaked day of fly-fishing or walking in the woods and shower up at your boutique hotel for dinner at a Vogue-approved Italian restaurant or an eatery that features locally sourced ingredients. Breweries, wineries and vineyards abound. (There’s a reason Condé Nast Traveler called the Catskills “New York’s new culinary retreat.”)
There are plenty of things to do in summer, from daylong music festivals and agricultural fairs to a funky street parade where people dress in costumes and flank handmade floats. There are scenic drives beneath covered bridges that’ll take you to arts collectives or farmers markets. There’s even a picturesque bike race called Tour of the Catskills, which may not be the Tour de France, but does feature a frighteningly challenging climb called Devil’s Kitchen. The more adventurous can go whitewater rafting or give ziplining a go. Be as active or inactive as you please.
In a way, the decline of the resorts-studded Catskills broadens the aperture: People who went and stayed in one place likely knew little of the area’s breadth and depth.
These days, the New York State Department of Economic Development divides Catskills vacation packages by region (Great Western Catskills, Great Northern Catskills, Sullivan County, Ulster County), but it seems like each and every county and town offers its own promotions and events. Different towns have different identities, too: Saugerties does not equal Bethel does not equal Phoenicia.
All-inclusive resorts do still exist, which is particularly nice if you like to golf, but you can just as easily get a cottage in the woods, stay in a luxury hotel, go “glamping” or stay at a working farm (note: you’ll be put to work, so dust off those Wellies).
A new generation of innkeepers has gotten quite creative: The Roxbury Hotel fulfills childhood fantasies with rooms inspired by popular culture, including one designed like the inside of the bottle from I Dream of Jeannie. There’s also a hotel with a Bob Dylan theme.
Though none of these especially evoke the Grossinger’s experience, it may be time to create a new tradition of Jewish Catskills tourism.
Who knows? Perhaps one day, decades from now, dog-eared maps and hotel swipe keys from today’s Catskills will grace a museum case somewhere. I’ll try not to get too misty-eyed when I see them.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 215-832-0747