Catskills conference recalls Jewish history

By Lisa Schiffman

Before Carnival Cruise Lines, the Hamptons and Internet dating services there was White Roe Lake, a swinging singles resort in Monticello, one of more than 500 hotels and bungalow colonies that made up the Jewish Catskills, known to many as the “Borscht Belt.”

“Some of the worst and best times of my life were spent there,” said John Weiner, who spoke about his experiences as the owner’s son at the White Roe Lake, at the 8th Annual History of The Catskills Conference held last month at Kutsher’s Country Club.

The Catskills Institute, which organized the conference, is a historical society created to preserve the legacy of the Jewish Catskills. Eastern European immigrant Jews, arriving from Europe in the late 19th century to the overcrowded and disease-ridden tenements of the Lower East Side, discovered a summer paradise in the verdant landscape and clean air of the Catskill mountains.

Barred from fashionable gentile resorts, they opened their own. Humble boarding houses serving fresh produce and pitchers of milk to its guests evolved into a resort complex of more than 1,000 hotels and bungalow colonies that in its heyday between 1920 and 1970 catered to more than 1 million visitors.

Robert Dadras, originally from Douglaston, attended this year’s conference and spoke of the future of the Catskills. An architect, who now lives in Sullivan County, Dadras works with the Sullivan County Planning Department and is a co-founder of the Liberty Museum. He is currently working to assemble a permanent exhibit on Catskills resorts.

“The area is evolving, changing. The Catskills haven’t died. A small spirit of the big hotels is still around Kutsher’s, Swan Lake, and the Paramount Hudson Valley resort. There is a life cycle,” he said.

The area is being revitalized, buildings are being restored and new shops are opening, he said. “In a couple of years, the next South Beach will be Sullivan County.”

In its heyday, the Catskills were “the place” for Jews from New York — families or singles.

White Roe Lake, in Livingston Manor, was unique in that it catered exclusively to singles, aged 18 to 35, Weiner said. His father bought the place in 1919 from Emory Keene, who ran it as a farm and boarding house. Keene had a sign that read “Hebrews and consumptives not allowed.” The next year, Weiner said, the sign became “Kosher.”

In the 1930s, for between $29.50 and $75 a week, which included three meals a day, all sports and Danny Kaye at night, you got a complete vacation, Weiner said. “White Roe made it possible for working class people to get a vacation. People saved all year for that one-week vacation,” Weiner said.

“Its amazing how many marriages came out of this,” he said. He spoke of how his father gave free weekends to married couples who met at the resort.

The resort featured tennis, handball, a basketball court, and swimming and boating on the lake. In the afternoons there was dancing on the front lawn, Weiner said. At night, there was entertainment.

“We had a regular stock company of actors, including Edward Trevor and Katherine Locke, who later became well-known performers.” Once a week a water show was held.

Legendary comedian Danny Kaye arrived at the White Roe in 1931 at the age of 18. Part of a singing combo, his partner would play the ukulele while Kaye would sing. Soon he expanded his act to include starring in the Saturday night revue and conducting the orchestra on Sunday nights. Kaye did all sorts of crazy antics to amuse the guests, such as being chased by the butcher around the resort with a meat cleaver before jumping into the pool.

Other entertainers who got their start at the White Roe included June Havoc, Mimi Benzell and Betty Garret.

Weiner recalls one night when his father decided that the guests should wear formal clothes for dinner every night (Saturday night people dressed up.)

“One time, around 1938, my father makes an announcement on the loudspeaker that men need to wear a shirt, tie and jacket to dinner. That night every man had on a shirt, tie, jacket and no pants!”

Conference attendees were enlightened by Irwin Richman’s encyclopedic knowledge of Sullivan County during a three-hour bus tour during which he pointed out former hotel sites and bungalow colonies, some in ruins, others taken over now by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. Richman, who is the author of “Borscht Belt Bungalows,” has spent 64 summers in Sullivan County, where his family owned a bungalow colony in Woodbourne.

The bus made a stop there. Richman’s mother still lives in the main house, though the bungalows are gone. Though overgrown with grass, the cement patio was still visible. It served as the dance hall and party center, Richman said. The house is notable for its antique collection of refrigerators in the four separate kitchens built there when the colony was in operation. “My mother still uses them all,” he said.

The Hayden House, where the 1987 film “Sweet Lorraine” was shot, stood eerily empty. Now converted into a school for the developmentally disabled was the Flagler Hotel, a Catskills showplace where Moss Hart directed elaborate musical productions in the 1930s.

In the resorts and bungalow colonies of the Jewish Catskills, Eastern European Jews found a haven where they could relax and unwind in the company of other Jews who shared the same cultural background and language. Bunny Grossinger, who married into the Grossinger family, spoke at the conference about the qualities that made Grossinger’s, and its celebrity owner, Jenny, special.

“It was not just a hotel. Grossinger’s was an American Jewish Embassy and Jenny was its ambassador. It had a warmth and sense of family,” she said.

Those with vivid recollections of Catskill summers were drawn to the conference from as far away as Miami and California. “I swam at the bridge by the Neversink,” mused Len Shenkin, from Northridge, Calif., whose family owned a small bungalow colony nearby. Stanley Bleeker, of Brooklyn, who spent childhood summers at bungalow colonies, is an avid collector of Catskill memorabilia and owns a summer home in the area.

Judy Kreutzer’s family owned the Karmel Hotel, in Loch Sheldrake. She spoke of shuttling between schools in Miami and Hurleyville, where she lived during the “season,” which ran April through November. Kreutzer brought with her old photographs of the hotel — pictures of couples dancing in the casino, men in suits and women in bouffant strapless dresses recalled a more formal era.

Interest in the conference has picked up this year, said Sal Kluger of Simcha Sales, who has worked at previous conventions selling Jewish books, tapes and other “tchotchkes.”

“People are here because they are searching for their roots, looking for connections to their past. These are the grandchildren who want to know more about Bubbe and Zayde’s place,” he said.

“The Jewish Catskills is important to remember for its social and historical significance,” said Phil Brown, co-founder and president of the Catskills Institute. The organization works to preserve artifacts such as old photos and hotel memorabilia that is kept by the American Jewish Historical Society for use by synagogues and other research and educational institutions. The Institute also maintains a Web site and publishes a newsletter.

“Our work touches a lot of hearts,” Brown said.