Borscht Belt Bungalows

Irwin Richman, Author
Irwin Richman, Author Temple University Press $65.5 (207p) ISBN 978-1-56639-585-4
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 01/01/1998
For nearly 50 years, until the late '60s, almost one million of New York's Jewish population spent summers in the Catskills, living for weeks in sparse bungalows, sometimes shoddy hotels and kuchaleins (boardinghouses with one community kitchen). For many of the year-round residents it was the time--if the weather was good--that paid for the remainder of the year. Many were Jewish farmers, who put up cottages and relished the income and the close camaraderie of kinship and cultural heritage. Richman is particularly suited to give us this historical overview, as a professor of American studies and history and as one who has made the pilgrimage to the mountains nearly every summer of his life, first to the bungalow colony of his grandparents and later as an employee at similar establishments. As spartan as the facilities were, it was treasured relaxing time for mothers whose husbands spent weekdays in the city, while children played in woods and on riverbanks, enjoying a playground entirely of the imagination. Richman talks about ""noodling around,"" walks into town and changes after WWII as day camps and entertainment in fancier places drew clientele away from smaller businesses. However, many preferred the social climate of the bungalows rather than the more formal atmosphere of hotel life. Richman is nostalgically superb in his recall of the importance of these annual gatherings in the communal context of an immigrant people, liberally quoting from fiction and nonfiction writings on this era and this place. The colonies eventually gave way to Florida and the Caribbean as air travel became commonplace. Jewish life in the Catskills has not ceased, becoming in recent years the summer destination of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews with their large families, and thriving again as an ultimate escape. ""You can't,"" notes a current colony manager, ""take ten children and go off to Europe."" If there is a fault here, it is in too much repetition. Photographs not seen by PW. (Jan.)
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