The Catskills – A Jewish Vacation Destination

Our last couple posts have explored Jewish Heritage Sites here on the Lower East Side: our Eldridge St. Synagogue, Seward Park and Stieblach Row.

But now, let’s escape the chaos and clamor of the city and take a trip back to another locale at the center of the Jewish-American experience: a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains!

Fresh air, wide open spaces and, of course, enough embarrassing family photos to last a lifetime! A trip to the Catskills offered this and so much more to city-dwellers needing an escape. The mid-20th century was the heyday of the Catskills as a premier vacation destination for New York Jews. Filled with resorts that catered to individuals of all ages, memories of lounging by the pool, leisurely afternoon walks and a delicious kosher lunch at The Concord are all staples of the resort region.

The Catskills

But how, you ask, did the Catskills come to be such a popular destination for the Jewish community?
There is no simple answer, but let’s look at a few key factors. With the post-World War II economic boom, the concept of “going on vacation” became a feasible reality for many American families. Yet, at the time, the Jewish community was still facing social discrimination. Restrictions based on ethnicity barred Jews from many mainstream country clubs and resorts. Still hungry for the opportunity to escape the city, Jewish owned establishments began to pop up in the Catskills at the beginning of the 20th century. Grossinger’s, one of the most famous, became so popular that by time it closed in ‘86, it had its own airstrip and post office!

Like the Museum at Eldridge Street, Jewish resorts in the Catskills represent an intersection between being Jewish and being American. As sociologist Phil Brown states, “ In ‘the mountains,’ Jews of Eastern European descent could have a proper vacation and become Americanized while preserving much of their Jewish culture. They imported their music, humor, vaudeville revue style, cuisine, language, and world views. These vacation spots were not merely resorts – they were miniature societies shaped by the vacationers’ urban culture.” – Take My Memories, Please: Keeping the Catskills Alive

So, what better way to remember the ambiance of a New York summer in the country than by joining us here at the Museum at Eldridge Street on May 16 for our very own Evening at the Catskills! Show off (or brush up on) your Simon Says technique. Indulge in a creamsicle while trying your hand at a game of canasta. Or enjoy the sweet sounds of pianist Steve Sterner and Shane Baker’s vaudevillian theatrics while you wait in anticipation for the caller to pull B9, the only number keeping you from a BINGO! And who knows, maybe you’ll even meet your own Johnny Castle and truly have the Time of Your Life.

To learn more about the history of vacationing in the Catskills here are a few useful resources:

The Catskills Institute, Borscht Belt Memories & The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt

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