October 18, 2007
Dirty Dancing and the Jewish Catskills
By Julian Voloj
While the film Dirty Dancing is thought of almost everywhere in the world merely as a romantic dance movie, it has quite a different connotation for American Jews. “The film is an affectionate homage to the Catskills and the area’s Jewish resorts. Therefore the film is part of American Jewish culture,” says Elizabeth Edelstein, Director of Education at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
By Julain Voloj
Let’s recall the year 1987: Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, the Berlin Wall is still relatively firmly in place, Kylie Minogue is singing “Locomotion” … and then there’s Dirty Dancing
, the story of 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey), who is spending the summer of 1963 with her parents and her sister at Kellerman’s, a resort where her father works as the physician and she meets the dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), who teaches her the new “Dirty Dancing
With a profit of more than $170 million, Dirty Dancing
was the box-office blockbuster of 1987. It was absolutely a surprise hit, which is now marking its twentieth anniversary. At the web site www.dirtydancing.com
, you can celebrate the cult film’s birthday in a fitting way, by getting all kinds of knick-knacks in addition to the anniversary CD, all the way from a calendar to a keychain.
While the film is thought of almost everywhere in the world merely as a romantic dance movie, it has quite a different connotation for American Jews. “Dirty Dancing
is an affectionate homage
to the Catskills and the area’s Jewish resorts. Therefore the film is part of American Jewish culture,” says Elizabeth Edelstein, Director of Education at the Museum of Jewish Heritage
in New York, whose film archive, it goes without saying, includes a copy of Dirty Dancing
. Yes, as strange as it may seem, Dirty Dancing
is part of American Jewish culture.
The script for the film was written by Eleanor Bergstein and is based largely on her own childhood. Like many other Jewish families from New York, her family summered in the Catskills, where her father worked as a doctor in luxury hotels, and where Bergstein’s passion for dancing, which is the subject of the film, was born. The parallels to the film are obvious.
is a tribute to the late 1950s and early 1960s and the music of that period, a time when the Catskill Mountains were the
holiday recreation area for families from New York’s cramped, overpopulated Lower East Side. People escaped from the metropolitan juggernaut of New York City and found a retreat in nature in Upstate New York. Since the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the Lower East Side came from Eastern Europe, the Catskills soon acquired nicknames such as the Jewish Alps
, Solomon County (the region is located in Sullivan County), and the Borscht Belt
, as an ironic tribute to the East European beet soup and in contrast to the Christian Bible Belt
in the South.
In the so-called Borscht Belt, there were not only dozens of synagogues and hundreds of Jewish farms, but also a great many Jewish vacation resorts, such as the legendary Brown’s and Grossinger’s, where entertainment was spelled with a capital E. Stars such as Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, and Jackie Mason performed there regularly.
Although the Catskills were a twentieth-century phenomenon of the 1940s to 1960s, the (Jewish) history of the region began a hundred years earlier.
|The Woodbaume Synagogue, used today by Hassidic Jews from Brooklyn. Photo: J. Voloj|
As a result of the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, thousands of German immigrants, including many German Jews, came to America in the mid-nineteenth century and settled in New York City. Long before Little Italy or Chinatown existed, these immigrants created an ethnic neighborhood in the metropolis, where German, rather than English, was the common language. What now is the East Village was known as Kleindeutschland
(Little Germany) in those days.
Seeking to escape from the hectic life of the big city, some of the German immigrants were also drawn to Upstate New York. Among them was a group of twelve German Jews who jointly acquired 484 hectares in Upstate New York in 1837 and called their land Sholom
The land was not suitable for farming; instead, it was used by the New Yorkers as a place for relaxation and recreation, and they built a synagogue and a Jewish cemetery there. Sholom, later renamed Sholam, was the first Jewish settlement in Upstate New York.
Though many German Jews were financially successful, they did not meet with complete social acceptance everywhere. For example, membership in the Union Club, an exclusive gentlemen’s club, was barred to them because of their religious affiliation. That led to the founding, in 1852, of a Jewish gentlemen’s club: the Harmoniegesellschaft
, later renamed the Harmony Club, now located across from the Metropolitan Club on New York’s exclusive Upper East Side.
The greatest anti-Semitic controversy arose in 1877. Joseph Seligman, an influential German Jewish banker, was denied entry to the Grand Union Hotel in Sarasota Springs in Upstate New York. Although Seligman had spent the previous summer with his family in this very hotel, the new manager, Judge Henry Hilton, no longer would allow “the Hebrew” to stay at the hotel.
Although this was not the only anti-Semitic incident of this kind, Hilton’s anti-Semitism made headlines nationwide, since Seligman was a close friend of President Ulysses Grant.
Despite general condemnation of the incident, Hilton’s anti-Semitism was becoming increasingly the rule. The notorious Austin Corbin, president of the Manhattan Beach Corporation, announced in 1879 that he would not permit Jews to stay in his exclusive Coney Island Hotel, and elsewhere, too, public statements were made that Jews were not desired as customers.
As previously in the case of the Union Club, the Jewish community reacted to the openly professed anti-Semitism by creating its own accommodations. Charles Fleischmann, a Hungarian Jew from Cincinnati, purchased property in Upstate New York in 1883 and built luxurious summer homes for his family and friends there. Although nothing remains of these homes, the region in the Catskills still bears his name: Fleischmanns. Fleischmann’s land purchase took place at the beginning of the mass immigration of Orthodox Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe. More than one million Jews came to New York and settled predominantly on the city’s Lower East Side. The influx of Orthodox Ostjuden
(Eastern Jews) was viewed with mistrust by many liberal German Jews. They feared that the existing anti-Semitism might be further inflamed at the sight of these strange-looking Jews. To speed up the process of making the Eastern Jews into “real” Americans, the Educational Alliance
was created. This organization offered language courses and other programs designed to help the new immigrants adjust to life in America.
Jacob Schiff, a businessman born in Frankfurt, whose family owned Macy’s department stores, among other things, went even further by suggesting that the Yiddish-speaking immigrants settle in Texas, rather than in New York. His plan was not successful.
In 1900, the Baron de Hirsch Fund established the Jewish Agricultural Society
, which sought to bring the immigrants from the cramped, overcrowded Lower East Side out into the countryside. Since many of the immigrants had previously lived in Polish shtetls
, life in a rural area was not unfamiliar to them, and the Jewish Agricultural Society
helped many Eastern European Jews establish themselves as farmers in the Catskill region.
Soon the Jewish farms created kosher accommodations for guests, which could be used in summer by visitors from the Lower East Side. What started as a way of providing additional income soon became a lucrative business. Even the economic crisis of 1929 did not put an end to this upswing. In reaction to the Depression, the kosher full-board plan was simply turned into a room rental with a shared kitchen, a concept for which the Yiddish term kochalayn
(“cook alone”) was coined.
In the 1940s, the first large hotel operations were begun in the Catskills, which in the meantime had come to be viewed as a Jewish area, but the phenomenon of the Jewish Catskills came to an end in the mid-1960s. At the end of the film Dirty Dancing
, when Baby Houseman dances with Johnny Castle, hotel owner Kellerman says philosophically that he senses that the end of an era is approaching.
The end of this era had to do with the economic advancement of Jewish Americans. The American-born young generation, in contrast to the immigrant generation, defined itself primarily as American and longed for more exotic places than the Borscht Belt.
The last great event in the Catskills was the Woodstock music festival in 1969. Ironically, it was held not in the town of Woodstock, since the organizers were denied a permit at the last minute, but on the Jewish farm of Max Yasgur, near the town of Bethel. The name “Woodstock” was retained only because the advertising posters had already been printed.
gives us the prevailing attitude of an entire generation,” explains Elizabeth Edelstein of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. “Even if we didn’t live in that time, the film can give us a sense of an important aspect of American Jewish culture.”
The Catskills languished in obscurity for many years, but today the region is experiencing a small renaissance. Books such as Irwin Richman’s Borscht Belt Bungalows
and Oscar Israelowitz’s Welcome Back to the Catskills
document and illustrate the region’s Jewish past.
But the Jewish Catskills are not only part of the past. “Many Orthodox families from New York spend the summer here,” explains Israelowitz. Old synagogues now are used in summer by Hasidim from Brooklyn, and former summer homes function as Orthodox holiday camps.
“Of the dozens of synagogues in the Catskills, only the houses of worship in Ellenville, Woodridge, Liberty, and Monticello are in use throughout the year,” says Israelowitz, who leads guided tours through the Jewish Catskills in summer (for information: www.israelowitzpublishing.com
Although the glitz of the postwar years is now faded, the Catskills, only a two-hour drive from New York City, continue to be a popular weekend destination for New Yorkers seeking a getaway, and more and more of them are interested in the Jewish cultural heritage of the region--and not only because of Dirty Dancing