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Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memories of Catskill Summers.

Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memories of Catskill Summers. By Irwin Richman. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. vii + 242 pp.

It is possible, but highly unlikely, that someday in the far off future there will be no more bungalow colonies left in the Catskills Mountains. But if indeed the bungalows disappear, let us visualize archeology students uncovering a sign that says "Namark's Bungalow Colony. Pool, Casino, Day Camp." What would they make of it? Not to worry, the magnum opus of bungalow colony life, Irwin Richman's wonderful Borscht Belt Bungalows, contains everything they will need, from architectural drawings of actual bungalows, to the history and economics of this remarkable small business enterprise, to rich descriptions of the vibrant life of this summer world.

Catskills hotels, and particularly the grander ones, have received the greatest share of attention from commentators on the Catskills scene. Richman's book, like Pamela Gray's screenplay for the 1999 film A Walk on the Moon, has altered that hotel chauvinism by reclaiming for the bungalow colony its well deserved place. Richman, a professor of American studies at Pennsylvania State University, explores the history and the lives of the bungalow colony owners and renters in a combination of fond personal remembrance and astute scholarly observation.

This unique Catskill resort setting featured a collection of small buildings of two or three rooms (though sometimes larger bungalows were built) that were typically situated in a large circle or semicircle around a green. People rented for the entire summer, July 4th to Labor Day (sometimes stretched a little bit), and cooked their own meals in a cramped kitchen. Facilities varied both according to time (in the earliest years, there were few) and size (the smallest colonies had fewer). The earliest colonies were either in walking distance of a river (especially the Neversink), or the proprietor would convey people to one; pools were a later addition. A handball court was common, a basketball court and baseball field less so, and a tennis court even rarer. An entertainment building, the "casino," graced colonies that reached a critical mass of, say, 15 bungalows. A smaller colony might have a movie once a week, with amateur entertainment on other nights. Many of the larger colonies (some exceeded a hundred bungalow) provided bands, comics, and singers on weekend nights.

The owner often had a grocery store and rented out the coffee shop, or "concession," to an operator for the season. In the medium-size colony of approximately 30 bungalows where I once worked in the coffee shop, I observed daily softball and basketball games, endless card playing and mah-jongg, a day camp of dozens of children, and a set of relationships among people who created a community that summer as they often had for many summers before.

Richman informs us that bungalows originated in the farmhouses that sprung up in the earlier decades of the century, when Jews tried to farm to rocky land. Poultry and eggs did become successful agricultural products, but the farmers early on found boarders offered more reliable income sources. Boarding houses grew larger, often becoming kuchalayns where people stayed in one room and shared the communal cooking facilities. The bungalow colony was the logical culmination of the process, and one can still see colonies where the original boarding house stands amidst the smaller bungalows. Historians of the Catskills resorts estimate that 500 such colonies existed, a bit fewer than the total number of hotels. The roads of Sullivan and Ulster Counties bulged with these colonies, and today a goodly number remain alongside the ruins of even more. Hasidic and other Orthodox colonies are the dominant remainders today, but secular colonies still exist, identifiable by their pools without tall fences. For $90 in the Depression, and $300 to $400 in the 1960s, people could escape the hot pavement and tenements of New York for "the country." A number of hotels ran adjacent bungalow colonies, and renters had the option of paying extra to use hotel athletic and entertainment facilities.

Can one be provocative in such a book? Richman takes up a dialogue with those who believe that hotels and bungalow colonies housed vastly different classes of people. His data show that better-off people often chose to stay in bungalow colonies for good reasons: they liked the ease of life on their own schedule, the informality of dress, the summer-long close community. This feeling of community comes through powerfully in Borscht Belt Bungalows, and it is complemented by Richman's integration of his own personal remembrances of growing up in the family colony. Richman's recollection of Catskill summers from both a boy's and an adult's memories yields a particularly flavorful cast to the history and sociology of this summer paradise. There is innocence and wonderment, paired with wise knowledge of how the whole milieu clicked. After all, Richman draws much insight from his grandfather's business of making mortgages to colony owners, as well as his own experience running day camps in other bungalow colonies.

The routine activities of children, teens, and adults come through with fond remembrance. Richman helps us visualize the frenetic packing of a summer's worth of supplies, the travails of transportation, the return of the husbands on the weekends, the cooking of traditional Jewish culinary favorites, the day camp crafts and games of the children. Abundant photographs illuminate the everyday life. As one brought up in the Catskills resort culture, I see how true to life is Richman's tale. Indeed, Borscht Belt Bungalows has sliced through my personal hotel-centered perspective. But I can also see that the story would make sense to one never initiated into it.

The recreation and culture of American Jews cannot be understood without a knowledge of how they summered for generations in the Catskills, and Borscht Belt Bungalows fills in an important chunk of that history. It is tender and informative, humorous and serious, and pairs the child's memories with the adult's longer vision. Richman's book is a delight. His powerful conviction that this summer world must be fully documented in manifold ways enabled the skilled historian to draw upon his veteran's emotional connections to write a book that will commemorate this great chapter in American Jewish culture.

Phil Brown Brown University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Brown, Phil
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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