Borscht Belt reds
Over Labor Day weekend I attended a conference on the Borscht Belt at the Sunny Oaks, a very modest hotel that has survived the economic collapse of the famed Jewish resort area in Sullivan County, New York. The conference was organized by Phil Brown, a Brown University professor. (There is no relation, of course. Phil is a Jew like me, while the Browns the university was named after were New England Christian gentry of the 18th century) Brown has strong emotional ties to the area and has tried to bring together scholars with the same interests in the area for the annual Labor Day event. Phil Brown's parents ran "concessions" at hotels and bungalow colonies in the heyday of the Catskills. Concessions were housed in lodges near a swimming pool and contained pinball machines, jukeboxes and soda fountains, where you could get an egg cream for a dime and a pretzel for two cents.
I grew up in the Catskills and went to the conference to try to find out about the leftist culture of the area. I would not be disappointed. The conference was a real eye-opener.
Most people know about the resort hotels and the famed Jewish comedians who got their start there, including Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hackett among others. What is not so well-known is that the area was a hotbed of left-wing politics. I suppose that wherever Jews can be found there is bound to be left-wing politics, except Israel that is.
Sid Caesar got his start at the Avon Lodge about a mile from my father's fruit store. His comedy show was the biggest thing on television in the fifties. The writing staff included Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks at one point. Caesar had a violent temper and during a writing session once held an errant writer outside the window of the NBC offices by his heels.
He would come to my village to do some shopping whenever he was upstate for a weekend getaway. Sid was a gun-nut and would always come to town with big revolvers in his holster and a cartridge belt fully loaded. He would spend hours at a time on the firing range at the Avon Lodge venting his rage on tin cans and bottles. When I drove my bicycle down the road near the Avon Lodge, I could always hear him shooting. Ka-boom. Ka-boom. Ka-boom.
The Avon Lodge was co-owned by the Arkins and the Neukrugs. Sid Caesar had married an Arkin. The Neukrugs were rumored to be red. I studied piano briefly with Henrietta Neukrug in 1957 and in the middle of practicing "Row-row-your-boat" one afternoon, I turned to her and asked, "Mrs. Neukrug, are you a Communist?" She glared at me and told me that I was rude. Many years later as my exploits as a globe-trotting radical became common knowledge in town, the Neukrugs decided to turn over a box of Henrietta's mementos after she died. It included many pamphlets by William Z. Foster, WEB DuBois and Sy Gerson, etc., and a hand-painted portrait of Joseph Stalin. Her family's gesture meant a lot more to me than the contents of the box.
I missed the first session of the conference. Henry Foner, former president of the Communist led Fur and Leather Workers Union, spoke on music in the Catskills. I bought a tape of the session and can't wait to hear what Foner has to say. I would have made as much of a connection between him and music as I would between Benny Goodman and the CPUSA's "Black Belt" policy but the New Deal era was always coming up with surprises.
On Saturday evening Vivian Gornick, author of "The Romance of American Communism", spoke on the topic "A Cultural History of the Catskills". It turned out to be excerpts from various books--both fiction and nonfiction--that she had written over the years that used the resort area as a backdrop. The longest piece was a sort of coming of age description of her working as a waiter in resort hotels. She came from a Communist family in the Bronx and her experiences were a touching blend of George Orwell's "Down and Out in London and Paris" and Herman Wouk's "Marjorie Morningstar", a novel set in the Catskills about a young woman growing up and finding herself.
Unfortunately, her talk did not really get into the sort of detail I was looking for. So during the question period I stated that I was researching the left-wing bungalow colonies and hotels of the Catskill Mountains and asked if anybody could name such places. People came up to me and gave me a bunch of leads including one place that everybody seemed to know about: the Mirth Bungalow Colony in Mountaindale.
One tiny woman in her seventies confided to me that the Mirth was a very radical place. They had poetry readings, political discussions and classical music concerts. She added that they even had an astrologist. I tried to figure out how Paul Robeson and Scorpio descending fit together, but that would have to wait until further investigation.
On Sunday afternoon, I heard a truly fascinating presentation on Jewish farmers in Sullivan County. The speaker was Clarence Steinberg, who co-authored "Jewish Farmers of the Catskills" with Abraham Lavender. Steinberg was a retired Public Affairs Specialist in the Department of Agriculture while Lavender is a sociology professor at Florida International University. Both grew up on farms in the Catskills.
Steinberg presented a Marxist analysis of Jewish farming in the area. He explained that Jews came to Sullivan County in the 1800s to become farmers as an expression of the "Enlightenment" tendency in Judaism during the period. Jews thought that it was important to get back to the land and become producers. Agricultural colonies were launched in Argentina, upstate New York, New Jersey and Palestine. The farmers who settled in Palestine were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists. He said that small Jewish farming in the Catskills died out because of the concentration of capital.
The agrarian socialism of these settlers was very much influenced by the Utopian experiments of the 19th century. When the 20th century arrived, the farmers retained their left-wing culture but began to identify with the cooperative movement of the German Social Democracy instead. When they couldn't get fire insurance from anti-Semitic insurance companies, they started their own cooperative fire insurance company. When they needed cheap grain to feed their poultry, they started a cooperative feed-mill that bought grain directly from the National Farmers Union during the 1930s.
The feed-mill was down the road from my house and used to go down there on summer afternoons with my b-b gun to shoot at pigeons. (Yes, I have some of Sid Caesar's personality disorders, I'm afraid.) Everybody referred to it as the "coop" but I thought that this had something to do with chicken coops rather than politically-inspired cooperatives.
My best friend Bobby Wasserman's father Harry was head of the Fire Insurance Co-op. While browsing through Steinberg's book, I found a statement by Harry explaining the goals of the Co-op:
"Cooperation does not charge that our profit system of production and distribution is malevolent, but does content that it is bungling and extravagant because it has no other way, other than by guessing, to measure, in advance of production, the kind, quantity and quality of goods which consumers want. So it produces more or less in the dark and tries to dispose of the products by acute competition, enormously expensive advertising, high pressure salesmanship and the battering down of consumers' sales resistance. Over-production and recessions necessarily occur, in cycles; and consumers pay all the bills--all the costs and all the profits.
Cooperation proposes to replace this profit system, not all at once or by any revolutionary method, with another system. This cooperative system calls for reorientation--substitution of production for the service and benefit of the producers and distributors. In other words, capital and industry are to be made the servants of the people and not their masters."
In all the time I spent at Bobby's house, I never heard a political word out of his dad's mouth. I was shocked to see that he was capable of writing something like this.I wonder now if there was something political to all this, since the town reds were open advocates of racial integration long before it became popular. The CP families who got involved with the NAACP were reported to have parties at their homes where interracial social dancing took place. In the nightmare years of the 1950s, this was on a par with belonging to a witches coven.
After the conference was over, I phoned Cissie Blumberg, the author of "Remember the Catskills: Tales of a Recovering Hotelkeeper" and a leftist. Cissie is a woman of strong opinions and was boycotting the Sunny Oaks conference because she thought the term "Borscht Belt" was offensive. She had also had a number of spats with my mother over religious questions. The two wrote for the same local paper and my mother hoped that I would be able to calm her down. This was as much of a chance of me doing this as getting my strongly opinionated mother to calm down.
There's a chapter in Cissie's book titled "Just Causes". She writes:
"Not everything [about my father] was controversial or political. He was a prime organizer of the Credit Union, a moving force in the Hotelmen's Federation, and an acknowledged leader in the Fire Insurance Company as a director and president of the board. He convinced our reluctant neighbors in Lake Huntington to utilize the WPA programs for construction of the first sewer system, and though not religious himself, actively led the small Jewish community in the building of its first synagogue.
I was in grade school when the Civil War broke out in Spain. My father used his talent for oratory on behalf of the Loyalists, long before the world recognized that conflict as the beginning of World War II.
Bob [her brother and my old 9th grade social studies teacher] accompanied him one night to a rally at the Nemerson Hotel in South Fallsburg to raise funds for the Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers in Spain. As part of his address, our dad quoted from Abraham Lincoln's famous words on the people and the Constitution: 'Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they shall exercise their constitutional rights of amending it, or their revolutionary rights to dismember or overthrow it.' Suddenly the resort's casino, in which the meeting was being held, was plunged into darkness by its owner, Mr. Nemerson. 'Rosenberg is talking Communist propaganda,' thundered the angry hotel man. 'But sir, that statement is a quote from Abraham Lincoln,' replied a helper of my father's. 'Oh, Abraham Lincoln?' The lights came on!"