by Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe
YIDDISHKEIT IN THE CATSKILLS
I recently had the pleasure of reading the book “It Happened in the Catskills - An Oral History in the Words of Busboys, Bellhops, Guests, Proprietors, Comedians, Agents, and Others Who Lived It” by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer.
Henny Youngman describes the Catskills (“Take My Life, Please”) as follows: “The Catskill Mountains, ninety miles north of New York City, were a scrubbly rural area when the first Jews wandered into Sullivan County about 1900’
Years later, the Catskills were home to Brickman’s Hotel in South Fallsburg, the Nevele Hotel in Ellenville, the Concord, Schink’s, Gilbert’s, the Raleigh, the Pines, the Nemerson, etc. The Catskill Mountain region was once a prime travel destination, praised for cuisine, golfing, and nightclubs.
According to Irwin Richman (“Memoirs of Catskill Summers”), every year between 1920 and 1970, almost one million of New York City’s Jewish population summered in the Catskills.
Tania Grossinger [from the famed Catskill resort owned by her relatives], was interviewed by Martha Mendelsohn. She was asked, “If gambling comes to the mountains, what will the new Catskill hotels be like?”
She replied, “You’ll have Las Vegas-styles entertainment, luxury suites, big-name chefs and maybe even healthy food. The new resorts won’t be primarily Jewish. They won’t be Grossinger’s. That’s gone. There won’t be separate kitchens for meat and dairy. THE JOKES OF JEWISH COMICS WON’T HAVE YIDDISH PUNCH LINES….”
Let’s examine what we will miss in the Catskills:
Chicago - Chez Paree Tony Martin and Alan King are performing. King was finishing his act. Tony threw a fire bucket full of water at him. He came out to take his bow soaking wet. Three nights later, at the beginning of his act, Alan King calls, “Tony.” He turns around and Alan hits him with a pail of water. A showman to the quick, Tony said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m doing a tribute to Esther Williams.”
Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami [Frank Sinatra married Mia Farrow at the Fountainbleu] Alan King says, “He doesn’t know whether to bed her or burp her.”
The Raleigh, Catskills Mal Z. Lawrence said, “It’s so nice to be here at the Raleigh Hotel. This is the end of a career, ladies and gentlemen. Please, on your way home, leave a stone on top of my car.”
Brown’s Hotel, Catskills Jackie Mason is sitting in the front of Brown’s dining room. He’s having dinner. His girlfriend arrived late. She didn’t realize he was there so she passed him by and walked to the rear of the dining room. Jackie stood up and in a voice that everyone in the place could hear, he yelled out: “Kurve—kim aher!” In Jewish that means: “Whore, come over here!” (Source: “It Happened in the Catskills”)
Dick Lord - Catskills [about Little League] “I went to the game. A kid got a hit. But where I live, they’re so spoiled that the kid doesn’t even run to first base. His mother drives him there in a station wagon.” (Source: “It Happened in the Catskills”)
Allan King - Jupiter Theatre, So. Florida “On Miliary Trail. Everything is Military Trail in this part of the world. No matter where you go, you always feel comfortable. My wife says, ‘You’re lost.’ And I say, ‘No, I’m not, there’s Military Trail’ But it’s Military Trail in the Keys.”
Totie Fields - Copacabana Nightclub, NYC Her favorite joke: “follow that cab!” “We have to. It’s towing us.”
Rodney Dangerfield - Catskills [as a loser] “When I played hide-and-seek, they wouldn’t even look for me.”
For those who want to brush up on their Yiddish, “It Happened in the Catskills” will provide the opportunity. You’ll read stories about how Sam Lefrak’s parents visited the Catskills, but couldn’t speak English, just Yiddish and Polish. When asked how he was doing, Sam replied, “Irving, ez geyt mir git.” [I am doing well.]
You’ll read about comedians who used these Yiddish terms: “farkakte,” “shtik,” “hoyzele,” “Bei Mer Bist du Schon,” “shlepped,” “tummler,” “klezmer,” “shmutzik,” “meshugge,” “medele,” “freylekhs,” “goyisher” and “fin di linke “zeyt” (from the left side).
My favorite story from, “It Happened in the Catskills” was told by Lee First, a New York State judge who visited Catskill resorts for over thirty years. “Afterward we returned year after year for Passover and weekends throughout the year. We even moved to Riverdale from Brooklyn so we could be closer to the Mountains. When our daughter was in school, her teacher had the class discuss the topic: “How does your mommy get ready for Passover?” And my daughter said, “My mommy writes out a check to Grossinger’s.”