In its prime, the Borscht Belt streched across the Catskill Mountains, a constellation of hotels catering to Jewish crowds. The two largest stars in the constellation were Grossinger’s and the Concord.
Because my mother equated Grossinger’s with relief from housework and cooking, I spent huge chunks of time at the hotel until I was about 13 or 14, when my mother began an infatuation with New Hampshire. We stayed at Grossinger’s for weeks on end. Twice we visited when my mother needed to recuperate from major surgeries. And it didn’t matter that I was missing school. One of our longest stays occurred when I was in third grade. We obtained make-up assignments. I completed everything in a day, and school was forgotten for the remaining weeks of our stay.
Even then Grossinger’s, which had started as a rooming house just after the dawn of the twentieth century, was dated– although it constantly flaunted its history. Its main building had wood-paneled walls lined with endless signed photographs of the numerous celebrities who had visited . Grossinger’s exalted traditions, especially its own. It served traditional Jewish foods. Its routine revolved around activities that it had made traditional, such as games of Simon Says. Its staff recycled jokes.
Grossinger’s sat on huge grounds and consisted of a score of buildings. Most of these were different levels of accommodation depending upon what guests were willing or able to pay. The hotel offered ever imaginable sport. I learned to ski on Grossinger’s bunny hill. (Grossinger’s was the first resort to use artificial snow.) I learned to row –and paddleboat– on Grossinger’s lake. In summer, I swam in its Olympic-sized pool, and in winter, in its indoor pool. In winter, I tobogganed on its hills and skated on its rink. I played shuffleboard and daily games of Simon Says with Grossinger’s resident “tummler,” Lou Goldstein, who organized the activities and circulated to ensure that the guests were entertained. We occasionally sighted owner and matriarch Jennie Grossinger, whose photograph appeared on the packages of Grossinger rye bread available at the neighborhood supermarkets at home.
The central experience of a stay at Grossinger’s was food, although that’s not to say it was a particularly positive experience unless you favored volume over taste. At the beginning of their stays, guests were assigned to tables, waiters, and busboys, white college boys dependent upon the tips to pay tuition. The dining room served three heavy meals at set times daily and offered almost limitless choices of traditional foods. Breakfast selections included almost every type of dry or warm cereal you could think of. Eggs cooked in every imaginable way. And of course the offerings included varieties of lox and herring. The lunch menu invariably featured borsht and schav, a revolting cold sorrel soup. At dinner there was always a condiment dish of pickles and olives and always a beef selection. The acme of culinary sophistication was Swedish meatballs served at the weekly cocktail party. For me the meals were endless torture, drawing me away from the fun activities. Worst of all was the agony of having to dress for dinner.
I was too young to be allowed to stay up for the evening shows so I pretty much missed all the headline comedians who entertained —although I do recall once managing to attend a show featuring Jackie Mason. I fondly recall a long row of pinball museums in the basement. That’s where I spent my evenings. With the leftover change, I purchased candy at the sundry store.
I was also too young to witness any dirty dancing and wouldn’t necessarily have recognized it if I’d seen it. After years away, I returned to Grossinger’s in college for a singles weekend. These were held annually on Shabbos Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. I picked up a faint whiff of desperation, but was still too young to share it. After a half dozen years vacationing elsewhere, nothing had changed.
The Jewish hotels in the Catskills did not exist simply to accommodate Jewish dietary restrictions. They were there for the same reason that Mt. Sinai Hospital, where I was born existed. The same reason that my alma mater proposed quotas on Jewish applicants. The same reason that the first law firm where I was employed was Rosenman Colin Freund Lewis & Cohen. Social anti-semitism was a fixture in the United States for a long time.
The beginning of discrimination against Jews in accommodation is usually traced to the Seligman incident. In 1877, Jewish banker Joseph Seligman was excluded from the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, a resort owned by Judge Henry Hilton. Hilton believed that the Grand Hotel was losing business because guests did not want to share the hotel with Jews. The ban led to threats and recriminations. It unleashed months of news articles and editorials in both the Jewish and non-Jewish press. Jews boycotted A.T. Stewart, a department store headed by Hilton. The store closed four years later, and many attributed the closing to the boycott. However, exclusion of Jews at places of accommodation became widespread and commonplace. The exclusion spread to colleges and jobs.
The Seligman incident was not the first anti-Semitic incident in American history, only the most widely-publicized to that time. For example, Jews were expelled from Georgia in 1734. During the Civil War, General Grant ordered Jews excluded from the Department of Tennessee, comprising portions of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi. Lincoln intervened and forced Grant to rescind the order.
The period from 1877 and onward was unkind not just to Jews but to all groups considered outsiders. Blacks were abandoned to Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Immigration quotas directed against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were enacted in 1924.
Grossinger’s closed in 1986. It was a casualty of global travel, reduced interest in kashrut among younger generations of Jews, and a more hospitable hospitality industry. After 1964, discrimination in accommodation became illegal in the United States.
For more see: Lee Livney, “Let Us Now Praise Self-Made Men: A Reexamination of the Hilton-Seligman Affair,” New York History, Vol. 75, No. 1, pp. 66-98 (January 1994).