Seniors | One familys Borsch Belt memories

monticello, new york  |  The moment I kicked in the door of the abandoned house in the heart of the Catskills, I felt like I was in an episode of “The Twilight Zone: Borscht Belt edition.”

In some corners it appeared as if the residents were just out for the afternoon. Pictures and tchotchkes adorned the walls. A mezuzah with the parchment still inside was affixed to a doorpost. An upright piano sat in one corner. Ironing boards were open. Mattresses lay on frames; in one room the beds were still half-made.

But elsewhere, things were in a state of advanced decay. The roof over the kitchen had caved in. The sink was overflowing with rotting leaves. In a bedroom, vines poured in through the window and spread over much of the ceiling. Mold was having its way with the walls.

I had come to the Catskills hoping to get one last look at Kutsher’s, the last of the great Borscht Belt resorts, after hearing the news that its demolition was imminent. For much of the 20th century, Kutsher’s and other Jewish hotels like it helped make the Catskills the summer destination of choice for New York Jews.

But when I reached the mountains, I found the roads leading to Kutsher’s blocked by chains and sawhorses posted with warnings against trespassing into the construction zone. I tried to make my way on foot, wading through wet, overgrown grass, but three burly construction workers spotted me and I was forced to beat a hasty retreat.

Jewish families flocked to bungalow colonies in the 1950s. photos/jta-courtesy paula goldberg

Which is how I found my way into a crumbling bungalow colony at the edge of Kutsher’s 1,500 acres.

Aside from the main house with 10 bedrooms and side building with a dining room and kitchen that I had broken into, there were a handful of bungalows. The buildings all were vacant, in varying states of disrepair and overcome by nature.

One room had a half-dozen ovens and refrigerators. Opening one fridge, I half expected to find a cold can of Tab. No dice. In the corner of what appeared to be the living room, there was a public telephone. I picked it up. No dial tone.

Most of the bedrooms were disheveled or empty, but in one I found toiletries and a shoeshine kit carefully arranged on the dresser, three drab but clean dresses hanging in the closet, and a shelf filled with unused legal pads and blank paper.

Then I spotted the first clue to who may have lived here.

Tucked into the mirror was a photograph of four happy-looking elderly couples posing in front of the lake out back that was now obscured by foliage. Their names were carefully inscribed on the back: Nat and Sylvia, Herman and Eleanor, Milton and Norma, Jack and Charlotte. There was also a date: August 2001.

Who were these people and why did they leave? What purpose did this odd house serve? Were the people in the photo still alive? When was the house last occupied?

This being the age of the Internet, it took less than an hour of sleuthing, a credit card and $3.95 to unravel the mystery of this strange Catskills time capsule.

The simple part was figuring out who lived there. An address label affixed to some shelves in the bedroom with the shoeshine kit read Goldberg. That matched the name on a Jewish National Fund Tree-in-Israel certificate posted on the wall in another room. Along with the photograph I found, I had my target couple: Nat and Sylvia Goldberg.

Combing through online directories and death notices, it didn’t take long to locate family members. Soon I had Nat and Sylvia’s daughter, Judy Viteli, on the line.

She almost cried when I told her where I had been.

“Ah, the kochelein,” she said wistfully.

The what?

“The kochelein,” she said. “It’s a Yiddish word.”

Over the course of several conversations, including one in which we went through old pictures at her kitchen table, Judy and her sister, Paula Goldberg — now 60 and 63, respectively — told me the story of what had transpired half a century ago in that house, why it represented the best years of their lives and how it all came to an end. This is their story.

 

Sharing the bungalow

The kochelein — a term that literally means “cook alone” —- represented a particular kind of bungalow colony: a place where several families shared a house but where everyone was responsible for their own food. That’s why there were a half-dozen refrigerators and ovens in the kitchen: Each of the 10 families was allotted half a refrigerator and a shared oven to prepare meals.

A pharmacist from the Bronx, Nat Goldberg began bringing his family to this kochelein, called Fairhill, in 1953, when Judy was still in diapers and her sister Paula was 5. The rest of the house was filled with cousins and close friends, all from the same working-class Bronx neighborhood. Everybody, of course, was Jewish.

There was practically no privacy: Parents and their children slept in the same room, all the families shared only two bathrooms and everyone ate their meals in the shared dining room.

From a child’s perspective, the summers were idyllic. Days were spent hiking in the woods, swimming in the lake, picking wild blueberries, playing hide-and-seek, trying to sneak into the resort at Kutsher’s and waging endless girls-vs.-boys wars. On rainy days, they’d pack into the dining room with their parents to play mah jongg or a variation of rummy, gambling for split peas. After the rain stopped, the kids would run outside to hunt salamanders.

Abandoned Fairhill bungalow photos/jta-uriel heilman

Once the Goldberg kids turned 10, they were allowed to hitchhike into the nearby town of Monticello; their mother would wave goodbye as they climbed into strangers’ cars.

On Saturday nights, when the adults went out, the kids left to their own devices smoked, played kissing games and did whatever else they could think of that their parents had forbidden.

“Every one of us will tell you it was the best time of our lives,” Paula said of those summers. “Our mothers never knew where we were and didn’t care.”

For the adults, the bungalow colony was both an extension of and a break from their lives in the crowded Jewish enclaves of the Bronx. It was mostly the same people, but there was cleaner air, less privacy and less testosterone. The men, who worked Monday to Friday, came up only on weekends; the women and children stayed all summer.

“It was a total matriarchy,” Paula said.

It was the 1950s, before three major factors destroyed the Jewish Catskills: air conditioning, which made staying in the city more palatable; declining discrimination against Jews, which opened up previously unavailable summertime alternatives; and the rise of the working woman, which made moving away for the summer untenable.

The bungalow colony was not for the wealthy. Accommodations were simple. Water came from a well. When the well went dry one summer, the families went days without showering and walked around with divining rods. The swimming pool — now cracked, overgrown and shrouded by trees — wasn’t built until sometime in the late ‘50s.

With the exception of Nat Goldberg, none of the men at the kochelein had gone to college, and they all worked blue-collar jobs. Jewish families with more money went to resorts like Kutchner’s where meals, entertainment and a wide range of recreational facilities were included. At Kutsher’s, residents of bungalow colonies like the Fairhill kochelein were referred to derisively as “bungees.”

Entertainment at the kochelein was mostly homemade: Someone would play the piano or the adults would hold silly parties where everyone wore their clothes backward, or husbands and wives swapped clothing or held mock weddings or soup-eating contests.

In the mornings, the first thing everyone would do was get in line for the bathroom, toothbrush and soap in hand. With as many as 40 people sharing just two bathrooms, dillydallying was severely frowned upon — not least by your stern, socially conscious mother.

“Everything happened in front of everybody else — all the babying, all the disciplining,” Judy recalled. “There was no private place to yell at anybody.”

The food was kosher — to some degree. At home in the Bronx, Sylvia would let her kids have milk after meat, but at the bungalow colony she was stricter because Aunt Faye was sitting at the next table.

“We used to pretend to be kosher,” Judy said. “It was shameful if you weren’t kosher. But people were different degrees of kosher.”

Because the women didn’t drive, the mothers would list the groceries they needed in a spiral notebook hanging from a hook in the dining room, and the Polish Catholic family that owned the property — Alex and Mary Chicko — would go to town every day to buy the provisions, adding a penny or two to each item as a delivery fee.

If the kids misbehaved, the parents would punish them by dragging them along to Kutsher’s shows instead of leaving them behind with their boyfriends and girlfriends.

For Paula, one kochelein relationship proved to have special staying power: with Mark Goldberg, a boy whose family had been coming to the Fairhill kochelein since the 1920s. She was 5 and he was 6 when they met, and they began “going together” in the summer of 1959.

That was when 13-year-old Mark asked Paula to a movie theater in town to see “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and the two kissed during the film — with their eyes open, Paula says.

“He was fresh; he was a bad boy,” Paula said with a mischievous smile.

The two broke up at the end of every summer and then got back together the following July. Some summers Mark’s family didn’t go up to the mountains, but Mark always came — even if it was in the care of someone else’s parents.

That is, until the summer of ‘66, when his father collapsed at the kochelein of a heart attack and died. Mark was 19.

When Mark was 22 and Paula was 21, they married. The couple recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.

 

The later years

By the 1960s, things had begun changing at the kochelein. A pool had been built. Two more bathrooms were added to the main house. There had been a few bungalows onsite at least since the early ‘50s, but in the ‘60s the owners decided to build several more, enlisting the summertime kids to help.

Most significantly, the owners cut a deal that traded the use of part of their land to Kutsher’s in exchange for nightly passes to the resort’s shows. Kutsher’s eventually bought the bungalow colony outright.

“That changed our lives,” Paula recalled. “Our parents could get dressed up and go every night and see all the Borscht Belt comedians. They could go dancing on the stage. Our little bungalow colony had very special power based on the land.”

When she was old enough, Judy began working summers at Kutsher’s as a camp counselor. It was hard work, she says: 12-hour days, six days a week, for just $15 per week. At the kochelein, the traditions continued.

At summer’s end, when each family finished packing up the car to leave, the remaining families would assemble for a parting ceremony.

As they graduated high school and college, the number of kids at the bungalow colony dwindled. Some went up only for weekends, some not at all.

Even as the Catskills fell into decline in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the adults kept going to the Fairhill kochelein — relishing the space without kids, according to Paula. They stopped only when they couldn’t physically do it, obstructed by illness, death or retirement to Florida.

By the 1990s, most of the kochelein’s rooms were empty.

But not the Goldbergs’; they were diehards. Even when Nat and Sylvia took a place in Florida for the winter, they would return to Monticello for the summers.

With the surrounding area growing shabbier every year, the Goldberg kids tried to convince their parents to stop going to the kochelein — or at least get a room for the summer at Kutsher’s, which by now they could afford. But Nat and Sylvia wouldn’t budge.

“To me it was depressing to go up in those later years,” Judy said. The last few summers the Goldbergs spent at the bungalow colony, they were the only couple there.

“It was eerie,” Judy said. “You would go upstairs and all the other rooms were abandoned-looking.” Nat and Sylvia would spend their days at Kutsher’s — Sylvia in pottery classes making tchotchkes that she’d take back to the kochelein and hang on the walls, Nat outside organizing shuffleboard games. At the end of the day they would go back to their big, empty house at the bungalow colony to eat and sleep. Though there were a half-dozen refrigerators, they still confined themselves to the same half-fridge they always used.

“Dad was 92,” Paula said. “We were scared already. They were living alone in that big house and crossing over to the dining room for meals. They were anachronisms.”

Finally, in the summer of 2002, after 50 years of summers at Fairhill, the Goldberg kids managed to convince their parents to forego the kochelein for the following summer, and they booked rooms at Kutsher’s for the following summer.

But when Nat and Sylvia left the kochelein at the end of August 2002, Sylvia was complaining about feeling tired, and she spent that fall in and out of doctor’s offices. She was diagnosed with cancer.

“After we booked them into 10 weeks at Kutsher’s, my mother felt like a very rich lady,” Paula said. “Even when she was in hospice, she thought she’d spend the summer at the hotel.”

Sylvia never made it. She died in July 2003.

Nat, 10 years her senior, held on for nearly another decade, living until the age of 100. He died in June 2010.

Today, the Jewish Catskills is largely a relic. There are still a few bungalow colonies scattered about, but all the great Jewish hotels have been sold off or abandoned to nature and decay.

Kutsher’s, the last holdout, was sold in late 2013 for $8.2 million to Veria Lifestyle Inc., a company owned by Indian billionaire Subhash Chandra. He plans to build a new health and wellness resort at the site.