WHEN I FIRST went off to the Catskills years ago as a child, I remember that going there was like going to paradise.
Everything was new, and spacious, and grand -- something like Yankee Stadium and Radio City Music Hall rolled into one. The bed was big, the halls immense, the dining room colossal, the portions of food staggering.
Besides children like yourself, you would also meet rich kids who wore new clothes every day and never -- by some miraculous means -- never got dirty. You heard different speech rhythms, met kids who had words, some of them bad words, entirely new to you. You saw more old people than you had known there were in the world, some of them so old they were drying up like apples. Everybody in the place had been or was going to college -- even the waiters. There were such crowds everywhere -- eating or skating or playing ball or swimming -- that my child's world of Yonkers seemed small and dull by comparison. If I were good, and then I died, I was sure I would end up in one of these places in the mountains.
All this probably goes back to the days of King David, who sang in one of his most famous psalms that he would look to the mountains because "from there comes my strength." The mainly eastern European Jews packed into the grimy, clamorous, consumptive tenements of East Side Manhattan toward the close of the 19th century had a similar faith in the virtues of high places. Once schools closed, they wanted to ship their kinder off to fresh air and exercise and torrents of nourishing food. And so commenced that New York tradition enshrined in the children's song: "Whoopee! Whoopee! We're going to the mountains!"
It started in 1910 when two farmers named Kutsher set up a boarding house on their farm in Monticello. In 1914, a farmer named Grossinger did the same thing in Liberty. More people came, more farmers began to board and feed them, and eventually there were close to 200 resort hotels in the Borsht Belt, about 100 miles from New York at the resort hotels in or around Sullivan County.
The number is down now: times -- and lifestyles -- have changed. People today jump on a jet and go to the islands who used to do what we did: hop in a car and go to the mountains. Putting fat on one's bones is currently considered crazy, meshugge. The younger people today, those whose parents took them to the mountains, seem a bit ambivalent about making the trip again and giving their own children the sort of Catskills experience they themselves had. They'll tell you they had great times in the mountains and will recall the games and the songs and the meals with a sincere nostalgia -- and then they say "but." But things are different now. But their kids want the same sort of vacations as the Kellys and the Segettis down the block. But they like to take trips as just a family, not with a thousand other people.
All the big Catskill resorts are now in there slugging it out with the islands, and Atlantic City, and Las Vegas for the patronage of folks in search of fun and food: Kutsher's and Grossinger's; and The Concord, in Kiamesha Lake; the Granit, in Kerhonkson; the Pines and the Raleigh and the Brickman, in South Fallsburg; Brown's, in Loch Sheldrake -- where a busboy named Jerry Lewis used to play the klutz and make cretinous faces right over there, would you believe, where I'm pointing at with my finger; and the Stevensville, at Swan Lake. These and a dozen more like them are still thriving.
The last time I took my family there was about 10 years ago. I recall shlepping off with a ton of luggage and big coats and howling children in the dead of winter.
Going to the mountains for a little break between Christmas and New Year's, as we did, means glitching along on the icy highway until we think the Catskills themselves are intending to get in the car with us. Living in the city, you really don't see much snow: even when there's a big fall, it soons turns dirty and slushy and melts away. But there is white snow piled up in humps and dunes and mesas and buttes and running up through the trees and on the trees and swirled up over the tops of the mountains. The kids want to know why the place hasn't been shoveled: isn't there a super?
Then we're going up the endless driveway to the big, sprawling hotel itself: not quite a Swiss chalet but something like Gstaad would look if the carpenters had come from Galicia.
I find the resort not nearly as grand and spacious as I did as a child, but still haimish if you know what I mean -- warm and cozy like your aunt Sophie's house -- and the bellhop reminds you to hurry up make a reservation for the night club so you shouldn't miss the great show. The rooms are nice. He points out for you the bed, the chair, the dresser. He says gravely: "This is the bathroom."
"I know," you say. "I've seen one of those before." But he's only looking for a little shmeer and, after all, he did shlep that heap of luggage. Then it's off to the dining room to get the meal schedule and take care of the maitre'd so you and the family shouldn't be sitting right by the kitchen door. Next you head down a corridor as long as Central Park to the nightclub -- where you make reservations and take care of the captain as you modestly point out the table that you know Myron Cohen (who only happens to be a close personal friend) will want to see you sitting at with your family when he comes out that evening to tell his jokes. A sigh of relief: you have now seen to all the really important aspects of settling in.
If you have older kids, they can now go off to the teenarena or whatever the hangout is called, and you don't really have to deal with them at all, except during meals. The rest of us with smaller fry make the standard ritual tour of inspection to see what's happening and to whom.
Since it's cold outside, the lobbies and tea room are full of alter kockers -- a phrase of which the nearest printable English equivalent would be "old fogies" -- making what they describe as mir rockets (from the expression mir chrocket und rocket, a Yinglish expression for "we snore and we rock") in their ranks of comfortable chairs. In the good weather or when the sun shines warmly, these A.K.'s will be out on the porch making mir rockets while their food settles.
As you come into the main lobby you discover the hope and heart and joy and inspiration of every big resort: the tummler. Somebody told me on the phone the other day that tummlers don't want to be called tummlers anymore. Now they are social directors or activity leaders. To me, this is as if Catholics would begin to refer to the pope as the chief executive officer.
A tummler is a live wire. He fills that function found in every society since the days of antiquity: the prankster. He runs the "Simon Says" games and leads the songs and foments the treasure hunts; he persuades you that you can dance even if you're paralyzed in a wheel chair; he is a bright and shining light because he always makes things happen.
Our tummler that day is a husky and healthy-looking dark-haired man wearing jogging shoes and a set of designer sweats. He wants to sign us up at once for a regimen that would debilitate Patrick Ewing. Lap swimming in the indoor pool, skating in the ice arena, tennis and raquetball on the indoor courts, followed by a nice Swedish massage in the health club, or maybe some dancercize with Miriam or folk-dancing with Boris from Kiev. He needs three more players for the boccie tournament and has two seats left for the cosmetics demonstration. If you shake your head no, he is not fazed in the slightest and moves on to more.
How about aerobics in the pool with Celeste, yoga with Swami Rajnish, financial planning with a C.P.A.; how about bingo, or backgammon, or a movie? Look at that sun shining outside, he shouts, trying to sign you up for the skiing, or the tobogganing, or the horseback riding. And even at this point, he cannot be shaken by negatives. Those who remain unsigned are told: "So take a walk then, it's good for you."
As you watch him, and enjoy him, the never-say-die of it, you realize that only the names change and the tummler himself is something eternal. Buddy Hackett was one of these guys, and so were Red Buttons, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Joey Bishop. According to author Leo Rosten, it was not merely budding comedians but also actors such as Danny Kaye and Tony Curtis, and singers such as Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill -- who wore the tummler's garb and practiced the tummler's shtik, learning how to forcibly infuse life and spirit even into a herd of shnooks laden down with intractable woes and gripes: tsuris. This one had no trouble with us: we told him we were going tobogganing.
By lunchtime we had worked up a huge appetite. We ate family style, all from our group at one table in the gigantic dining room. There was juice, whatever you wanted. There was fruit cup or soup, especially some cold borsht with boiled potato or chilled schav (bitter light-green soup made from sorrel) with an egg wedge. You could have a hot entree, or a cold one, or -- since this was the Catskills -- all the hot entrees and all the cold ones. There was sole, or eggplant parmigiana, or cheese blintzes, or poached eggs, or a tomato surprise, or vegetarian chopped liver, or a bowl of heavy sour cream filled with giant strawberries or blueberries or peaches or bananas, or all four together.
Anyone who did not ask for seconds and thirds was a grave disappointment to the waiters: we had manifestly assembled here to pull off some serious eating. Desserts, too, came on like an army with banners: ice cream cake with syrup, or Russian babka, or Victoria layer cake, or ice cream and cookies, accompanied by a continuous urging from all the waiters to take a fuhlaytah: something you would carry off with you in a bag "for later," just in case you were immobilized by hunger pangs in the middle of the afternoon. We watched A.K.'s getting their tea in a glass with a spoon in it, then using the spoon to add a bit of jam to the tea. Nowadays we drink blackcurrant tea from London and think we've discovered something new.
Those of us who haven't read the paper after breakfast now retire to a deep chair in the social lounge and catch up on the news. The others take a walk. Later we do the same, strolling around the frozen lake. Then we check out the ski slopes to see what the singles are up to.
We see the perennial clutch of secretaries who've saved up for a trip to meet Mr. Right -- still anxious, after all these years, to find and land Noel Airman. (You remember Noel -- from Marjorie Morningstar?) Their nails and coiffures are faultless, newly unfurled from the beauty salon; their snow-bunny outfits tight enough to cause circulatory disturbances (not least among the kibitzers). We make note of the fleet of young doctors, attorneys, and businessmen who have come up to take advantage of the secretaries and are now showing off for the girls on the slopes and in front of the big fireplace in the lodge: "Well, yes, I'm on the fast track there, everybody has been telling me I'll be the youngest partner ever." The machers are circling about, too, inspecting the snow bunnies and whispering such sweet nothings as: "You've heard them talking about me in SoHo, I know it: 'Marvin the Conversion King'?" The yentas at ringside listen and shake their heads.
Back to the room in late afternoon to cop a dremel, which is a little nap or snooze. Then everyone spruces up for dinner -- a bath, a nice dress for the ladies, jacket and tie for the men. The maitre d' greets you in tuxedo, and the waiter, who knows you now and will serve your table as long as you stay, is in a short white jacket. The food comes in waves, in floods, in avalanches: appetizers, kosher pickles and crisp tossed salads, fragrant soups, and then prime ribs, or broiled chicken, or corned beef and eggs in a pancake, or Rumanian steak, or broiled bluefish, or a Philadelphia caponette with spiced fruit, and be sure to leave room for the sacher torte, and the chocolate mousse, and the apple cake a la mode, and in this bag take along a little something fuhlaytah.
Then off to the ice-skating rink and a nice long shmooz with the other families there. Once the kids are in bed and the baby-sitter has arrived, it is time to get all dolled up and head for the nightclub.
Here is another venerable Borsht Belt tradition, out of which comes the American TV variety show, many of the country's top entertainers, and a large chunk of traditional American comedy. There's always a band, usually a singer, always a comedian too. If the singer is a big act -- like Steve and Edie or Paul Anka -- the comedian will go first; if the comedian is the big act -- like Joan Rivers -- the singer goes first. And just about everybody who's anybody has played this circuit: Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Joey Bishop, Red Buttons, George Carlin, Julio Iglesias -- the list could go on for pages. Some of the comedy is ethnic, and it was the late great Myron Cohen, appearing on TV back in the '50s, who first let the rest of the world in on the fun.
The comedy is blue -- just enough to get fat ladies rolling from side to side and crying real tears -- but nothing in bad taste. Somebody was telling me the other day about Catskills comedian Mal Z. Lawrence, who looks out at his audience and tells them: "Ah, sex. Yes, sex at the Pines. Now it's been replaced by a toasted English. Every night I hear you guys walking out of here asking: 'You want to go to bed or have a toasted English muffin?' There's generally an edge, a bit of mockery, in Jewish humor -- poking fun at themselves, their families, their foibles, their struggles with the world and destiny.
The stories are quick, cerebral, ironic. It was in this Catskills caldron, after all, that the rapid-fire one-liner was forged into a fine art, one that dominates American oral comedy today. When Henny Youngman first told an audience: "Take my wife . . . . Please!" he gave us not just a joke but a model for all who came after. And when Milton Berle used to get up in the resort's dining hall and shout: "You think this is something? Next year we're gonna have an indoor mountain!" he was expressing not just the extravagant soul of Borsht Belt humor but also the sort of swashbuckling hyperbole and confidence that is a large part of being Jewish. One listens to the jokes not because they're novel or unpredictable but because listening -- and recognizing one's self in the joke -- is an essential aspect of going to the mountains. So we have a few drinks, we shmooz, enjoy some laughs, listen to the music: the perfect ending to a relaxing day.
Those who want to stay up later can afterwards go to the discotheque or do the Alley Cat and the Simple Simon and the hora over in yet another lounge where an orchestra is playing. People whose kids are not likely to be up at the crack of dawn may want to hit the late show in the nightclub, where the comedy will be somewhat bluer than it had been earlier. Come tomorrow we'll have a new day and a meal we haven't even mentioned yet, the one that is the true glory of a trip to the mountains: breakfast.
You could have shmaltz herring (the filet with oil and salt) or matjes herring (treated with pepper and spices and generally a reddish color) or pickled herring with or without sour cream, or pickled herring with or without sour cream, or herring in tomato sauce, or fried or baked. You could have whitefish or carp or sable or sturgeon, belly lox or Nova Scotia lox. You could have bagels, plain or toasted, slathered with cream cheese or cream cheese and chives, and you could pile the lox or the smoked fish on these in artistic layers, or have maybe first one without fish and then a fish chaser. You could have hot cereal or cold cereal or a little of each. You could have eggs any way you want them with big slabs of fresh pumpernickel on the side. You could ask for a plate of eggs scrambled with lox and onions, or made up with any of the different fish. You could have the fish sliced or tell them to bring the whole thing and cut it up yourselves. You could have pancakes, omelettes, platters full of good cheeses, and a mountain of fresh fruit. You could have any kind of juice -- grapefruit, orange, tomato, V-8, pineapple -- and a fruit compote, pots of good fresh coffee and tea, fresh-baked rolls and buns and Danish. There is nowhere else in the world that offers a breakfast such as those in the mountains.
After such a meal on our fifth day -- New Year's Eve morning, as I recall -- we packed up and I made a tour to lay a final little shmeer on maids and waiters and captains who had taken good care of us.
We were hardly out of the driveway, the car laboring up one of the long snowy hills, before we started planning to come back next year. Somebody had obviously taught my oldest a song because I could hear him trying to sing it in the back seat. It was the old East Side war cry, the one that may be that may be said to go all the way back to King David: "Whoopee! Whoopee! We're going to the mountains!"