The Catskills Review: A Chosen Community

Doc sends a postcard from the past

9 mins read

The Catskills
(USA, 85 min.)
Dir. Lex Gillespie


Ah, the Catskills, the area north of New York City where, nestled between the mountains on the various lakes, were built hundreds of resorts catering to a specific demographic. For people cloistered in the confines of the city, bereft of air conditioning or other amenities that would transform modern life, this was the ultimate escape. Part feeding ground for relationship-building, part incubator for entertainers that presaged the likes of modern-day Las Vegas, this was for a time the center of shtick, where a sardonic form of comedic oration emerged into what would soon be known as stand-up.

Lex Gillespie’s brisk, slight, yet entertaining look at the era is crafted in a way that feels like looking at old photographs in the company of some grandparents. The Catskills doesn’t shy away from noshing on nostalgia, and it’s firmly committed to commemorating a “golden age” of the region’s importance to generations of the Jewish community.

While certainly a well-trod topic, Gillespie’s film does well to situate the entire endeavour within specific contexts. First, at the turn of the 20th century, Jews were systematically barred from most country clubs or other relaxation resorts. “Gentiles only” placards were prominently displayed and, as with institutions such as hospitals that similarly blocked admittance to Jews, some entrepreneurial individuals took it upon themselves to build facilities that catered to people who were otherwise excluded.

What started as nature escapes for folks in the city, who would often suffer from the likes of tuberculosis thanks to poor air circulation and cramped conditions, these small cabins on lakes soon grew into massive resorts, complete with golf courses, swimming pools, and entertainment rooms that rivalled those in the metropolis.

One thing Gillespie’s film gets right is the sheer scale of the migration north for a burgeoning community that made it a pilgrimage every summer to the area. The schlep up north was a ritual for rich and working class alike, a modern exodus to a temporary promised land where the food flowed freely, the work was put aside, and one’s daughters would hopefully hook up with a law or medical student.

This was a land where, as the joke goes, the food was terrible and the portions too small. In actuality, this was a rare opportunity for gluttony for people who had direct connection to deprivation, be they individuals who escaped the pogroms that ravaged Europe or the luckier ones who managed to evade the Shoah and come to America. Forming their own social bubble in hundreds of resorts and bungalow communities, the Jews of the North East would migrate en masse, mix at the various dances and social activities, and maintain a sense of shared community that was perhaps their greatest strength when a nation was at its height of anti-Semitic fervour.

Films such as Dirty Dancing are explicitly evoked in the documentary, but it’s the recent hit The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (with a nearly entirely goyishe cast, no less) that has popularized the era in the minds of many. The documentary traces the beginnings of the area, illustrating how these family-run places practically became institutions, often at the vanguard of creating safe spaces not only for the Semites but for others such as Jackie Robinson who equally would be barred from similar vacation resorts during the era.

Through a mix of contemporary interviews and a rich archive of vintage material, Gillespie paints a fine portrait of the era. What’s absent is the reaction of the local residency, the very real conflicts that occurred when this “Jewish invasion” happened in upstate New York. Given that the Hassidic community has taken on several of these spots, a community that is even more closed and eschews integration in favour of a tightknit sect, it would be interesting to see how relations remain to this day between them and their summer neighbours.

On the one hand, the film plays as a warm reminder of what was, while on the other, it’s a lesson about a lost era, where returning to these facilities (with footage from over a decade ago) shows a truly miserable modern face, the one elegant and inviting institutions’ desiccated skeletons all these years later.

The film accurately points to the forces that saw how the ruination occurred, from the lure of southern Florida for a year-round Catskills-like environment, to the likes of Las Vegas (founded in its current form by Bugsy Siegel, of course, borrowing many elements from the upstate institutions). Yet above all, it was the increasing integration of the Jewish community, along with the advent of economic air travel, that saw this self-segregation loosen up.

The legacy of the Catskills remains deeply ingrained in elements of popular culture to this day, and it’s easy to trace so much of what’s considered Jewish culture to these summers spent lakeside playing Simon Sez and gorging on various kinds of whitefish and herring. The Jewish summer camp experience remains perhaps the closest modern remnant (as films like Meatballs, Indian Summer, and Wet Hot American Summer commemorate), but it’s equally easy to see in the showrooms of the Vegas strip, or even the floating Catskills-like monstrosities of the modern cruise industry. The desire to relax in an environment where the food is plentiful, the sun is warming, and the opportunities to be both entertained and encouraged to escape from the travails of a working life, has not been lost.

So while much of what made the Catskills what it was is long gone, the Borscht Belt that beckoned generations to its vacation homes a mere faded memory, its legacy remains every time someone tells a joke at an open mic night, or when we watch a Mel Brooks film or play. For those wanting a deeper dive at some of these elements, Alan Zweig’s When Jews Were Funny provides an excellent insight into this aspect of the legacy of these summer gatherings.

Gillespie’s Catskills offers a postcard from the past, an unapologetically celebratory look at this era and the hold, consciously or unconsciously, it still has on many Jews. While slightly limited in scope, it’s a nonetheless welcome reminder of what once was, and above all an opportune time to remind of an era where when most society was closed to this community, they found a way to make a space for themselves where they could be free to laugh, to love, and to live, all without fear or repercussion. Perhaps, given where we are at these days, that’s another lesson that’s worth listening to.

The Catskills has its Canadian premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on June. 9 at 4:00pm.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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