26 August 2006

At the Catskills conference: Back to the Borsht Belt

And so they came to Kutsher’s for the 12th Catskills Institute Conference.

From Honolulu, Bob and Harriet Hoffman; from Jacksonville, Florida, Ron and Susan Elinoff; Hal Bookbinder, who lives near Los Angeles, and a crowd of others, all with a Catskills connection.

Hal, past president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, grew up in Ellenville, not far from Monticello, and was here showing the area to his daughter.

The Hoffmans had just attended the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy and after hearing Phil Brown’s talk, immediately decided to come for at least a portion of the conference. Earlier in the day, they had successfully tracked down Bob’s great-grandfather in a local well-preserved Jewish cemetery. His family was among early Jewish families in the area.

Although Harriet is from the West Coast, on her first Borsht Belt visit, Bob had spent summers here. At dinner, the couple across the table heard that the Hoffmans lived in from Honolulu, and began a game of Jewish geography. Did she know the wife’s first cousin, an optician? Yes, said Harriet, who is in the eyewear business, very well. The Long Island couple wrote out contact information and Harriet promised to call their cousin.

Ron and I seem to know a lot of the same people from the old days. While saving money for dental school, Ron used to work for Mendelson’s butcher in Kauneonga Lake, where my grandmother bought her kosher meat. Several familiar names will be spending Saturday at the conference and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
"By the way," said Ron at dinner, "my first cousin is an avid genealogist in New York." His cousin is Mike Levine of the Jewish Genealogical Society (NY), which hosted the recent conference, and whom I’ve known for several years.

Catskills Institute founder Phil Brown offered a slide show of the Borsht Belt in its heyday, including postcards of area resorts by artist Alfred Landes.

A talk by Joan Micklin Silver on the making of her film Hester Street was followed by a screening. The production’s bottom line can be viewed as “be careful what you wish for.”

It portrays an Americanized Russian immigrant in 1896 on the Lower East Side, and the arrival of his old-country wife and son. Jake wants a modern New World wife, not one from the shtetl. But Gitl eventually becomes much more acculturated than Jake really wants.

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