Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 17, 2017

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 17, 2017

When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the Mighty Atom’s legendary strong man act at the Panoramic Health Farm, a bungalow colony he owned in Woodridge, New York—my home town that was described by the leftist PM newspaper as a utopia in the Catskills in 1947.

I watched in awe as the 62-year old, 5’4”, 145-pound bearded man with shoulder-length hair perform the stunts that had been part of his repertory since the 1920s such as bending nails with his teeth and an iron bar across his nose. In his prime, he could pull a fire engine with his hair or twist horseshoes into a pretzel. In fact, until his death at the age of 84 in 1977, he continued to perform. The new documentary “The Mighty Atom” that became available as VOD (iTunes, Amazon and Google Play) on November 14th points out that on the day he died, he walked from room to room in the hospital performing for fellow patients to lift their spirits. After his last tour through the wards, he laid down on his bed and passed on.

Continue reading

August 8, 2017

A weekend in Hudson

Filed under: bard college,Catskills,Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm

Louis Proyect and Lucas Jedrzejak

My primary purpose in going to Hudson, NY was to attend a screening of Lucas Jedrzejak’s documentary “Ketermaya” on Sunday, August 6th,  a film I first saw at the 2017 Socially Relevant Film Festival in March of this year. The screening was organized by Danette Gorman who was also at the SR 2017 festival and was inspired by the film to show solidarity with Syrian refugees determined to forge ahead despite dire circumstances. They are a microcosm of the freedom struggle that continues after six years of the regime’s genocidal attack on civilians.

Unlike other films about Syrian refugees that tend to be stories about their desperate flights across Europe or the Mediterranean and subsequent estrangement from an aloof if not hostile Swedish or German society, “Ketermaya” is a different kind of film. It is a testimony to the unquenchable spirit of the Syrian people and particularly the children of this refugee camp who will be the future leaders of a free Syria someday if there is any justice in this world and if there are enough people like Lucas and Danette to help make the critical difference.

Another motivation was to return to a town I had visited with some frequency when I was at Bard College in the early 60s. About a twenty minute drive from Bard, Hudson was in decline just like other towns and villages along the Hudson River. What all of them had going for them was a stunning view of the river and the Catskill Mountains behind it that I enjoyed from my dorm window at Ward Manor, a mansion the school purchased in my junior year. One night I came back around 8pm to see Bob Dylan in a salon on the ground floor playing an electric guitar with some of Bard’s folk musicians. I listened to them play for a bit and walked back to my room wondering why Dylan had gone electric.

Ward Manor

In a stroke of luck, Danette found lodging for me and my wife in the house of her friend Agi in the hills above Hudson. The view, as indicated above, was spectacular. Our host was nicknamed Agi since it easier to pronounce than her Hungarian birth name.

Her story was remarkable.

During WWII, when she was only three years old, she was among the Jews living under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg. As a Swedish diplomat assigned to Budapest, he was able to issued protective passports and to keep Jews like Agi and her parents alive in buildings designated as under Swedish protection. As an ally of Nazi Germany, Hungary obviously sought ways to help carry out the Final Solution. One day a gang of machine-gun touting Hungarian militia members swarmed into her building and ordered her and everyone else to line up on the street. With death staring them in the face, Wallenberg’s limousine showed up at the last minute. Using his authority as an official representative of Sweden, he ordered the fascists to disperse.

Why would Soviet Russia have had Raul Wallenberg arrested in January 1945, the month of my birth, and sent to the Lubyanka prison camp near Moscow where he died two years later? Since the USSR had no use for “bourgeois democracy”, there are no records of the charge against him, which were probably as bogus as all the others that took place under Stalin. What we do have is a record of Soviet leader Nikolai Bulganin’s order for his arrest:

On Saturday during lunch at Agi’s home, Lucas referred briefly to his own exposure to Stalinist criminality. In high school, he had a teacher who was notoriously strict and demanding—the sort of man who would throw a heavy keychain at the blackboard to get the attention of an unruly class. One day, he closed the door to the classroom and told the students that he was going to tell them the truth about the massacre in Katyn. 23,000 Polish officers were executed in 1940 for no other reasons than that they were officers. This occurred when the USSR was in control of the eastern half of Poland as part of the secret protocols of the Malenkov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact. It was the determination of men and women like this high school teacher, as well as Lucas’s parents, to be free that put them on a collision course with the Kremlin, which finally culminated in the emergence of Solidarity in 1980.

Like Lucas, Agi knew what it meant to be part of a powerful anti-bureaucratic movement. Like many Hungarian youth, she started off seeing some benefits in Communism, especially its ambitious athletics program modeled on the USSR’s but when she joined a massive protest march in 1956, she felt the same way that Poles would feel in 1980 and Syrians would feel in 2011—free at last, to repeat Martin Luther King Jr’s immortal words.

As I have said hundreds of times before, the Western left has a deficit problem. Seeing Washington as a kind of absolutely evil presence in the world, it tends to demonize any movement receiving its aid. This leads it to excuse oppressive behavior by the Kremlin on a consistent basis, just like the Communist Parties did in the 30s and 40s. When there was a USSR, one might explain this as motivated by good intentions even if it objectively helped Stalin have Wallender arrested or invade Hungary and Poland. But with Putin supposedly being one of the wealthiest men in the world today according to some experts and Assad’s crony capitalist cousin controlling 60 percent of the Syrian economy, there can be no excuse.

With 150 people showing up for the screening of “Ketermaya”, it was obvious that human rights trumped geopolitical foolishness. Like anybody else who has seen the film, they understood that Syrians deserve our support and solidarity.

There are good reasons why Hudson would serve as a “sister city” to Ketermaya, to recall the term activists used in the 1980s when places like Park Slope in Brooklyn would link up with a Nicaraguan city that had been a victim of Reagan’s contra war. What better way to oppose American foreign policy than to act as a citizen of the world sending medicine or computers to people under siege? Agi described Hudson as a city with many liberal-minded New Yorkers who moved there because they could no longer afford the rents in Park Slope. Among them were a sizable contingent of gays and lesbians who flocked to the there in the mid-80s when it was rapidly becoming a center for antique dealers, a business long favored by gay men and women. Wikipedia refers to this development:

In the last few years, perhaps encouraged by the number of gay business owners among the original antiques dealers, Hudson has become a destination for gay people who have opened new businesses, moved here from larger urban areas, and who have been in the forefront of the restoration of many of the city’s historic houses. In 2010, Hudson High School made history when openly gay seniors, Charlie Ferrusi and Timmy Howard, were named prom king and queen. During the same year, Hudson hosted its first gay pride parade, which was attended by several hundred people.

Since January, Americans have been agonizing over the direction of the country with a racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobe in the White House. While a lot of the discussion veers toward electoral strategy, there was something about the positive example of Hudson that deserves consideration by the left.

Aided by the Presbyterian Church in Hudson, which is as progressive as any Unitarian church I have ever seen, Danette Gorman has taken the initiative to create an alternative America that embodies the true spirit of this country. Only arriving in Hudson around the same time she saw “Ketermaya”, she raised money to fund a needs assessment trip to Lebanon. Her next step is to organize a meeting at the church to get people involved. So instead of bemoaning the evils of a know-nothing president, she and her fellow Hudsonites are acting to create a different reality, one in which solidarity across borders in the interests of peace and fair play reigns supreme.

If you want to support Danette Gorman’s project to help the children of Ketermaya, please go to https://www.helpsyriaskids.org/ and help spread the word.

Finally, as someone who recognizes the power of “Ketermaya” to cut through the stereotypes of Syrians as fanatics and potential terrorists, I am hoping to recruit college students in NY to help organize a screening when the fall semester starts. Ideally, it would include Skype connections to Lucas for a Q&A and with the children of Ketermaya who love connecting with people in the West to tell their story. Contact me at lnp3@panix.com if you find this trailer inspiring, as surely you will.

May 18, 2016

Socialism in the borscht belt

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

From pages 89-93 of Catskill Culture:

In the Catskills, comics often made jokes about college activists, and the guests seemed to share negative opinions about those antiwar groups, such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The hotels openly opposed unionization of their staff and certainly didn’t treat the lowest levels of the workers very well. Guests were very concerned with upward mobility, a logical desire given their Eastern European background.

Altogether, that made the Mountains seem conservative to me. By age sixteen, a junior in high school, I was very involved in civil rights and antiwar activities at home in North Miami Beach and, and by college I was a full-time activist. But I always felt like I had to keep my mouth shut about this during the Catskill summers. The few conversations I ever ever had about politics made me look like a far-left outsider. Thus, I was completely shocked at the age of seventeen to be introduced to the wonderful political ballads of Phil Ochs by a dining room colleague who brought a portable stereo to the Karmel Hotel’s staff quarters. (Ochs was one of the best known political folk singers in the 1960s.) Yet, overall, I experienced the Catskills as an encapsulated world that the activist 1960s had not yet captured. Certainly my radical friends were not even considering working summers in a place like the Catskills.

By the early 1970s, my mother was working at Chait’s Hotel in Accord, where political discussion was common, and she very much liked that atmosphere. I then realized that there was a leftist tradition in the Mountains, and my current process of revisiting the Catskills’ legacy has shown that radicalism was an important, even though small, part of Catskill culture. As early as the first two decades of the century, Workmen’s Circle chapters were significant components in the life of Jewish farmers and other residents, bringing a combination of socialism, union organizing, Yiddish culture, and benevolent association. In the 1930s, when some Jews believed in the Soviet Union’s plans for a Birobidjan homeland for the Jews, camps in the Catskills were organizing training centers for that effort. My mother toyed with the idea of going to Birobidjan, but my father talked her out of it.

The fervor of the 1930s was so strong that politics made its way even into hotels that were not expressly radical. A waiter who worked at the Huntington Lakeside told me how political entertainment might crop up in the 1930s: One of his guests was the famous Yiddish actor Mikhl Rosenberg, who organized a costume ball where he dressed the waiter up as Trotsky, and they lampooned the Moscow show trials of 1936. One man who worked a variety of jobs for seventy years recalls his own activism:

In 1934, we had a young Jewish group that studied Marxism. We had classes; we had a dramatic class. The girls and boys from Monticello [were] a very nice bunch. We had dances. And came May Day, we had a May Day demonstration. We had a speaker on the corner with an American flag. There was almost a riot there. The police department came out, the fire department came out, [and] the American Legion. Some guy threw a tomato. They thought the speaker picked up the flag to ward it off, but he didn’t. They hit the flag [with the tomato] and it bounced off and hit him in the face. Well, there was a trial in the fall, and our lawyers made monkeys out of them and threw it out of court.

Three years later when this man was attempting to organize waiters at the Flagler, he found it hard to sign up union members because a floating work force typically didn’t return the next year to the same hotel—”I had my head cracked a couple of times.”

In her memoir of hotel ownership and local life, Cissie Blumberg [LP: a close friend of my mother] notes that the town of Woodridge donated an ambulance to the Spanish Loyalists in the 1930s. She and her husband raised money for the Progressive Party’s 1948 campaign to elect Henry Wallace as President, and they organized “Farmers for Wallace” and “Women for Wallace.” In the antiwar 1960s, they ran up against roadblocks in organizing a meeting featuring Dr. Benjamin Spock when officials wouldn’t provide a public building to hold the meeting. I heard from others that Green Acres made a point of hiring blacklisted entertainers such as Zero Mostel. A son of chicken farmers told me about how his parents were active in the American Labor Party (ALP). His father ran for state assembly in 1950, and his mother spoke and leafleted, sometimes with his help—”They were part of an identifiable left-wing group in the community.” The ALP fought against the cold war mentality, racism, and anti-Semitism, and it ran candidates for local and state elections, supported the 1948 Wallace campaign, and raised support and money for the Rosenbergs. (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as “atom spies.” Widely understood as a frame-up of political activists, the Rosenberg case was a touchstone of McCarthyist repression on the one hand and progressive politics on the other.) The son adds, “One of the most memorable and important activities that I remember was organizing the black laundry workers at the Sullivan County Steam Laundry” to help them win improvements in their working conditions. One retired farmer, still living on the same farm his father started in 1904, remembers a red-baiting attempt by the local Liberal Party to defeat him when he ran for the board of the fire insurance cooperative.

When people think about leftist resorts, three names typically come to mind: Maud’s Summer Ray, Chester’s Zunbarg, and Arrowhead Lodge. At Maud’s Summer Ray in the years before World War II, most guests were leftists. Their numbers included socialists, communists, and Trotskyists, though the communists predominated, at least as measured by the sales of newspapers: the Communist Party’s Yiddish Freiheit (Freedom) was the top seller as a veteran guest of Maud’s told mc. Chester’s Zunbarg had leftist entertainers such as Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Woodie Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Leon Bibb, Ossie Davis and Rubie Dee. Moreover, W.E.B. Dubois even lectured in the Catskills.

Henry Foner speaks of working in the band at the Arrowhead Lodge, which was affiliated with the leftist Jefferson School, an adult noncredit school in New York City. Indeed, the Jefferson School handled all of the Arrowhead’s reservations and supplied political lecturers twice a week. This was very helpful all around: “For the hotel it was great because they were filled throughout the summer. For the Jefferson School it was good because they were getting a percentage of the take. For us it was good because a new crowd was coming up each week so we didn’t have to worry about repeating material.” At this time, the Rapp-Coudert Commission, a New York State forerunner of the McCarthy committee, forced the firing of about fifty teachers from city colleges and public schools. Foner remembers that:

Leonard Lyons, who was a columnist in the [New York] Post, wrote a piece in which he said, “Some of the teachers suspended from City College are forming an orchestra and they are calling it ‘Suspended Swing.” So we called our orchestra “Suspended Swing.” We printed cards and that’s how we were known—The Foner Brothers and Their Suspended Swing Orchestra.

As Foner recalls, they had a busy schedule:

While we were up there in ’47, my brother, Moe [Foner], was the education director for the Department Store Union, and he got the no-tion, based on “Pins and Needles” [a very successful musical comedy created by the ILGWU], that it was time to do another musical comedy for the unions. So Norman Franklin and I were commissioned to write “Thursdays ‘Til Nine.” So we used that summer—since we were writing material, we were able to try it out during the summer—and we wrote a full-scale musical comedy. The performers were all workers of the Department Store Union. Irving Berlin came to the opening.

Like any Catskill hotel, Arrowhead had weekly campfires, but in this case they sang union songs and Spanish Civil War songs. Though the resort was quite leftist, it still could attract talent that was not expressly political. Foner continues:

I had been teaching at Tilden High School with Sam Levinson, so we convinced the owner of Arrowhead that she should hire Sam Levinson as the MC [in 1941]. It was a very successful summer, and as a result, Sam became well known, and from that year on he began to go up to the country and to take a bungalow and go out to perform at the hotels throughout the Catskills.

Another radical hotel lasted a shorter time. The Fur Worker’s Resort, later called White Lake Lodge, started in 1949. As the education director of the Furrier’s Union, Henry Foner therefore worked at that hotel, too:

It was [union president Ben] Gold’s ambition to have a resort that the fur workers would be able to come to when they were on vacation. The best-laid plans of mice and men . . . the busiest season for fur workers is the summer, and why it didn’t occur to him I don’t know, but workers’ vacations were in the wintertime. So it became a resort for the progressive movement. Howard Fast came up regularly and would lecture.

The hotel probably lost money each season. In 1955, the Furrier’s Union merged with the Meat Cutters and they decided to stop operating the resort. It was bought and became a Jewish camp, Camp Hi-Li. But this radicalism was atypical. Harvey Jacobs’s novel, Summer on a Mountain of Spices, offers a dramatic portrayal of the loneliness of Catskill political activists in the late 1940s and 1950s, including a trip across the Hudson to Peekskill to the famous 1949 Paul Robeson concert, where the singer and his audience were stoned—while state and local police looked on with encouragement before arresting them. Paul Robeson was a frequent visitor at the Fur Worker’s Resort, and many people staying there went to Peekskill to support the concert and protect Robeson. Radical politics was a minority perspective, even in the turbulent 1960s; resorts just couldn’t provide a fertile location for this, being too busy providing entertainment that was geared to take people’s minds off such troubles. Indeed, Mountain comics frequently used social activists and hippies as a convenient butt for humor.

 

January 8, 2016

Woodridge characters

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Yesterday when I was walking down Third Ave. with my wife for some exercise, we spotted a man walking his Pomeranian dog, a pet that has become trendy lately as a result of its exposure on the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” as Giggy Vanderpump.

My family owned and loved a half-breed Pomeranian we called Blondie when I was growing up. She was part of a litter of pups that was the result of an illicit romance between Maisie Zotel’s full-breed Pom and some mutt that came a calling at Maisie’s home halfway between Mountaindale and Woodridge, where I lived until I was 16 years old. Every so often I dream about Maisie’s house that had an old fashioned well on her front lawn from which you could draw spring water via a hand pump. As far as I know, Maisie never had been married and always wore pants. She was also very loud. When she came into my father’s fruit store, her voice carried over everybody else’s. I had no idea about her sexuality but she was like no other woman in our village except for one. If you’ve ever seen Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle, you might get an idea of what Maisie was like. Ma Kettle with a Yiddish accent.

Maybe Maisie was just rebelling against gender norms way ahead of her time. There was another personality like that in my tiny village, a motorcycle-driving woman in her mid-thirties named Nancy who had various jobs from driving a school bus to waitressing. I rarely saw her in a skirt. Like Maisie, she had an outsized personality. It was unusual enough for someone to own a motorcycle back then in the mid-sixties; it was even more unusual for the owner to be a female. When I bought my own motorcycle in the summer of 1964, I got Nancy to teach me how to ride it. She explained that if you can ride a bicycle, you could ride a motorcycle. She was right.

It was much harder for men to escape gossip if they departed from the cookie cutter gender roles in the late 50s and early 60s. Around 1959 a guy named Rene showed up in Woodridge, not long after leaving Cuba. He might have been fleeing the revolution but he could have just easily come here for purely economic reasons. He was married and had a kid but people could never figure out how that could have happened since he was a hairdresser and had all the mannerisms of a drag queen. He had arrived in Woodridge to open a beauty parlor that the local women loved and where his wife, who was Jewish, worked as a manicurist. In my hometown, he was accepted as one of our own although nobody expected Rene to join the volunteer fire department or to go out hunting deer in open season, a pastime favored by Jews and non-Jews alike.

When I was about ten years old or so, I used to look forward to visits from a middle-aged man named Harry Mason to my father’s store. Harry always wore a suit, tie and fedora, even in the summer time. He had a stooped walk like Groucho Marx and reminded me a lot of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Harry was a CPA and a very good mathematician. He used to love to challenge me with math puzzles. From time to time, I rode along with my father’s deliverymen who were bringing fruit and vegetable orders to Harry’s ramshackle house. I followed them into the kitchen and as I walked behind them carrying a small bag of goods like an apprentice, I could never get over the stacks of National Geographics and books in almost every room. Harry was always a mystery to me. If I ever wrote a novel about my hometown after the fashion of Faulkner or Marquez, I’d create a backstory for Harry as a man with a mysterious past perhaps as a numbers runner or an accountant for Dutch Schultz. Who knows? Maybe the truth was even stranger than I could imagine.

Around that time, when I was 11 years old or so, I also used to stop by Rose Basner’s house on Highland Avenue. Rose was in her seventies back then and was another “character” in a village filled with characters. She had a room on the second floor of her house that was filled with about a hundred canaries. When we approached the screen door separating the birds from the rest of the house, they’d take flight and swarm around the room in a blur of pastel yellows and aqua with their beating wings making a small racket. I can see them now. But even more fascinating for me were her New Yorker magazine back issues stacked at the bottom of her stairs that I always loved to read for the cartoons. I only understood about half of them but those that I understood helped me define my sense of humor. Along with the Borscht Belt comedians that dominated television back then from Milton Berle to Danny Kaye, their absurdist sensibility was a major influence on my style.

None of this could be reflected in my comic memoir that Harvey Pekar stipulated should contain no more than about sixty pages of text—and mostly dialogue at that. If I ever get around to writing a prose version rather than a comic book, all of these people and more will get spotlighted.

December 8, 2015

Camp Woodland

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 4:58 pm

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 11.56.16 AM

Joan Roelof wrote a comment yesterday on my post about Chester’s Zumbarg: “I wonder if you know about Camp Woodland. It was a major influence in my life.” As it turns out the book on the Catskills that I had excerpted for that post had a couple of pages on Camp Woodland just before the Chester’s passage. Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, which stood for Workers Children Camp, was based in New Jersey and like Camp Woodland catered to the children of leftists, especially CP’ers. Three years ago I blogged about Fred Baker’s experiences at Wo-Chi-Ca and perhaps I will get the opportunity to interview Joan Roelof before too long as part of my video project about the Borscht Belt and the left.

“The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America”, pp. 347-348

When he emerged from the [Committee on Un-American Activities] hearing he reacted to the cameras outside: “Ah, they’re letting me back on television. First time in years.”

-RING LARDNER JR. on Zero Mostel

“The first time I went to the Catskills was with my father, at age twelve, to climb Slide Mountain,” recalled Pete Seeger, one of the iconic figures of American folk music. Seeger, along with Woody Guthrie, had been an original member of the Weavers and an unabashed left-wing protester who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. “Another time,” Seeger remembered, “we climbed Overlook and slept up there on a cliff” Still able to picture the “sunrise over the valley,” Seeger, at age ninety in 2009, described the origins of Camp Woodland, arguably the first interracial camp in America. “Many of the teachers in New York in the 19305 were lefties of one sort or another, and a group of them decided to pool their resources and found they could buy an old church camp that was for sale near Phoenicia, up Woodland Valley. And they called it Camp Woodland.”

Woodland’s goal was to instill a democratic spirit in its campers by inviting city children of different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds to live together and learn from one another and their counselors. At the same time, they would be steeped in the rich cultural and sociological history of the Catskills.

As in a 2010 exhibition presented by the Historical Society of Woodstock, titled “The Spirit of Camp Woodland”:

Just as there is a Hudson River School of Painting, whose artists like Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Jasper Cropsey sought to capture and preserve an idyllic view of the Hudson River Valley, so too is there a lesser known, unofficial Hudson River School of Folk Music, among which Pete Seeger, Eric Weissberg, and Joe Hickerson can be counted as some of its students. Like those painters who created sweeping vistas of Catskill Mountain landscapes and majestic views of Hudson River scenes, they too are creating an image with lyrics and melodies of the lives and stories of the people who dwelled and settled in this region long ago.

SEEGER, who worked on an early version of what was to become his signature song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” at Camp Woodland, was a regular summer visitor who first came in the late 1930s, at a time when he and three oth-ers were appearing in a traveling puppet show. “I remember being struck by the wonderful spirit of the children and the fact that they took the older kids out in station wagons to visit people in the local towns,” Seeger recalled. “At the general store, they’d ask, ‘Is there anybody here who knows what it was like back in the days when the tanneries were going?’ [And they’d be told,’ ‘Oh, go see Mrs. Johnson. She’ll talk your ear off.’ And they would go find her.”

Seeger also said “the camp had one big room that could be used for square dances and a performance. I’d sing for the whole camp for an hour or so, get them singing with me. And every year I looked forward to learning new songs.”

The camp’s founder was the educator Norman Studer, who, with his codirectors, Norman Cazden and Herbert Haufrecht, set about documenting and conserving the fast-disappearing traditional folk and music culture of the Catskills. Counselors would ferry carloads of campers to visit and talk with old-time Catskills mountain folk, then drive them all back to Woodland so the locals could continue to share what they knew.

“Camp Woodland’s musical traditions included a weekly square dance called by Catskill resident George Van Kleek, who was always accompanied by his wife Clara, and sometimes the youngsters themselves,” according to the New York Folklore Society. What the old-timers sought to pass on were “traditional skills in logging, bark stripping, blacksmithing, hoop-shaving, shingle splitting, square dance calling, and … the stories of their lives, the tall tales and songs from the region.”

In 1982, years after this information was first amassed, Studer, Cazden, and Haufrecht published Folk Songs of the Catskills: A Celebration of Camp Woodland, an invaluable collection of songs and ballads that chronicled the entire span of Catskills history, from those crooned by the first pioneers to ballads about the Catskills during the Revolutionary War, and songs about lumbering and quarry ing, the Anti-Rent War, steamboat pilots and railroad wrecks, and the hoboes and tramps who rode the Catskills rails during the Depression.

The high point of every summer at Woodland was a folk festival that brought together campers and residents to perform songs, put on plays, and tell stories, all to celebrate, maintain, and pass on Catskills culture to the next generation.

 

December 7, 2015

Chester’s Zumbarg

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,repression — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Yesterday’s NY Times Sunday Book Review had an article on Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver’s “The Catskills: its history and how it changed America”. As someone who grew up in the southern Catskills in the so-called Borscht Belt and who went to college in Annandale-on-Hudson in the northern Catskills, the region has been a big influence on my life.

I had the good fortune to attend a talk by Stephen M. Silverman at a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side just after the book came out. The audience, like me, came mostly for what he would say about the Borscht Belt. Many had memories of going “to the mountains” in the 1950s when it was still a vibrant resort area.

When I was in high school I had heard about a hotel called Chester’s that had a reputation for being leftist and culturally advanced, featuring string quartets rather than Mambo bands. I never made it over there but was keenly aware that it existed. As I have mentioned in my comic book memoir, there was a leftist underground in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s that included certain hotels and bungalow colonies as part of its “liberated territory”.

Michael Elias is one of the people who knew Chester’s well. Five years older than me, he was the son of a leftist physician in South Fallsburgh, a nearby town. Michael made it out to Hollywood after graduating college and became a very successful director and screenwriter with films like “The Jerk” to his credit. I had a brief chat with Michael about 20 years ago on a trip out to tinseltown but never had any idea that he was a red diaper baby.

A few months ago, after legendary novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal mentioned that he was a friend of Michael’s, we began exchanging emails about growing up in the Borscht Belt. This led to Michael sending me a copy of his play “A Catskill Sonata” that was based on a weekend at Chester’s with a character named Dave who had been blacklisted from his job writing for the Arthur Godfrey show, a popular daytime talk show. Michael describes “A Catskill Sonata” as a “serious comedy in one act”. The owner of the hotel is named Anne Rosen, an obvious reference to Ann Chester.

Here is a brief excerpt from Michael’s play followed by Stephen M. Silverman’s discussion of Chester’s.

DAVE

Actually, Godfrey and I…actually CBS and I…how to say this…

RAE

You quit?

DAVE

Actually, it was more of a mutual thing. The producers fired me and I went along with their decision.

RAE

What about Godfrey? What did he say?

DAVE

He feels terrible. His assistant gave me the message personally.

ERNIE

When did this happen?

DAVE

A couple of weeks ago. Costello called me into his office, said my wife gave money to the Communist Party. So that’s where it went, I said. I told him Madeline and I have a deal. She doesn’t try to convert me to Marxism and I don’t make her watch your putrid show. Which, naturally, didn’t go over too well. But, as you know, my policy is to be brave as long as the situation is hopeless.

ERNIE

Can you get another show?

DAVE

They made it clear that I am not employable in television. Wait. Maybe I could repair them. If only I knew how they worked.

RAE

I’m sorry, Dave.

DAVE

It’s not all bad. Now that I’m blacklisted I don’t have to subscribe to The Daily Worker.

RAE

Can’t you write for Godfrey under another name?

DAVE

I don’t write that much. I mainly whisper clever things in Arthur’s ear between songs. No, I’m dead. Wait. There is one thing: I could turn in my friends. Give their names to the FBI. That would get my job back. I could become head writer. It won’t work. I don’t have any friends. Okay, I know a couple of comics who don’t care about my politics. I’ll survive. I’ll have to keep this from my dope dealer. He’s a rabid anti-Communist.

Stephen M. Silverman:

A HIGHLY REGARDED WRITER of scripts for television and film, Walter Bernstein penned the 1976 The Front, in which Woody Allen plays a practically illiterate bar cashier and part-time bookie who during the McCarthy era in the 1950s poses as a “front” for blacklisted television writers. “There were a bunch of us in New York in the entertainment business that were writers and directors and musicians and producers who were blacklisted as a result of Red Channels,” said Bernstein, who in the 1950s was only in his early thirties. “There were eight or nine listings for me, all true. Supporting Republican Spain. Some Russian friendship thing. African-American civil liberties. Writing for the New Masses, a couple of times. They were all accurate. You were blacklisted unless you went and cleared yourself. And that meant going down and testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities…. You could go there and say, ‘I’m sorry I did this. I would never join the organizations again. You know, they’re all terrible people.’ But unless you gave names—that was the mark of your sincerity—you stayed blacklisted.”

For Bernstein, who did not name names, this meant being out of work “for about eight or nine years in movies, and another year in television before it ended. It was not easy making a living. It was harder for the actors and directors than it was for the writers, because we could try to find ways to survive. We stuck together,” he said.

“One of the things that was very nice was that several hotels in the Catskill Mountains, the smaller ones in particular, would invite blacklisted artists to come for a free weekend. And in return for which they would ask us if we would conduct seminars or panels or give speeches or lectures on our particular subjects. The hospitality was very open. There was either a swimming pool or a lake. And lots and lots of food, all you could eat.”

Bernstein found refuge in “one small hotel that I went to several times … Chester’s. The full name was Chester’s Zunbarg, that’s Yiddish for Sun Hill.” Located down the road from Grossinger’s and started during the Depression by Anne Chester and her family when their real estate business collapsed, the no-guest-capacity hotel catered to an intellectual crowd, offering chamber music, workshops, discussion groups, and meditation sessions. African-American entertainers like Josh White and Paul Robeson stayed there as guests of the Chester family. Roberson, who frequented Chester’s, was taken there in 1949 after the notorious Peekskill riots, when a crowd of racists and anticommunists stoned his car before he was to perform a concert on the Lakeland Picnic Grounds at Cortland Manor in Westchester County.

Long a figure of controversy for his social and political stance, Robeson had been targeted on this particular occasion for expressing his gratitude toward the Soviet Union (about which he said, “Here I am not a Negro but a human being) and for his belief that African Americans should not serve in the military of a racist Western democracy. During the melee, Robeson escaped from one car to another to conceal his exit amid a seven-car convoy. “He was told to lie on the floor in case somebody tries to kill him on the way out,” remembered Pete Seeger.

Seeger also vividly recalled how the Klan surrounded the dirt road of the country club as if it were a battlefield and that signs had goneup throughout Peekskill reading, Wake Up, America: Peekskill Did. “The very moment of the evening of the attack, [the signs] went up,” said Seeger. “They were on bumpers of cars. In gas stations In windows. In houses. In stores. And, in Europe, they were horrified. They said, ‘Don’t you know that’s the same sign that went up in Germany after Kristallnacht? They said, Wake Up, Germany: Munich Did.'”

“Chester’s Zunbarg was a small hotel,” Bernstein said. “The woman who ran it, Anne Chester, was warm and very hospitable. What I remember mainly was the warmth. ‘Kinderlach, darlings, children, come, eat, eat!’ You know you were constantly trying to cut that sense of isolation that was forced on you by being black-listed. You knew you were the pariahs. There were people who I knew who would cross the street when they saw me coming.” This was not the case at Chester’s. “We went up there several times. Go up on a Friday, come back Monday morning. And we entertained. Some of the actors did comic routines.”

One of them was Zero Mostel. “I remember going up there once with Zero. He was the big star of the weekend. They knew him from his nightclub work. He had played the Borscht Belt. One time Zero asked if I would drive him up to a hotel in the Catskills called the Concord. Big hotel. He had been promised five hundred dollars to appear. Before he was blacklisted, he was pulling down something like two thousand dollars a night. But he needed the five hundred very badly.” So badly that when Mostel showed up, the manager informed him that the fee had been sliced in half “Even the two-fifty at that time was more than rent money, and he needed it,” said Bernstein. Mostel took to the stage as planned, before an audience of at least fifteen hundred. “And he was wonderful. He did his act in a rage. He was so angry at what was going on. And he insulted the audience in Yiddish. He called them names. And the more he did that, the more they laughed. The more they liked him. He was a big hit. They called him back several times, and he cursed out everybody.” Bernstein wound up putting Mostel to bed that night, though not before the actor had downed half a bottle of whiskey. When it became time to shoot The Front more than two decades later, Bernstein wanted Mostel, who played a black-listed TV star in the movie, to re-enact the entire real-life episode, only Mostel would have none of it. “It was still too painful for him to re-create that. And so we just show a snippet of his thing and then he does get angry afterward and attacks the manager. But he wouldn’t do that thing which was so awful and extraordinary to see, of him performing his comic act on the stage in such anger.”

 

September 28, 2015

The Shawangunk Ridge

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

When I was 12 years old or so, my parents moved into a new house on Maple Avenue in Woodridge, a tiny village in Sullivan County, NY that had a jaw-dropping view of the Shawangunk Mountains from our living room window. More properly known as the Shawangunk Ridge, it was close to the town of Ellenville about 10 miles from our village as this map indicates. Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 12.20.24 PM

Within a year after we moved in, my father planted a row of pine trees at the edge of our back yard that within 5 years or so blocked the view. His motivation for planting the trees was to create a windbreak that would conceivably cut fuel costs. All I know is that it robbed our family of a de facto work of art framed by our rear window. As it turns out, nature would have accomplished the same goal as my father because not long after his trees reached their vista-robbing height, the trees beyond our house also began blocking the view as well.

When I was young enough to travel by bus to NYC on my own, usually to buy classical records at Sam Goody, there was no Quickway aka the new Route 17. We took what is now known as Old Route 17, a road that would never be able to handle the crush of summertime vacationers coming up to the Catskills but that was much more fun for a youngster. It had a roadside restaurant called the Red Apple that had the best hamburgers and French fries I ever had back then. But the high point for me was looking out the window between Wurtsboro and Bloomingburg to see the Shawangunk Ridge on the horizon.

Old Route 17 between Wurtsboro and Bloomingburg has been redesignated as County Road 171 as seen in the map below.

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 11.55.20 AM

This month I went up to Sullivan County to film that exact view but just as was the case with my back yard, trees had reached a height that blocked the view from the 171 county road. Determined to include it in a video I am working on, I drove up a road off of 171 called High View Terrace that towered over the trees and gave me an unblocked view of the Shawangunk Ridge that was so dear to me. A woman who owned a house at the top of the road generously allowed me to film from her back yard.

I also went over to Ellenville and drove up on Route 52 that wended its way along the Shawangunk Ridge. From the high point on 52, I filmed the mountain range that the bus traveled along toward NYC. You can even see the same building with a white roof in the valley below from both video clips.

Finally there is a clip from the Yoga Ranch in Woodbourne that faced the Shawangunk Ridge from the same direction as my house. I only discovered this view as an accident. I wanted to include one of the ashrams that now operate from former Jewish resort hotels and this place had one of the finest views in the area to my amazement.

The three clips are seen below:

The word Shawangunk was a Dutch transliteration of the Munsee Lenape word Shawankunk, which meant “in the smoky air”, a reference to the mist that blanketed the mountains and that is in clear evidence from the scorching heat of a few weeks ago when the first two video clips were shot.

Wikipedia reports that Lenape language scholar Raymond Whritenour believes that the name “derives from the burning of a Munsee fort by the Dutch at the eastern base of the ridge in 1663 (a massacre ending the Second Esopus War)”. I am not inclined to make edits to Wikipedia but the idea of a Munsee fort is absurd. That is like referring to the American cavalry burning down Lakota teepees and later on describing it as an attack on a fort.

It should be mentioned that the British who had absorbed Dutch holdings in the late 17th century drove the Munsees from their homeland along the Shawangunk Ridge. Unlike the Esopus tribe, the Munsees had not fought against the Dutch who were actually encroaching on Esopus farmland. (They were not exactly hunter and gatherers apparently.)

Driven from NY, most Munsees ended up in Wisconsin hence giving the city of Muncie its names. I had occasion to write about this ethnic cleansing in a CounterPunch magazine article on Indian gambling casinos. As part of a deal made with tribes, Governor Cuomo gave the green light to the Munsees to open one up in Sullivan County even though they were in Wisconsin. Their struggle to be compensated for the historic losses is an ongoing one as is the case with all indigenous peoples.

From my article:

Unlike the Pequots who built their casino on reservation land in Connecticut, the Munsees were based in Wisconsin. This would lead one to ask what their connection to New York was. Were they acting cynically like Chief Doug Smith? [A casino boss stereotyped in a “Sopranos” episode.] In 2011, the Department of the Interior rescinded a 2008 rule adopted by the Bush administration blocking the opening of a casino beyond commuting distance from a reservation. It was only natural that the Munsees would take advantage of their roots in New York State.

Like many other American cities, rivers and mountain ranges bequeathed with indigenous names, Muncie, Indiana owes its to the Munsees. Wikipedia states:

The area was first settled in the 1770s by the Lenape people, who had been transported from their tribal lands in the Mid-Atlantic region (all of New Jersey plus southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware) to Ohio and eastern Indiana.

You’ll notice the use of the passive voice “had been trans- ported”, a tendency often found in prose anxious to shirk responsibility. The Lenapes, including the Munsee, were not exactly “transported”—they were expelled, mostly in the 19th century. White settlers bought the land from beneath their feet and drove them westward, first from New York and then from Ohio. As they moved toward Wisconsin and finally to Oklahoma, they left their traces along a trail of tears, including Muncie.

In addition to having their roots in New York, the Munsees have the added distinction of giving Manhattan its name. Likely the Lenape tribe that the settlers encountered was the Munsees, who called the island “Mannahattanink,” the word for “place of general intoxication” according to Mike Wallace—the Marxist co-author of Gotham, not the television personality of the Indian-baiting 60 Minutes. In describing Manhattan as a “place of general intoxication”, the Munsees certainly demonstrated a grasp of the fine art of futurology.

March 21, 2015

The Rise and the Fall of the Borscht Belt

Filed under: Catskills,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

A while back FB friend Maxene Diamond Spindell, who posts a lot of interesting material to the Memories of the Catskills group, posted a ten minute excerpt from Peter Davis’s “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, a documentary made in 1986 that I saw when it first came out. Since I have my own “The Unrepentant Marxist Returns to the Catskills” video in the works, I was very interested to see the whole film and perhaps include some footage under the fair use provision.

As it turns out the film was not available from all the usual sources either online or as a DVD. Taking advantage of my retiree benefits from Columbia University, I ordered a VHS through BorrowDirect, an interlibrary service that most universities belong to. After I had the film digitized, I put it up on my Vimeo website for everyone to see. Hopefully I won’t get any intellectual property static over this especially since I emailed Peter Davis a week ago and got no reply.

I appealed to Davis as a fellow leftist. For those in the know, he was one of America’s top leftist documentary filmmakers of the past half-century with films like “Hearts and Minds” to his credit, the definitive Vietnam antiwar film in my view. His last film, “In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid”, was made in 1993.

His leftist orientation can be seen in “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, although not in an obvious way. The film is a mixture of social history and nostalgic entertainment as we see both former vacationers and hotel owners and employees reminiscing about the Borscht Belt in its heyday. For regular readers of my blog, you are probably aware that I grew up in the area and included a good 20 or so pages about my background there in the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar.

As the term borscht implies, the people who worked and stayed in the hotels and bungalow colonies were almost all Jews. The “fall” in the title of Davis’s film refers to the tourist industry collapsing after Jews became wealthier and more assimilated. After moving from the garment industry cutting rooms to accounting firms, they could now afford vacations in Puerto Rico and no longer felt the need to be in a hotel that served kosher food.

My memories include both happy and sad moments. For example, I will never forget the wonderment I felt as a 10-year-old boy watching the Mighty Atom (née Joseph Greenstein) bend an iron bar across his nose at his Paramount Health Farm. On the other hand, I was turned off by the materialism of the hotel owners and small businessmen in the area whose life seemed to revolve around Cadillac convertibles and mink coats for their wives. In a piece about Harvey Pekar’s wonderful memoir “The Quitter”, I described one of those painful (but partly uplifting) moments:

One summer, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my mother wrangled tickets to see the legendary Jewish tenor Richard Tucker perform at the Concord Hotel. She brought me and her mother in the family car, a 1952 Studebaker that not only looked like crap but was burning oil. When we arrived at the entrance to the Concord, the fanciest hotel in the Catskills, you could see a plume of smoke trailing the car for about 50 feet. My mom turned the key over to a valet who I heard make some wisecrack about the jalopy to the other valets. Meanwhile, the guests at the hotel out for an evening stroll in their mink stoles stared at us as if we were from another planet. It did not help that my deaf grandma spoke so loud that you could hear her from the next county. All I wanted to do is put as much distance as I could from these yokels as I could. Now at the age of 64 I feel somehow proud of the fact that appearances meant nothing to my mother. Plus, Richard Tucker was in great form that night.

Within a week or so, I will begin making my own film about the Catskills that will include an interview I did with people at Lansman’s bungalow colony in Hurleyvile, including Maxene. I had found out about the colony in an article in the NY Times about people trying to keep the spirit of the Catskills alive:

Each colony has its own personality. At the woodsy and quiet Buffalo Colony, which has much larger, family-size units, there are gay and straight parents, and biological and adopted children of many races. Lansman’s, an 85-unit colony in Woodbourne, which was bought by former renters from back in its family-owned days, is still mostly Jewish. Stephanie Kreiner, president of the board there, said residents still play mah-jongg and attend Saturday evening entertainment in the casino. Spring Glen Woods, in Ellenville, N.Y., has residents from New Jersey, Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. “We want to bring it back to its heyday,” Ms. Schneider said.

It was of extraordinary interest to me that Peter Davis filmed at Lansman’s himself and found the same enchantment there that I did. I hope that in its own modest way my video can be called “The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Catskills”.

I say that out of respect for Cissie Blumberg, who owned the Olympic Hotel in Woodridge and hated the term Borscht Belt. Cissie was a die-hard Communist and like many other hotel owners and small businesspeople a product of the Great Depression. Even if the 1950s brought prosperity, these folks remembered what it meant to suffer under capitalism. One of the people I interviewed upstate was a Communist like Cissie and remains political to this day.

In an article I wrote a good fifteen years or so ago titled “Borscht Belt Reds” (it probably should have been titled Catskill Reds!)  that was prompted by a conference held at the Sunny Oaks hotel, one of the first in a series convened by Phil Brown, a sociology professor at Brown University and the son of hotel owners. The article ended:

After the conference was over, I phoned Cissie Blumberg, the author of “Remember the Catskills: Tales of a Recovering Hotelkeeper” and a leftist. Cissie is a woman of strong opinions and was boycotting the Sunny Oaks conference because she thought the term “Borscht Belt” was offensive. She had also had a number of spats with my mother over religious questions. The two wrote for the same local paper and my mother hoped that I would be able to calm her down. This was as much of a chance of me doing this as getting my strongly opinionated mother to calm down.

There’s a chapter in Cissie’s book titled “Just Causes”. She writes:

Not everything [about my father] was controversial or political. He was a prime organizer of the Credit Union, a moving force in the Hotelmen’s Federation, and an acknowledged leader in the Fire Insurance Company as a director and president of the board. He convinced our reluctant neighbors in Lake Huntington to utilize the WPA programs for construction of the first sewer system, and though not religious himself, actively led the small Jewish community in the building of its first synagogue.

I was in grade school when the Civil War broke out in Spain. My father used his talent for oratory on behalf of the Loyalists, long before the world recognized that conflict as the beginning of World War II.

Bob [her brother and my old 9th grade social studies teacher] accompanied him one night to a rally at the Nemerson Hotel in South Fallsburg to raise funds for the Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers in Spain. As part of his address, our dad quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s famous words on the people and the Constitution: ‘Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they shall exercise their constitutional rights of amending it, or their revolutionary rights to dismember or overthrow it.’ Suddenly the resort’s casino, in which the meeting was being held, was plunged into darkness by its owner, Mr. Nemerson. ‘Rosenberg is talking Communist propaganda,’ thundered the angry hotel man. ‘But sir, that statement is a quote from Abraham Lincoln,’ replied a helper of my father’s. ‘Oh, Abraham Lincoln?’ The lights came on!”

March 16, 2015

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Back in 2007 I wrote a piece titled “Jews and American Popular Culture” that was based on a lecture Paul Buhle gave to the Institute of Jewish History in New York occasioned by the publication of the 3-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” he edited. As is often the case with Paul’s lectures, it was accompanied by a slide show that prompted this observation:

During the reception prior to the meeting, a slide show featured famous Jewish personalities, from Jerry Seinfeld to Sandy Koufax. One of them might not have been well-known to the audience but he certainly was to me. Around the same time I was spending my evenings hanging out with Barney Ross, I used to go see strong man Joseph Greenstein bend iron bars across his nose at his bungalow colony in my home town. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was now in his 70s but still going strong. During his prime, he used to be able to prevent an airplane from taking off by holding it back with a cable. After performing his feats, he used to extol Jewish piety and the need to eat healthy (he wore his hair long like Samson.)

This prompted a query from Stanley Krauson: “Does anyone remember the name of Joseph Greenstein’s (The Mighty Atom) bungalow colony?”

I now have an answer to that question that took me eight years to the day to put together. But before I get to that, I should explain that soon after writing the article I shared my memories of the Mighty Atom  with Harvey Pekar, who was a houseguest one evening in 2008. As it turns out, Harvey and Paul had begun collaborating with each other on comic books revolving around Jews and the left, among other topics.

Harvey was very interested in the Mighty Atom story since he had been reading about Jewish professional strong men at the time. (He was an amateur strong man himself with an appetite for brawling in high school seemingly at odds with his shy and retiring demeanor.) He also was fascinated by my recollections of life in the SWP that were pretty atypical. For example, I had a relationship at one point with a woman in the Houston branch who had been a topless dancer.

Harvey was so fascinated by my tales that he gave me a ring and proposed that we do a comic book memoir that would be published by Random House. To make a long and sad story short, he died before the book was published and his widow Joyce Brabner decided to dump the memoir because she did not think it should be part of the Harvey Pekar legacy. She has never admitted as such but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Here is a page devoted to my encounter with the Mighty Atom:

mighty atom

Now, getting to Stanley Krauson’s question, the identity of the Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony can be found in Ed Spielman’s “The Mighty Atom: The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein; Biography of a Superhuman“, a book that I took out from the Columbia Library recently. It was the Panoramic Health Farm, a small colony about a mile from my father’s fruit store. Ironically, although the Mighty Atom sang the praises of vegetables, I wouldn’t go near them. Who knows? Maybe it was a defense mechanism against my father. I should advise you that Spielman’s narrative has a Paul Bunyanesque quality, no doubt a function of his own desire to put together a biography with “wow factor”, plus the Mighty Atom’s (nee Joseph Greenstein) sideshow/circus background leading him to embellish what was likely a remarkable life to begin with. In any case, I did see a man about as old as me at the time bending an iron bar across his nose. You don’t see that every day. Below are passages from Ed Spielman’s book. I am sure that there is more than a grain of truth in these tales.

The Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony:

In the late 1940s, the Atom took savings of $18,000 and founded a health resort where he could put his ideas into action. Where better to advocate health and vitality than in bucolic surroundings, far from the noise and dirt of the city? In upstate Woodridge, New York, he purchased a seventy-acre tract of land with a twenty-three room hotel, four apartments, and two bungalows and established his Panoramic Health Farm. The plan was that he would run the place all summer until Labor Day, when he and Leah would take their traveling lecturemobile south for the winter. Leah had her doubts about an entire hotel being a simple husband-and-wife operation. With his usual enthusiasm, Joe approached the idea as if it were nothing more difficult than a mom-and-pop candy store. He was not to be dissuaded. He put down the cash and took title.

Of panoramic view there was plenty, of water there was none. A week after he took over, the sole spring went dry. The seller (who had paid $7,000 for the place a few years before) had neglected to mention the periodic problem.

After several weeks of carting water from town in barrels and cans, Joe went to the library to research the problem. He found reference to individuals who did nothing more for a living than discover water for such unfortunates as himself. These “dowsers” were supposedly gifted with the ability to sniff out H2O with nothing more than a divining rod.

In Pennsylvania, he found just such a pair of “water smellers.” Dressed in black, and possessed of an appropriately mysterious manner, the pair immediately made him suspicious. Instead of your everyday divining rod, they did their dowsing with an upended pliers. At last, they stopped at a miserable patch of weeds and pronounced with finality that they had found water. As the pliers were jiggling with wild and spastic enthusiasm, he took them at their word. They returned to Pennsylvania, his cash in their pocket.

He called the local well driller, a Sicilian who arrived on the scene with well-founded cynicism, as in the very place where the dowsers had predicted water, he had already dug a dry well for the previous owner.

Now out a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of sham water smellers, and a good chunk of his life’s savings for the health farm itself, Joe nevertheless did not despair. He would find water . . . or throw himself off the nearest bridge. Somehow, a wet death seemed almost pleasant under the circumstances.

He took a large flat rock and a sixteen-pound sledgehammer, placed the rock on the ground in various locations of the property, and smacked it soundly with the hammer. He reasoned that if there were water below somewhere, there might be an underground echo or other indication. He found an area that responded. The more he hit the rock, the more he became convinced that this was the spot. Immediately, he summoned the well driller.

“Here?” The man was not encouraging. “Are you kiddin’? I already drilled right here, too. I didn’t find enough water to rinse out my mouth.”

Joe could not be dissuaded, and after signing a contract guaranteeing payment, he told the man to go to work. The bits were sunk into the ground, and there was nothing. The driller looked at Joe blankly. “Dig deeper,” Joe ordered, and gave him more money. Nothing. “Deeper!” He doled out the cash from the piggy bank.

At last came a gathering gushing sound, and a geyser of water sprayed high into the air coming up at the rate of seventy gallons a minute. The little Sicilian crossed himself.

“How did you know?”

Joe shrugged.

“Mister Atom”—the man pointed heavenward—”you got some-body upstairs.”

With a bit of borrowing and some juggling of finances, Joe fitted a pump on the site, made a small lake, stocked it with fish, and put two boats on it. He enlarged the approach road, constructed another two-story guest house, and built a pool. He was working seventeen hours a day and by now his investment had gotten out of hand, about $55,000 out of hand. He began alternating one week at the Panoramic, one week of pitching night and day to try to pay the previous week’s bills.

The Panoramic Health Farm was no mom-and-pop candy store; the clientele was an eccentric and demanding bunch. For the first time in her life, Leah started visiting doctors. The diagnoses were the same: overwork.

After a decade, rather than have the Panoramic Health Farm kill them, Joe sold out for such a disastrously low figure that he needn’t have drilled for water; he ended taking a bath in his own money. He gladly returned full-time to the life of a pitchman.

In August of 1938, a German Day rally had drawn a turnout of forty thousand wildly cheering spectators for a parade of two thousand uniformed Nazis. Not in Munich but in Yaphank, Long Island. Joe Greenstein’s anti-Nazi battles had begun as soon as Hitler’s supporters had attempted to sink American roots. He had an idea of what was coming. “Throughout time, for the Jews it never changes. Fight to live. There is no alternative.” The Nazi was a creature of the streets, and there Joe lowered himself to meet them.

The Mighty Atom takes on the Nazis:

He revised and augmented his lectures. In addition to his discourse on clean living, he talked of current events. Pinned to his metal-covered board of 2-inch pine was a caricature of a pig wearing a swastika arm band. The head of the pig was that of Adolf Hitler. After a few choice comments about the German in question, the Atom would take a twenty-penny spike in his hand and smack it through the Nazi pig’s heart. The crowd cheered its approval, but certain others didn’t think it quite so funny.

About forty years later, Norman Jacobs, Joe’s son-in-law, remembered an incident of that time. “I was sitting in their Park Place kitchen with my wife Mary and Leah, when we heard a wild commotion outside. We looked out the window to find Pop mixing it up with four men in the alley. I started out the door to help, but Leah ordered me to stay put. ‘Pop will take care of it. But you . . . she warned, ‘if you go out, you’ll get hurt.'”

When the sounds of battle had subsided, the family went into the alleyway where they found the first combatant sprawled unconscious, his arm and leg broken. The second assailant was discovered in a garbage can, head and legs down, having been folded up and deposited like a discarded sandwich, the can cover neatly on top of him. The third man fled. Joe sat atop the fourth bruiser, putting the finishing touches on him.

The Mighty Atom had spent the afternoon making one of his anti-Hitler speeches; the Nazi quartet had followed him home and waylaid him in the alley. “Who are they, Pop?” Leah asked him.

Joe got to his feet, brushed off his pants, and surveyed the men in the alley. “Nobody,” he said.

There were dispiriting moments on mornings when he considered the number of well-organized Nazi goons that he might have to go up against that afternoon. At these times there was a passage in the Bible that revitalized him. His was the same secret weapon with which Joshua and Israel had overcome the terrifying horde arrayed against them:

. . . I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine angel shall go before thee…

—Exodus XXIII:22: 23

Shortly after a huge Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in February, 1939, the Mighty Atom found himself walking through Manhattan’s Yorkville German section on a business matter. He stopped in his tracks at a sign in bold letters posted on a building’s second floor: “NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED!”

He stared at it for a while before inquiring of a passerby, “What the hell is that?” He was informed that a Nazi Bund meeting was being conducted upstairs. He went across the street to a paint store, where with a three-dollar deposit, he rented an 18-foot ladder. Back he came and opened it beneath the sign. Returning across the street, this time to a sporting-goods store, he purchased a Louisville slugger baseball bat—a “Hank Greenberg Model.” He parked it in the doorway beneath the sign.

He went up the ladder, tore the sign down, and tossed it into the gutter. The operation had not gone unnoticed. Several of the Nazis looked out aghast from the second-floor window. The action which followed was in the best tradition of a Popeye cartoon. Before the Atom could climb down from his high perch, the entire Bund assembly had come charging down the stairs into the street.

The Mighty Atom was shaken off his ladder, but he came up bat in hand. They came at him singly and in numbers, frontally and encircling; all to no avail. “It wasn’t a fight,” Joe said later, “it was a pleasure.” He sent eighteen of them to the hospital in various stages of extreme disrepair. He sustained a black eye.

Hauled into court on a charge of aggravated assault, mass mayhem, and so forth, a bedraggled but surprisingly cheerful Joe Greenstein stood meekly and alone before the bench, his only compatriot the “mouse” under his eye. A white-haired judge looked solemnly down as the charge was read. The jurist could hardly believe that the mild, little man before him could have perpetrated such an assault. Then, he surveyed the victims before him, a veritable parade of broken joints, purple contusions, and awkwardly plastered and wired limbs. The battered Aryans filled half the courtroom.

“You mean this little man . . . did that . . . to all of them?” the judge inquired in disbelief.

“Yes, Your Honor,” nodded an eyewitness police sergeant. “Them that ain’t still in the hospital.”

The judge turned his attention to the defendant. “Mr. Greenstein, these are serious charges. Do you have anything to say?”

“Yessir, Judge.” The Atom brightened. “Every time I swung the bat it was a home run!”

Quietly, the judge inquired of the sergeant what had provoked such a clash. “Them’re Nazis, Your Honor,” the officer whispered. “They went after him.”

“NOT GUILTY! CASE DISMISSED!” The judge banged his gavel.

“But, Your Honor . . .” the Bund’s lawyer protested. “I said, case dismissed.” The gavel boomed again with finality, and the judge retired to his chambers.

Photos from Spielman’s book:

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.42 AMThe young Mighty Atom

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.05.11 AMThe Mighty Atom stops an airplane tied to his hair from taking off

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.08 AMThe Mighty Atom pulls a fire engine

 

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 11.39.18 AM

March 31, 2014

Hometown news

Filed under: Catskills,poverty,racism — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Chances are that if you grew up in a small town like me, you keep up with online versions of the local newspapers. For me that means bookmarking the Middletown Times Herald-Record and the Sullivan County Democrat. Back in the 1950s such papers were running stories on the front page about the opening of the county fair or some local hotel hosting Fourth of July fireworks. Some of you might recall that I grew up in Woodridge, a town celebrated in the pages of leftie NYC newspaper PM back in 1947 as a “utopia in the Catskills”. Now it is much more of a dystopia with items like this from the Middletown Times Herald-Record:

Heroin dealers busted at 53 Maple Avenue; I grew up at 66 Maple Avenue

In a related story, the Sullivan County Democrat reported about heroin turning up at my old high school:

Sullivan County Democrat, Mar. 31 2014

Fallsburg police replacing school resource officer

By Dan Hust – staff writer

FALLSBURG — The Town of Fallsburg Police Department has reassigned Martin Gonzalez from his duties as Fallsburg Central School District’s School Resource Officer (SRO).

Gonzalez, who found heroin inside a men’s bathroom at the Benjamin Cosor Elementary School in Fallsburg last month, remains a police officer with the department. A previous NYS Medal of Valor awardee for a 2011 rescue effort in Liberty, Gonzalez is not accused of any wrongdoing and is not under investigation, said Fallsburg Police Chief Simmie Williams.

Calling it “the toughest decision of my life,” Williams said Gonzalez is being replaced for the sake of the SRO program.

At Monday’s Fallsburg Town Board meeting, a group of teachers told town officials that they no longer trust Gonzalez and criticized the way the police had handled the heroin investigation, which focused on more than half a dozen faculty who had accessed the bathroom prior to the drug discovery.

That’s the school I graduated from in June 1961 at the tender age of 16. Back then the only thing we knew about heroin was what we saw in movies like “A Hatful of Rain” or “The Man with the Golden Arm” that were set in the slums of New York City and Chicago respectively. By 1975 most of Sullivan County had turned into a rural slum, mostly the result of the Borscht Belt hotel industry hollowing out.

In 2012, the median family income for New York State was $52,095, for Sullivan County it was $43,458. Most of the jobs are in the public or nonprofit sector, like working as a prison guard or as a hospital orderly. Back in the 1950s, many people who decided to remain in the area rather than moving to New York City opened small businesses or went to work for their parents. With the collapse of the tourist industry, that possibility no longer exists.

On October 21, 2013 a Monticello lawyer (the Borscht Belt town, not Thomas Jefferson’s plantation locale) named Steven Kurlander blogged in the Huffington Post about the need for casino gambling to revive the Catskills. After 35 years of wrangling, it looks like it might finally be coming. Here’s how he described the once thriving Monticello:

It’s not just that Sullivan County has had the highest unemployment rate, the worst health care outcomes, and the highest percentage of poverty in upstate New York for years.

Just walk down Broadway, the main street of Monticello, and the answer is clear.

Broadway, once a thoroughfare famed for being the epicenter of a booming Borscht Belt, is now basically an abandoned main street devoid of businesses, its storefronts empty and failing into disrepair.

The lights on this Broadway have been turned off for decades and Monticello’s business district is a ghost town.

Gangs and drug abuse run rampant in Monticello and prey on its poor residents living in subsidized projects and crumbling neighborhoods abandoned by a fleeing middle class and taken over by absentee Section 8 landlords.

Last summer I went upstate to do some video recording about my hometown and the surrounding environs. A major part of the film will involve interviews with Herman Goldfarb, a retired physician who has been involved with progressive politics for decades. I plan to work on getting that film together in the next few weeks but in the meantime here are his observations on the streets of Monticello’s Broadway:

Just around the time that the tourist industry began dying, Sullivan County began becoming more African-American and Latino. I am not sure what explains the demographic change since the region was not generating new jobs. One of the big employers for Latino workers is Murray’s poultry, a supplier of “organic” chickens and turkeys to NY grocery stores. Mrs. Murray Bresky was a woman named Ellen that was in my class back at Fallsburgh High School. I doubt that I spent more than five minutes in conversation with her my entire time there.

Screen shot 2014-03-31 at 3.28.59 PM

Despite his concerns about the health and well-being of his customers, Murray appears to care little about his largely Latino workforce:

Washington Post, April 25, 2013

At chicken plants, chemicals blamed for health ailments are poised to proliferate

By Kimberly Kindy

When Jose Navarro landed a job as a federal poultry inspector in 2006, he moved his wife and newborn son to a rural town in Upstate New York near the processing plant, believing it was a steppingstone to a better life.

Five years later, Navarro was dead. The 37-year-old’s lungs had bled out.

His death triggered a federal investigation that raised questions about the health risks associated with a rise in the use of toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals in poultry plants. Agriculture Department health inspectors say processing plants are turning to the chemicals to remove contaminants that escape notice as processing line speeds have accelerated, in part to meet growing consumer demand for chicken and turkey.

At the end of each workday at Murray’s Chicken, Jose Navarro would climb into his Ford station wagon, drive by the Holy Ghost and Fire Church, and pass a single stoplight to reach his rented home in South Fallsburg, N.Y.

His wife, Nicole Byrne Navarro, said he would give “lengthy, detailed reports” each evening about his concerns about the plant, which often focused on the chemicals used to disinfect both equipment and birds.

“Some themes that were constant were poor ventilation and overuse and mishandling of chemicals which constantly irritated his lungs,” Byrne Navarro said. “Sometimes he would hold his hand over his chest and talk about the chlorine reaching intolerable levels that day.”

Several months before he died, he coughed up blood, but it “self-resolved,” according to the autopsy report. Then on Nov. 19, 2011, he began coughing up blood and went to the hospital, where his lungs continued to hemorrhage. He died a week later after his lungs and kidneys failed, the autopsy report said.

At the time of Navarro’s death, Murray’s Chicken was using chlorine and peracetic acid to treat the birds, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.

Chlorine and peracetic acid are two of the most commonly used chemicals in plants, according to OSHA inspection documents and interviews with USDA inspectors and poultry plant workers.

At plants where line speeds have been increased, inspectors and plant workers say chemical use is on the rise and that the exposure time to the chemicals has been extended. Sometimes a third chemical is added, but that practice varies from plant to plant.

Back in 2008 Monticello elected its first Black mayor, a former prison guard who now ran a shoe store on the town’s decaying Broadway. While by no means a big a deal as Obama’s election, it was news enough to make the NY Times:

NY Times, March 27, 2008

Our Towns

A Lesson in Politics as Unusual

By PETER APPLEBOME

Gordon Jenkins outside his store in Monticello, N.Y. “You look at the heyday of this place, and it was beautiful,” he says.

You might think Gordon Jenkins would be excited.

He just made history, elected on Tuesday as the first black mayor of this faded resort town. And a day later, people filter nonstop into his G-Man shop, a beauty supply, hip-hop clothing and footwear store on Broadway, to shake his hand, give him a hug. Drivers honk at him on the street, and passers-by give him the thumbs-up and shout, “Jenkins for mayor!” They bring him free coffee from the bagel store next door. Big-shot lawyers wander in looking for jobs.

Not all politics is about race. Was it a factor? Sure. The town’s population is about 55 percent white, 30 percent black and 23 percent Hispanic. But Mr. Jenkins isn’t all that big on having a national or local conversation about race. “I hate racial issues; that’s not what this was ever about,” he said as some of his new constituents stopped by to talk about the flooding on their streets or how they were managing their diabetes. “It just brings up old wounds. We’d all get along a lot better if we could just get past it.”

Things went downhill rapidly after Jenkins took office, especially—surprise, surprise—when it came to the local cops who probably were not used to seeing a Black man in a position of authority. His first run-in occurred in February 2012 when police were summoned to his store to eject a 300-pound man who was trying to pick a fight with Jenkins. In the ensuing melee Jenkins accidentally hit one of the cops. That was not extenuating enough for him to be convicted of a misdemeanor last month.

His next run-in occurred on November 16, 2013 when he showed up at a major auto accident not far from his home, something he saw as his responsibility. Unfortunately, he had some alcohol on his breath and the cops ordered him to take a Breathalyzer test. Upon failing it, they took him to jail where he threw a tantrum while in custody. Carmen Rue, a Republican on the Town Board who has been spearheading a drive to remove Jenkins, made the tape of Jenkins available to the news media that played up the story as Monticello’s Rob Ford.

Michael Sussman, Jenkins’s attorney who specializes in civil rights cases, went on CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1311/26/ijvm.01.html) to discuss the incident. The exchange reflects the state of race relations in the USA:

JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, HOST: Tonight, the latest mayor gone wild. Yet another politician behaving badly. And once again, it`s all caught on tape.

Good evening. I`m Jane Velez-Mitchell coming to you live.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Charged with drunk driving, busted by his own cops.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It`s not a good example. He (EXPLETIVE DELETED) (EXPLETIVE DELETED)

GORDON JENKINS, MAYOR OF MONTICELLO, NEW YORK: And trying to do the (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

Straight out to the attorney representing this guy, caught on tape, Mayor Jenkins. Now, you`re reported as saying that the mayor`s base has suffered indignities at the hands of the local cops, and they understand what he was saying. Well, please translate, because I don`t really understand what he`s saying.

MICHAEL SUSSMAN, ATTORNEY FOR MAYOR GORDON JENKINS: I don`t think any of your guests understand. Listening to you, it`s a very ignorant group, honestly. Let`s start…

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, why don`t you educate us as to what this gentleman that you represent is talking about?

SUSSMAN: Let`s start with this, please. The mayor was at a social engagement Saturday night. The mayor understood there was a serious accident in his community, and he drove over to give assistance at the accident.

If any police person at the scene thought the mayor was in any way intoxicated, what a reasonable police officer would do is go up to the mayor and say to the mayor, “Do you need a hand? Do you need a ride anywhere?”

Instead, an individual who had been passed over for police chief has testified in his sworn statement that he waited for the mayor to get into a vehicle, thereby endangering the public if he was really drunk, waited for the mayor to drive away, and then picked up the mayor. He then brought the mayor back to the police station and chained the mayor to a wall for approaching nine hours. When the mayor asked to have his lawyer called they essentially laughed at him and never called me.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: All right. Hold on one second, sir. You`ve said something…

SUSSMAN: All of you have such strong opinions, but none of you know what occurred.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: His words are his words. He`s calling people names that I cannot repeat here.

SUSSMAN: Let me try to respond to what you`re all saying for a moment. OK?

It`s one thing if you have no life experience like Gordon Jenkins, 29 years a correction officer in New York state, an honorably discharged Army veteran, in the city government in Monticello as mayor for five years, on the board for nine years. If you have no track record and you have no experience and you don`t understand who you are dealing with, it`s one thing. What Gordon Jenkins did is…

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, that`s — all of that is even more of a reason why he shouldn`t do that. He should have known better.

SUSSMAN: Let me speak for a moment. You have five guests who have one opinion. Let me explain the situation, please.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: OK. Go for it. Because we`re running out of time.

SUSSMAN: You have — you have people on this force who have been engaged in — against Gordon for a number of years. Rather than do what any reasonable police officer would do, if they thought he was drunk, which is to go to — if it was a white mayor you mean to tell me that they wouldn`t have gone up to the man and said, “We think you`re drunk, Mayor. Can we give you a ride home?”

That goes across the board, obviously. Blacks get long sentences for selling or possessing crack cocaine while white professionals get a slap on the wrist for using powdered cocaine, a recreational drug. It doesn’t matter that Jenkins was once a law enforcement employee. Once he got on the wrong side of the Town Board, he would end up under a microscope.

What’s the lesson in all this? Fifty years ago I never would have imagined that my home town could end up looking like it does today, with heroin busts, vendettas against a Black mayor, and rural squalor. But then again I never would have imagined back then that the USA as whole would be as bad off as it is today, with cities like Detroit writing large what is happening in my old home town.

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