Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 6, 2021

A Walk on the Moon

Filed under: Catskills,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

I confess that I have not watched all the films about the Borscht Belt but I am sure that nothing will ever top the 1999 “A Walk on the Moon” (universally available as VOD) since it captures the culture of the Catskill Mountain bungalow colony, basically a cottage of the type that first appeared in Victorian England, Its name derived from the Gujarati bangalo (“Bengali”) that meant “a house in the Bengal style.”

In terms of the hierarchy of the mostly Jewish summer places, it was poised midway between the kuchalayn and the hotel. The kuchalayn was the first resort area rental that was affordable to the first generation of Jews. It started off as rooms in farmhouses, where Jews from the Lower East Side could cook [kuch] their own meals in the kitchen. My grandfather Louis Proyect ran a kuchalayn in his modest farmhouse, where he grew cabbage during the Depression. Once he put some capital together, he began building hotels in and around Woodridge, where I grew up. The only one I know of was the Biltmore, a medium-sized hotel that overlooked the Neversink River (the Munsee word for “mad river”) and that was only a five-minute walk from the Avon Lodge, where Sid Caesar got his start.

At the top end of the scale, hotels could cater to different social classes within Jewry. I suspect that a garment worker could have afforded to keep his family in the Biltmore but for the  wealthy Jews there were dozens of fashionable and amenity-filled places like the Concord and Grossingers. In such places, people like Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle got their start. They worked as tummlers, the men who were paid to entertain guests throughout various roles, from a comedian leading guests in Simon Says, walking through the lobby cracking jokes, and up to serving as master of ceremonies in the revues that played nightly. You can have seen tummler comedy on the Milton Berle show in the 1950s.

My knowledge of the bungalow colony is that of a delivery boy who showed up 3 or 4 times a day at different colonies to bring fruit and vegetable orders from my father’s store to the women whose husbands worked in the city during the summer. It was their sacrifices that made his wife and children enjoy cool fresh air, swimming pools, beautiful countryside and summer camp. It was just one of these bungalow colonies that served as the location for “A Walk on the Moon”.

The film, which is set in 1969 (hence the reference to the moon landing) begins with Marty Kantrowitz, his wife Pearl, his mother Lillian, their adolescent daughter Allison, and their young son Danny jammed into the family Rambler, a car that perfectly expresses his modest class status. Not only does the car have to accommodate the five people, it also has to have room for their garments, bedclothes, kitchen utensils and playthings. They might be described as modern Jewish versions of the Joads departing for California in “Grapes of Wrath.” By no means impoverished, the family lives on Marty’s modest income as a TV repairman.

Called Dr. Fogler’s Bungalow Colony, their summer place was based on Dr. Locker’s a colony in Mountaindale. To save money, the film was made in Quebec. That being said, it has the exact look and feel of a Catskill resort. The bungalows typically circled around something called a “concession” where ice cream, candy, suntan lotion, and cigarettes were sold. There was always a pinball machine that I used to stop in and play once or twice before I went back to my dad’s store. The concession could be heard all day long on a loudspeaker that would notify a guest that a husband like Marty Kantrowitz needed to speak to his wife. This was long before the days of cell phones obviously.

The film revolves around the trials and tribulations of Marty and Pearl, whose marriage is strained to a breaking point as she ends up in a passionate affair with Walker Jerome, the “blouse man” who stops by the colony several times a week to peddle women’s clothing out of a bus. Played by Viggo Mortensen, Walker is an amiable hunk who flirts with his customers mainly to help sell some clothes. When Pearl Kantrowitz stops in, the flirting has a different character since Pearl is played by Diane Lane, an actress who is of Jewish origin but lacks Schreiber’s authenticity. The wiki on her does not even mention that she is Jewish. Since Walker Jerome is clearly not a Jew, Mortensen works out just fine even though the screenplay does little to flesh out his character. He is a hunk of meat more than anything else. On the other hand, Liev Schreiber is great as Marty. Was a Jewish female version of Schreiber available to play Pearl? Unfortunately, there was only one Barbra Streisand and she was too much of a superstar to take such a role.

After a few days of flirtation between Walker and Pearl, they get it on in his bus while watching the moon landing on his TV. The film goes to great lengths to make her cheating understandable. She first met Marty at a hotel when she was 17. They went out for a date, had sex, and were immediately confronted by her unexpected pregnancy. Marty had to forgo college and begin raising a family with all the responsibilities that entails. Meanwhile, Pearl could not help feeling frustrated with the burdens of a housewife. Think of her as a latter-day version of Madame Bovary.

When Marty is up for the weekend, the bored and frustrated Pearl asks if they could try “something new” for sex, he has little idea what she is looking for. No, it is not anal sex but it obviously something she has not thought through herself. He tells her to wait a minute since he thought of a “new” approach. After stepping out of the bedroom, he comes back in his underwear wearing his son’s cowboy hat and holstered cap guns.

The love scenes between Walker and Pearl are par for the course and utterly forgettable. It is only after Marty’s mom informs him that his wife is “shtupping” (fucking) the blouse man that the real drama begins. When he confronts her, she really has no defense and only comes up with a lame (but entirely plausible) excuse. She feels that life is passing her by.

The drama intensifies when Walker and Pearl go to Woodstock, where they are seen dropping acid and going full-bore “hippy” with body paint and all the rest. Unfortunately, Allison, who is at Woodstock herself, spots them cavorting. When Pearl returns home, Allison asks who the teenager is. Her or her mom. It turns out that the spirit of rebellion has become contagious by 1969. Allison is against the war in Vietnam and even Marty finds himself digging Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” At the very end of the film, when Marty and Pearl are reconciled, they end up on the bungalow porch dancing to Dean Martin’s “When You are Smiling” on an “easy-listening” radio station. Marty must have found it too schmaltzy since he changes the station to a new rock-and-roll venue and the two begin bopping to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

It turns out that I am not the only fan of “A Walk on the Moon”.  Phil Brown, who has the relationship to the Borscht Belt that Paul Buhle has to the left, conducted an interview with Pamela Gray, who wrote the screenplay. Gray, whose story is based on her personal experiences at bungalow colony, was asked “Did your parents ever talk about why colonies instead of hotels?” Her reply “Money. Hotels were not even an option. We could never afford that.” And this is why I loved the film as did Phil, whose parents owned a tiny hotel:

Q: It was a challenge, I would gather, to portray working class people as very interesting for a film world that does not necessarily see that.

A: Yes, because the film world does not often show working class people, except in stereotypical ways. Growing up, I thought that the Catskills were predominantly working class people and bungalow colonies. Although I knew that the hotels were out there; we would try to sneak into them (e.g. as teenagers we tried to sneak into dances). At one point in the script there were scenes with Pearl and Marty climbing fences to try to sneak into the hotels to go to the shows, and I said “you know this is just going to fit that stereotype of Jews, you know of ‘cheap Jews.’” But literally we could not afford it. That was why bungalow colony people did that. Anyway, that scene was cut for other reasons so I didn’t have to worry about it.

There was only aspect to the film that wasn’t completely accurate. By 1969, many of the hotels went bankrupt, were shut down by their owners, or were burned by arsonists to collect insurance. Just a few years later, I used to discuss the tourist industry with my mom, who was very involved on preserving it, and her cohorts.

I made the same point over and over again. The hotels and bungalow colonies had to target non-Jewish groups that had become the counterpart of Marty Kantrowitz’s Jews. Most of all, the Black and Latinos working for the MTA or in the public school system, et al. This appeal fell on deaf ears. They just didn’t feel that Blacks had a place that Jews once held and saw them only as lowly hired help sweeping floors. The men who owned hotels and bungalow colonies used the word “schvarze,” a derogatory term for Black. I heard this with my own ears.

Blacks might have put together the capital to buy bungalow colonies and hotels had they been able to keep up with whites. After all, Landsman Bungalow colony, a beautiful and immaculate homage to the classic 1950s resort, is a co-op in the heart of the Catskills. Why couldn’t  bus drivers and schoolteachers pull off the same deal? You do have to keep in mind that their wealth was on a rung somewhat lower than Jews because some in the housing industry refused to allow them into the huge developments where Jewish TV repairmen could get a great deal. Levittown was one of the most famous.

A December 28, 1997 NY Times article titled “At 50, Levittown Contends With Its Legacy of Bias” fills in the details:

The year-long 50th-birthday party for this pioneering suburb on Long Island is winding down. The parade drew 5,000 marchers. Crowds came for candlelight church services, an antique-car show, exhibits, seminars and tours of the fabled Levitt houses that started it all.

There were even Potato Day festivities honoring the flat farmland here where Levitt & Sons began mass-producing single-family tract homes in 1947, heralding the wave of migration from cities that lasted for decades.

But not everyone touched by the Levittown experience has been celebrating.

”The anniversary leaves me cold,” said Eugene Burnett, who was among thousands of military veterans who lined up for their green patch of the American dream here after World War II. But he was turned away because he is black. ”It’s symbolic of segregation in America,” he said. ”That’s the legacy of Levittown.

”When I hear “Levittown,” what rings in my mind is when the salesman said: “It’s not me, you see, but the owners of this development have not as yet decided whether they’re going to sell these homes to Negroes,” Mr. Burnett, now a retired Suffolk County police sergeant, recalled. He said he still stings from “the feeling of rejection on that long ride back to Harlem.’”

William Levitt was a Russian Jew, just like most of the people who used to rent a bungalow colony. He was primarily hostile to Blacks, just like Fred and Donald Trump, but was not above refusing to sell to Jews, especially if they were not to his liking.

But as bad as Levitt was, the primary explanation for wealth inequality had more to do with banks. Even if some Black people decided to buy a bungalow colony co-op, there was little chance that they could get one from Chase mortgage or any other retail bank. I urge you to listen to HBO’s John Oliver explain all this. For my money, he is the only leftwing comic with the guts to implicitly use the 1619 Project for the real story of how white supremacy went on long on after Jim Crow died.

May 20, 2020

A Child’s Christmas in Woodridge

Filed under: Catskills,literature — louisproyect @ 11:10 pm

No matter how old I get, I’ll always have vivid memories of being a small boy in Woodridge, NY and doing all the things small kids do. Like walking in the woods, swimming in the ponds and rivers, riding my bike, flipping baseball cards, and playing ringolevio.

But winter had its special pleasures. Back then, the snowstorms were long before greenhouse gases tamed mother nature. After a big snowfall, we’d build forts in downtown Woodridge and throw snowballs at each other. We’d also have free rein sledding on the village’s hills, with no worries about cars since the roads were barely passable.

In this chapter from Robert C. Harris’s 2008 “Collection of Autobiographical Stories”, you’ll get a good taste of the excitement of wintertime. Robert’s mother Eleanor and mine were very close. Eleanor wrote a column called Woodridge Whirl for the local paper and my mother took it over after the Harrises moved to Florida.

Half of Robert’s book deals with his misadventures in the US army during the Vietnam war. The other half is reminiscences of being a young boy in Woodridge. I enjoy every chapter but this one about sleigh-riding the most. If you’ve read (or better yet, heard the author recite) Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, you’ll appreciate Robert’s ability to render a long-ago experience. I imagine he wrote this primarily in the same way I have blogged about Woodridge, to recapture my past—sort of an amateur version of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. Woodridgites will probably enjoy this more than the average person but I am sure that it will bring back your own favorite memories of playing in the snow, an experience that future generations will never enjoy as much as us—largely because of climate change. This year in New York City, there was virtually no snow at all.

And, going one step further, the conditions that created climate change are largely responsible for the pandemic that keeps us house-bound today.

Chapter 9

The happiest time in any man’s life is the time before he becomes a man. Now take me. Today I am a man and when I see Woodridge as it is today, I am not giddy with joy, but giddy with souped-up memories. Back then, to my childish and fun-loving libido, I saw Woodridge as the fairyland playground of the nation, Disney Lands notwithstanding, and we kids didn’t even have to pay to get in. Like commercial playgrounds everywhere, each season offered its special attractions.

In the spring, sweaters and jackets strewn along the grounds, we boys ran rampant among the rocks and crevices of Dead Man’s Canyon, our pop guns cocked for action. In the summer, there was Kaplan’s Lake. The cowboys and Indians of the spring were now deep sea divers in the four to six feet of water, splashing, dunking and grabbing ankles or higher. Girls were now a part of the summer attraction and their squeals from our underwater attacks gave meaning to the summer. In the autumn, we boys became habitués of the Ford Dealership yard, racing across imaginary tapes and then moving across to The Tree where, in the bracing air, we were defending Fort Germac from the invaders with our BB guns and apple grenades ready for action.

But it was winter that gave meaning to the winter wonderland songs I remember. Even if one shivered in the cold, nature’s artwork was awesome. The scraggly trees of autumn were now covered in white and adorned with sparkly icicles hanging from the branches like so many fashionably gowned and jewelled women at the Oscar Awards waiting to be admired. But to us, the three Fox boys, Bobby Ritter, David and Paul Kaplan, Ivan Katz, Stuey Novack, Steve and Bobby Wasserman, Steve Gerson, Jay Weinstein and the Sapersteins and every kid still breathing, it was the blinding snow and biting cold that activated our adrenalin. We would embark on a mass exodus from our homes to slosh through the snow, the deeper and wetter the more exciting. Our mittens and gloves were soaked through within minutes as we hurled snowballs at each other and anything else that moved, mostly girls. With our noses running before us and our sleds trailing behind us, we made our way to the slopes. We had two unforgettable hills in Woodridge which nature undeniably devised for exuberant and risk-taking kids. As we trudged uphill, pulling our sleds, one of us was sure to yell ‘up yours’ or some such local witticism, about snow and the upper crust of the down-hillers. Fickle nature. It lures us out of our homes with promises of adventure and then slaps us in the face with icy pellets. But we didn’t care, we had two of the greatest hills in the world. The one at the Alamac Hotel was the smaller of the two. The other, aptly names Little Mt. Everest, was located on acreage behind the Kaplan properties. Subsequently, this property was developed into spacious, expensive single family homes. But at this time in my youth it was the longest, widest, steepest mountain on the planet. Woodridge’s challenge to the Alpine peaks.

It was easier to use the Alamac hill because the hotel was closed for the winter and there was no one to yell at us. It was located just across from Barry Saperstein’s house and it took no more than a fifteen or twenty second zoom to the bottom of the hill. The idea was to grab the tree at the bottom of the hill or risk bouncing across the street to be hit by an oncoming car or, as an alternative, crashing into the Saperstein porch. We kids were lucky, none of us were killed. But sometimes, less lethal but awfully insulting, an irate driver would question the functionality of our brain matter by screeching to a stop and yelling, “What the hell’s the matter with you? You kids nuts or something?”

Most of us were good at grabbing the tree for braking but it was my brother, Walter, who excelled at dreaming up schemes for stunt riding, urged and seconded by Carl Novick and Steve Wasserman. Stunt riding as defined by our group was anything that would scare the hell out of our parents and medical advisors. One of the milder stunts was to stand up on the sled, rope in one hand for stability, while hurtling down the slope waving the other hand and yelling, “Hi ho Silver!” Or, cross one sled with another to resemble an airplane with one kid sitting in the middle steering with his feet, rope in hand, while two more boys stood on each of the ‘wings’ for balance. The goal was to make it to the bottom of the hill without crashing and with all three intact, which never happened—except that one time. On New Year’s Day our snow plane went into action. Our three made it to the bottom, in one piece and in perfect formation. The sled followed sometime later. There we were, the three of us, Steve Gerson, Barry Saperstein and me, lying splayed in the snow in perfect formation, with everyone whooping and cheering around us as if we just won the World Series.

But the greater adventure, the most Evel Kneivelish daring-do was on the slopes of Little Mt. Everest. Gliding down this mountain (to our unformed, ungeological minds this was truly a mountain) was the ultimate test of courage. In our little town, comprised mainly of Jewish families, the villagers naively believed a boy became a man at his Bar Mitzvah. We kids knew better. A boy became a man on the ride down Little Mt. Everest. Unlike the twenty second downhill zoom of the Alamac, downhill on the Everest was an endless, death-defying, marathon race that only the hardy need attempt. We were all hardy.

Racing down hill was the number one game. With at least ten sleds tearing down the long, interminable slope at any one time, it was not so much a race to the finish as a finish to the racer. Sleds crashed into each other, kids went flying, bloodied but unbowed; some actually un-bowelled, as it scared the crap out of us. But we carried on and once in a great while we were carried off.

Then there was our two-man sled exchange. Picture it, Stevie Gerson is lying face down on the sled and Jay Weinstein is kneeling on Stevie’s back. Stevie’s lying down because he has to steer; this was how the expression “Get off my back” entered the English language. Anyway, on the way down, in mid-ride, Jay would jump up into the air and onto a companion sled which was being operated by Ivan Katz. With arms flailing and feet moving wildly, similar to that portrayed in cartoon movies where the guy absent mindedly walks off a cliff and keeps walking in space, the sled exchange occurred. It was risky stuff. There was always the possibility that one might break the neck of the driver—in such cases it was better to jump to the ground for then one was likely to suffer only from snow burn—or slightly worse, loss of face if not of blood.

But we kids were adept at timing our jumps. Snow burns, bruises and other injuries were as natural to our age group as acne would some day be to our aging group. As to the one whose back was used as a springboard, well, what’s an aching spine when one is contributing so much to cultural achievement?

The excitement created by Little Mt. Everest was in its width, its clear course going all the way down without obstacles aside from a few dips and bumps. It was the stone wall at the bottom of the hill that gave meaning to the expression that death is always a surprise. On the same line with the stone wall, near its end, was a mammoth Coca-Cola sign, once impressive in its prime but now bent at a 45 degree angle obscuring its message of promised refreshment. The tin back of the sign made a dandy landing-strip for us when we steered towards it and used our feet as brakes. When this worked, as it normally did, we kids found it as refreshing as promised. Although we were adept at this foot-dragging-braking method, we decided to build snow barriers as an extra precaution to ensure we stopped successfully on our tin landing strip and didn’t go bounding off into the next county. To this end the snow barriers were built just beyond the wall and the sign; the ice on the tin was covered with stones and whatever sharp, jutting material we could find. I notice that building contractors today lack the gusto and ingenuity our team exhibited. Our bulldozer was us. Man, we dug, we tossed, we slid. We froze. All this before we climbed to the top. We kids had it together in the 5os. Energy, sleds, running noses and frozen feet—and an occasional enthusiast with wet pants.

On one beautiful, clear day following the Christmas holidays, we were out in full force, many of us with newer and more powerful sleds, some even with skis. We were racing down Everest, about nine sleds, towards the finish line. It was a close race with Walter in the lead. As we began to slow down near the finish line, the Coca-Cola landing strip, Walter decided to keep going. He had this determined look on his face, not unlike the look of someone daring to go where no man has dared to go. While the rest of us came to a stop, he kept going—over the snow barrier, over the sign, over the wall. As we turned our startled gazes upon Walter, it was like a slow motion movie with Walter hovering in space about forty feet above the ground, holding on to his inverted sled, which had done a complete turn in mid-air. All sound ceased as we witnessed this bizarre scene—Walter hanging on to his upside-down sled with his back towards the ground. Suddenly the reel sped up and down he hurtled into the snow below. The dreamlike sequence was over as everyone realized what had happened and rushed down to the road. My heart was in my mouth. My big brother was not supposed to get hurt; I was.

We had to run about 200 yards down to the street next to the hill, then climb through a barbed wire fence that was located in the back yard of the Kaplan property as a barrier between their yard and the hill. Then we had to step through snow that was about four feet deep. After what seemed like a deathly ten minutes, we located the sled. All we saw protruding from the pile of snow were the rudders but no sign of Walter. Frightened, we all tugged the sled free—and

there lay Walter, still holding on to his sleigh with that glazed, disbelieving look in his eye.

He stared at all of us and with his eleven year old face lit up with a strange and abstracted smile he announced: “I was flying! I was actually flying!”

April 4, 2019

Review of Allen Young’s “Left, Gay, and Green: a Writer’s Life”

Filed under: Catskills,Ecology,farming,Gay,SDS — louisproyect @ 4:51 pm
The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture
Volume 11, 2018
A New Dawn for the New Left: Liberation News Service, Montague Farm, and the Long Sixties
By John McMillian,

For many years – when I was in college, graduate school, and even for some time after that – I used to envy those Baby Boomers who had immersed themselves in the American left during the 1960s and 1970s. They had been righteous in their support of civil rights, outraged about the Vietnam War, and they got to enjoy the era’s great music, as well as various exciting cultural events, like Woodstock and the Moon landing. I always figured it must have been exciting to come of age during such dramatic and compelling times. The Portuguese have a fine word for that kind of melancholy longing I’m describing: saudade.

In recent years, however, that feeling has largely dissipated. I’m no longer sure I’d have enjoyed the Sixties. Part of the reason may be that I’ve been studying that era for about twenty years (so maybe I’ve finally maxed out on the topic). Meanwhile, my thoughts about the desirability of almost any kind of “revolution” have changed. (I now think it’s usually best when social change unfolds gradually.) Furthermore, it turns out that we are currently living through an uncommonly tumultuous time, and I don’t find it too enjoyable. I’m apprehensive about the future, and the social justice left that prevails on American campuses nowadays frequently offends me.

It is in some ways surprising, then, that I have such a fond appreciation for Allen Young’s memoir, Left, Gay & Green: A Writer’s Life. (The title alludes to the fact that Young was a red diaper baby, and then a journalist who was active in the New Left, gay rights, and environmental movements.)

Let me say upfront that I have known Young, from a distance, for many years. Back in the mid-2000s, when I was researching my book, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, I visited the Allen Young Papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and I interviewed Young over the telephone. Since then, we have occasionally exchanged cordial emails. We have only met once, however, and that was just for a few moments, by pure chance, many years ago. (He was walking out of Columbia University’s Fayerweather Hall, and I was walking in.) Put another way, if it had turned out that I had significant criticisms of Left, Gay & Green, I would not have been particularly hesitant to say so.

But mostly I have compliments. Young calls his book an “autobiography,” rather than a “memoir,” because it encompasses his entire life, rather than just the years when he was most intensively engaged in leftwing activism. His amiable, conversational prose style makes for quick reading, but Left, Gay & Green resists easy summary. It is not a didactic autobiography, meant to impart a lesson, or develop a theme. And although it is a longish book (480 pages) each of its twenty-four chapters is subdivided into short, discrete sections. Frequently, Young will pause his narrative in order to share various musings, ponder conundrums, or poke gently at people’s foibles and eccentricities – sort of like a hip Andy Rooney. Some readers may find these digressions excessive, but I found them delightful. Young also occasionally includes excerpts from his writings long ago, which he analyzes from his perspective today.

Young grew up on a Jewish farm in the Catskill Mountains. For years, his main daily chore was to collect eggs from his family’s chickens, clean them, and pack them for shipping. His parents were secretly members of the American Communist Party, which of course put the family at risk during the Red Scare. Unlike some communists who resided in big cities, however, Young’s parents were not bohemians. They were hard-working, straight-laced, and stoic. That posed a problem for Young, because he knew from an early age that he was gay. He lived in “the closet” – and repeatedly tried dating women, while also having secret liaisons with men – from his adolescence until about age twenty-five.

Young was thrilled to matriculate at Columbia University in 1958, and at the time, he was certain he was leaving rural life behind for good. Academically and socially, he thrived, and eventually he became the Daily Spectator’s editor-in-chief. Meanwhile, he began demonstrating his enviable knack for meeting or befriending various successful, well-known, or otherwise interesting people. One of the lifelong friends he made at Columbia was the great historian Eric Foner; another is Michael Meeropol (who was orphaned after the United States government executed his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Other notable names appear in this book, too, and he includes some entertaining yarns about his friendship with Abbie Hoffman.

During his undergraduate years, Young grew appalled by the crimes of the Soviet Union, but he continued working on the same issues his parents had taught him to care about, mostly around racial justice, war, and peace. He did graduate study at Columbia’s School of Journalism, traveled extensively in South America, and at age twenty-six, took a job at the Washington Post. (Young was hired by Ben Bradlee, who would later become famous for publishing the Pentagon Papers, and for overseeing the Post’s Watergate coverage. Young sketches a brief but memorable portrait of this gruff and no-nonsense newsman.)

Young did not last long at the Post, however. Instead, he became increasingly committed to building the antiwar movement, which was in turn supported by the fast-growing American underground press. In the fall of 1967, Young made what he says “was probably the biggest single decision” of his life and defected from the Post to Liberation News Service (LNS). Often described as a radical version of the Associated Press (AP), LNS produced hundreds of news packets full of reporting, commentaries, graphics, and illustrations, and this material regularly made its way into underground newspapers across the country.

Some of the most edifying and analytical passages in Left, Gay & Green concern the topic (applied anachronistically) of “political correctness.” Young acknowledges that, like others in his cohort, he could be aggressively hostile to opposing viewpoints. By the late ’60s, New Leftists had grown dismissive of voting and non-violent civil disobedience. Most white radicals tended to zealously support the Black Panthers (despite that group’s obvious flaws), and they were prone to dogmatically making snap judgements about who had “good politics” (and who did not). New Leftists frequently dehumanized their political opponents with words and images that, especially from today’s vantage, seem scurrilous and grotesque. Young went along with some of this, but not always comfortably, and only to a degree. After the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society turned to political violence, for instance, Young strongly criticized the group, even as he maintained friendships with some of its members.

Exemplifying the maxim “the personal is political,” in 1970, Young became an early member of the Gay Liberation Front. He participated in the world’s first gay pride march, and he promoted gay equality in numerous periodicals. Meanwhile, Young started collecting personal essays and manifestos from other radical homosexual writers that he admired. In 1972, he published (with Karla Jay), Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, a classic compilation.

In 1973 – defying the expectations he formed when he started at Columbia in 1958 – Young moved to Butterworth Farm, an intentional community in Royalston, Massachusetts. Young calls Butterworth Farm “the love child of two unique and consequential movements … back-to-the-land, and gay liberation” (303). Perhaps surprisingly, given the frenetic pace of the first half of his life, Young has continued to reside there ever since. He has been an avid gardener, a valuable participant in local institutions, and in 1980 he got busted for growing marijuana. (The chapter describing the marijuana bust is amusingly titled “Reefer Madness, or, The Sacred Herb and Me.” Fortunately, Young largely escaped punishment for what he now refers to as his “so-called crime.”) In the 1980s and 1990s, Young worked at the Athol Daily News and did public relations for a local hospital. After living frugally this whole time, he was able to retire in 1999, at age fifty-eight. Today, Young lives in an octagonal house that he helped build many years ago

Even when Young is not writing directly about movement issues, Left, Gay & Green offers salutary lessons about how to engage politics wisely. He thoughtfully ponders arguments and counterarguments; he does not assume bad faith or bad character from those with whom he disagrees; and he easily admits when he was wrong. I’ve no idea whether Allen Young is familiar with Walt Whitman’s famous directive (“be radical – be radical – be not too damned radical!”) but that quote came to mind numerous times while reading Left, Gay & Green. Young spent a big part of his life deeply immersed in revolutionary politics, but one gathers, while reading this charming autobiography, that the cut and thrust of his personality has changed substantially since the vertiginous Sixties. “Nuance,” Young says at one point, “has now become one of my favorite words”.

January 18, 2019

Left, Gay, and Green

Filed under: Catskills,Gay,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

From my comic book memoir:

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 18, 2019

Just over five years ago an article I had scanned from the July 20, 1947 PM newspaper titled “Utopia in the Catskills” appeared in CounterPunch. PM was a leftist newspaper that published between 1940 and 1948 and as such found Woodridge, my little village in the Catskills, as noteworthy as some on the left find Rojava. Reporter Croswell Bowen was impressed with the co-op movement that for all I know was more advanced than Rojava:

Actually, Woodridge is unique among the neighboring communities, because it possesses five highly successful consumer co-operatives, owned and operated by their members. Three of the five comprise one large intercounty co-operative association. All five are loosely connected with national co-operative groups which furnish over a billion dollars in services and goods to more than 2,500,000 member-owners throughout the United States each year. In practice, the Woodridge co-ops follow along the lines of the Rochdale pioneers.

Among those photographed in the article was one Lou Young, who was chairman of the board of the Inter-County Farmers Co-operative Association and is shown feeding some white roosters. His son Allen was six years old at the time and would soon begin doing chores on the family poultry farm in Glen Wild, a village even tinier than mine. Among his tasks was gathering egg yolks and whites into a gallon jar that would be sold to a local baker in Woodridge, renowned for their challah (the bread Jews ate on Friday nights) as was my father for the kosher dill pickles he made and sold at his fruit store.

When Allen was 12 years old, he accidentally dropped a gallon jar of egg contents in the back of his father’s pick-up truck and felt guilty over the loss of income. In his stunning new biography Left, Gay and Green: a Writer’s Life, Allen vividly recalls his father’s reaction:

It was surely my fault that the jar fell and broke, but I have no recollection of my father getting angry with me. Perhaps, despite all of our family’s financial problems (and the monetary loss associated with the gallon of eggs), be saw the humor in that odd gooey cascade of yellow yolks and shiny albumen (the technical word for egg whites).

I suspect his father’s generosity of spirit might have had something to do with his membership in the Communist Party. Whatever its political failings, the party attracted people who put other people before profits.

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August 10, 2018

In the Spirit of the Departed Munsees

Filed under: Catskills,Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:38 pm

Four years ago the Stockbridge-Munsee Indians decided to cancel plans to build a gambling casino in Sullivan County since Gov. Andrew Cuomo had approved another Indian-owned gambling casino in Orange County that was closer to New York, thus putting theirs at a disadvantage. Starting in the early 2000s, there was a growing momentum to build such casinos in the economically-ravaged Sullivan County. Like Flint, Michigan after the departure of General Motors, Sullivan County bled jobs after the Borscht Belt hotels closed down due to New York City’s changing Jewish demographics. In the 1940s and 50s, garment workers sent their wives and kids up to the Catskills in the summer to escape the oppressive heat of tenement apartments. When their children became lawyers, doctors or accountants after graduating from a CUNY college, they could afford to move to Long Island, install air conditioners in every room, and fly to Europe instead.

When Donald Trump first found out about these casinos, he went ballistic. He said, “We’re giving New York State to the Indians.” If you know the real history of New York, you’d say instead that “We’re giving New York State back to the Indians.”

Some politicians objected to the plans since it went against the norms of gambling casinos being located exclusively on reservations. How could the Wisconsin-based Stockbridge-Munsees build a casino so far away from their home? As it happens, the pols in Albany calculated that offering the Indians the right to build a casino in exchange for dropping a land claim in Madison County, NY for 23,000 acres illegally seized hundreds of years ago made sense. But then again, how could a tribe in Wisconsin be entitled to New York land? What’s going on here? The answer should be obvious to anybody who has studied Native American history. Ethnic cleansing and genocide.

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July 24, 2018

Hard earned lessons in drone photography

Filed under: Catskills,Film — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

Silver Lake in Woodridge, NY. Filmed by Jeremy Hansen of Devotive

In March, 2017, I covered a number of films being shown at the Socially Relevant Film Festival including “Ketermaya”, a really excellent film about Syrian refugees living in a camp in Ketermaya, Lebanon. It was made by Lucas Jedrzejak, an English filmmaker of Polish origins who not only created a moving film but went on to offer solidarity to the refugees including material aid. Just a week ago Lucas informed me that the film is now available on Vimeo and I want to urge you to see this powerful documentary that dispels all the propaganda about the opposition to Assad being “al-Qaeda”. The subjects of the film are mostly children and are better suited to lead the country than the blood-soaked dictator.

The film can now be rented for $5.99 on Vimeo and will barely help pay for all the expenses incurred by Lucas when he lived among the refugees in Ketermaya. Plus, it is a damned good film.

In the closing moments, you get a bird’s eye view of the camp from about 150 feet. When I saw that, I put two and two together and concluded that this was drone footage since Lucas obviously couldn’t afford a helicopter. Why couldn’t I do something like this for my Catskills documentary? Right after the film was finished, I congratulated Lucas on his work and asked him if he did the drone footage. No, he answered, but the guy who did was at the festival and he would be happy to introduce me.

That led to a conversation with Tony Kahoush, a Lebanese drone pilot who was in on the technology from its earliest days. He warned me about investing the money, time and energy into doing the drone photography myself and tried to convince me to hire him for the work. I didn’t think it was possible to come up with the money that would have made his trip from Lebanon pay off financially so I begged off.

As it happened, just around the time I saw “Ketermaya”, a new drone from DJI, a Chinese company, had come out. For only $999, you could get equipment that was getting rave reviews. New York Magazine’s Strategist column was effusive: “If you want a camera drone, this is the one to get, hands down. It’s easy enough to use that even a beginner drone pilot can fly it, but powerful enough that all but the most demanding drone photographers will get everything they need.”

Last summer I went to Central Park with my wife’s brother-in-law to give my brand-new Mavic Pro a virgin flight. I sent it off about 100 feet into the distance and then pressed the “home” key that brings it automatically back to where you are operating the controller, which resembles what you use with video games, joystick and all. The drone came straight back to us, flew directly into a tree, and came tumbling to the ground. Fortunately, nothing broke except my sense of self-confidence.

Within minutes after the crash, a Central Park SUV pulled up and the guy behind the wheel told me that you could not fly a drone in Central Park, number one, and number two they are banned throughout New York City since officials feared that they could be weaponized and used against Donald Trump.

Refusing to be discouraged, I did a little research and discovered that there were some parks that did allow drone flights—the closest being Corona Park in Queens that was near the site of the 1964 World’s Fair. All I had to do was take the subway out there and I would be good to go. So with my wife’s brother-in-law in tow, we got out at the nearest stop to Corona Park and discovered that it would be a good 45 minute walk from the train.

Once we got there, we saw that it was much smaller than Central Park—maybe about the same size as the Sheep Meadow. Even though you could fly a drone there, you had to contend with picnickers who were out in the same kind of numbers as you’d see in the Sheep Meadow. The last thing I needed was for the drone to fall out of the sky and give someone a concussion so I struggled to find a space that was remote from the crowds. Once again I sent it off into the air and pressed the “home” key and once again it crashed into a tree. (I still hadn’t learned that you had to be in an open space to used the home function.) Plus, this time there was damage and I had to send it to the factory to be repaired.

When it came back, I thought long and hard about whether it would be possible to train myself properly given the lack of a convenient space. I also decided that it would have been necessary to get some training from an experienced drone pilot even though I failed to turn one up in New York City.

So, I decided to let things sit for a while until I could figure out what would be the best approach. About a month ago, I decided to search for a Mavic Pro trainer in New York City and one turned up. I also thought it would be worth trying to find a local version of Tony Kahoush who I could pay to do the filming under my direction. Neither of these possibilities existed in the summer of 2017 but this year everything had changed.

I put out a request for a drone pilot on a new website called Droners.IO that matches employers to employees just like all the other websites that have made classified ads in print media obsolete.

I stated that I was looking for someone to do drone footage in the Catskills for a documentary about the Borscht Belt and was contacted by about 30 different pilots. I settled for a young man named Jeremy Hansen who was not only technically skilled but who also had a cinematographer’s eye. Even if I had by some miracle learned how to fly a drone, it would have been difficult if not impossible to include myself in the footage without a controller in my hand guiding the Mavic Pro. By putting myself in Jeremy’s hands, I was able to be part of the action in three critical scenes, including walking down the main street of my upstate shtetl.

I was also fortunate enough to have run into someone who was on the same wave-length as me politically and philosophically. Jeremy, who is 34, is like the millennials who voted for Bernie Sanders and anxious to see his professional life and his beliefs mesh more and more in the future. Suffice it to say that we were matched perfectly.

If you are planning on making a film yourself that uses drone footage, don’t think twice. Contact Jeremy Hansen at Devotive.

(Also, if you are interested in a refurbished Mavic Pro for a reasonable price, don’t hesitate to contact me.)

 

July 21, 2018

Yitzy the Pupa photographer

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

On Wednesday and Thursday, I was up in Sullivan County—once the home of the now mostly defunct resort hotel industry—to work with a drone pilot I had hired to capture the sights of the Catskills from above.

Of all the major hotels that were well-known in the area, there is only one that is still in business and that has the same appearance it had when it was built in 1937, namely the Raleigh Hotel. When I had been told in advance that it was now owned by Hasidim and catering to the frum (devout), I was a bit worried about being prevented from filming since these people are notoriously wary of outsiders. About a mile from the hotel, we stopped on the road to ask directions from a likely hotel guest wearing a long frock coat and a wide-brimmed hat. He told us it was right up the road and asked if he could get a lift. When he opened the door to hop into the back seat, he spotted the drone pilot’s female assistant and then said, while grinning sheepishly, “No thank you”. This came as no big surprise since there were lots of reports about Hasidic men refusing to be seated next to women on Israeli airplanes. Even when I offered to change seats with the assistant, he still said no.

Given that introduction, I suggested to the pilot to stay fairly clear of the hotel in order to avoid confrontations with hotel security. After about five minutes of filming, a car pulled up with a Hasidic driver who we figured to be part of the hotel management ready to tell us to get lost. After we explained what we were doing, he said “Great” with a big smile on his face and then asked when and where the drone shots of the hotel will be available. What a pleasant surprise!

Back in 2004, the hotel was being run by Laurie Landon, a secular Jew who took over the hotel after her father Mannie Halbert died that year at the age of 91. The NY Times described a transition that was atypical:

When she turned 18, she left the Raleigh and the so-called borscht belt behind to study fine arts at the University of Wisconsin. She then ventured farther, to California, where she studied and worked in design before returning east to live in Manhattan. Her father was left to run the 320-room hotel by himself after her mother, Nettie, died of ovarian cancer in 1971.

“The hotel replaced my mother,” she said. “It was his world. I knew he wanted to pass away here. He wore a suit and tie every day until he went into the hospital.”

Having hassle-free filming at the Raleigh was just the prelude to the next encounter with a Hasid that was even more unexpected.

1352

Old Falls, on the Neversink River

The crew and I were at Old Falls, a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, when all of a sudden a panel truck pulled up and a young man wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a yarmulke on his head stepped out to see what we were up to.

While the pilot and his assistant prepared to fly the drone over the falls, I drew their attention to a monarch butterfly a few feet away. To our delight, we had seen a number of them when we were upstate—perhaps recovering from the massive die-off from pesticides in the 1990s. When the young man overheard us chatting about the butterfly, he dashed to his truck and brought out a digital SLR camera with a massive telephoto lens to see if he could photograph the butterfly. In fact, it was this camera:

That is one of the photos on Yitzy’s website that is devoted both to photographing the beauty of the area as well as the religious leaders of the Pupa branch of Hasidic Judaism.

Not only is he a passionate photographer, he is also into drone photography and owns a Mavic Pro just like mine. I should add that the only reason I hired a drone pilot (and a great one at that) is the impossibility of learning how to fly my own in New York City where there is a virtual ban. (Contact me if you want to buy a Mavic Pro in excellent condition.)

Right off the bat, Yitzy identified himself as a Pupa person. The Pupas are a Hasidic sect named after the town of Pápa in Hungary who were deported to Auschwitz during WWII with only a tiny number of people surviving the death camp. There are several thousand Pupas in Brooklyn where Yitzy grew up in a cloistered world that had incorporated the same customs and Yiddish language used in the 19th century in Hungary. He told me that he learned English on the street and even picked up Spanish along the way.

Yitzy and I discussed his online passions that are strictly verboten in his world. Computers, like the female assistant in the drone pilot’s back seat, are doors that open up into the world of temptation and sin. But he was not ready to forsake them since this was as much a part of his identity as the sidelocks (peyot) that he had tucked neatly behind his ears. On Friday night and Saturday, the sidelocks are unraveled and he trades his jeans and t-shirt for the same kind of clothes that the Raleigh hotel guest was wearing. Obviously, it is this sort of ceremony that retains a grip on him:

Yitzy is aware of the films on Hasidim that have cast them in a negative light such as “One of Us” (https://louisproyect.org/2017/10/19/one-of-us-jane/) even if he has not watched them. He wasn’t aware of “Menashe”, the outstanding film about a single father being told by a Hasidic court that unless he remarries, he will have to turn over his son to another family. When I described the plot to him, he had no hesitation saying that the rabbis were wrong.

I was deeply impressed with Yitzy and could understand why he would want to remain in the Hasidic world. Karl Marx once wrote that religion was the opiate of the masses but the words that surround this statement are often neglected:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

My interest in the Hasidim goes back a number of decades mostly because they are so defiantly unconcerned about how they are perceived by others. In American society, it is difficult to withstand the social pressures that turn people into commodity fetishists unless you exist within a religious cocoon like the Amish or the Hasidim.

Ilan Halevi’s “A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern” is the definitive treatment of Jewish history that I highly recommend. His discussion of the Hasidic movement places it in the context of economic and social dislocations of 19th century Europe:

There is one area where Hasidism not only did not challenge orthodoxy, but outbid the rabbinical discourse: the crucial area of the cleavage Jews and non-Jews. The eschatological justification of difference as essential. Difference was one of the constantly recurring themes of rabbinical Judaism: Separation (havdalah) was a key concept. God separated Israel from among the Nations and this extraction was of an ontological nature:

“Like day from night, like the sacred from the profane.” Talmudic law pushed the horror of the mixing of species to the prohibiting any grafting of vegetable species. Kabbalistic literature was full of such expressions of national pride and messianic particularism. But the intellectual practice of the Mediterranean Kabbala could, through exegesis, lead to heretical questionings of this basic distinction, which cannot simply be reduced to the divine guarantee of the ethnic superiority chosen group. The rabbinical caste, indeed, was dependent on it for relations with the princely rulers and the stratum of intermediaries. The weight of this dual relationship tempered the cosmological tribalism of the Law. It had even, under the tolerant Islam of the Abbassids, allowed this tribalism to harmonize its language with the surrounding civilization, which was itself fascinated by Greek Reason.

Nothing like this, no modification of rabbinical ethnicism was at work in universe of the Hasidim: the fact was that the persecution of the community was occurring in conditions that were unique in the history of this Law. The de facto separation of the Shtetl from the surrounding society, a separation that was not only religious and social, but linguistic and spatial, found in this the theological weapons it needed to assert itself. While postponing to an indefinite future the hopes for a political messiah, Hasidism also expressed, by its outright denial of time and place, the historical subjectivism of the Shtetl which could later fuel the growth of Jewish nationalism.

The internal crisis of the Shtetl, whose roots are to be found in the crisis of Polish feudalism, was exacerbated and radically aggravated. The domain of Polish sovereignty was shrinking rapidly. A kingdom that had stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea grew smaller and smaller as around it tsarist Russia, the Hapsburg empire and the German states grew larger and larger. The Polish question became the European question and centuries-old Polish Jewry saw its territory carved up among several states Austria, which took Galicia, lightened the conditions of Jews there: but Russia, having seized the Ukraine and Byelorussia, oppressed them there, said Lenin, “more harshly than the Negroes”. The Napoleonic conquest, short as it may have been, precipitated the disintegration, inducing a general upheaval in the empires of the centre and east. Following the French occupation, the whole map of the region was transformed. The new frontier of Austria and Russia, which shared the whole of what remained of Poland in 1815, cut the Ashkenazi world in two, divided the dynasties of Hasidic rabbis, and determined new sub-problematics. The sociological unity of Ashkenazi Judaism was beginning to fracture.

This year Philip Roth died at the age of 85. Well over fifty years ago, I read his “Goodbye Columbus” that included a short story titled “Eli the Fanatic” about a secular Jew living among gentiles who is chagrined to discover that a Hasidic Jew has moved into his neighborhood. Samuel Freedman, a Columbia professor who has written about conflicts in the Jewish community in a book titled “Jew Vs Jew: The Struggle For The Soul Of American Jewry”, summarized the plot:

In 1959, very early in his literary career, Philip Roth wrote a short story entitled “Eli, the Fanatic.” At the outset of the tale, nothing is fanatical about Eli, except his desire to fit in. He has ridden a law degree and the wave of postwar prosperity from working-class Newark into a leafy suburb up the slope of the Watchung Hills—the sort of suburb, the reader understands, that had barred Jews with restrictive covenants on home sales until the revelation of the Holocaust discredited the formal structures of American anti-Semitism. Even so, Eli feels that his station there is vulnerable. So when two survivors, one of them Hasidic, open a yeshiva out of a ramshackle home in what is supposed to be a residential neighborhood, Eli fears that their oddity will undermine his fragile new niche. He instructs the men in the importance of obeying zoning laws, and, when that doesn’t work, gives the Hasid one of his own business suits so that, at the very least, the stranger won’t attract quite so many stares as he walks down Main Street. In a final plot twist, the Hasid leaves a set of his own black garb on Eli’s porch. Eli, inexplicably drawn to it, puts on the clothes, whereupon he is committed to a lunatic asylum.

Sometimes I wonder if my 50-year commitment to Marxism is as “fanatical” as Roth’s character. In a world headed to disasters of Biblical proportions, it takes a certain kind of stiff-necked resolve to adhere to beliefs that reject our affluent society that is symbolized by Donald Trump’s garish penthouse. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I admire Yitzy even though his world is so remote from mine.

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.

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August 8, 2017

A weekend in Hudson

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

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.

 

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