Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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

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.

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