Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 7, 2015

Chester’s Zumbarg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAVE

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

RAE

You quit?

DAVE

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

RAE

What about Godfrey? What did he say?

DAVE

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

ERNIE

When did this happen?

DAVE

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

ERNIE

Can you get another show?

DAVE

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

RAE

I’m sorry, Dave.

DAVE

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

RAE

Can’t you write for Godfrey under another name?

DAVE

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

Stephen M. Silverman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

September 28, 2015

The Shawangunk Ridge

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 11.55.20 AM

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

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

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

The three clips are seen below:

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

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

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

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

From my article:

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

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

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

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

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

March 21, 2015

The Rise and the Fall of the Borscht Belt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 16, 2015

The Mighty Atom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mighty atom

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

The Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you know?”

Joe shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

The Mighty Atom takes on the Nazis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Exodus XXIII:22: 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos from Spielman’s book:

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

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

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

 

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 11.39.18 AM

March 31, 2014

Hometown news

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

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

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

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

Sullivan County Democrat, Mar. 31 2014

Fallsburg police replacing school resource officer

By Dan Hust – staff writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen shot 2014-03-31 at 3.28.59 PM

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

Washington Post, April 25, 2013

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

By Kimberly Kindy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NY Times, March 27, 2008

Our Towns

A Lesson in Politics as Unusual

By PETER APPLEBOME

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

You might think Gordon Jenkins would be excited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 13, 2014

Sid Caesar, legendary comedian, dead at 91

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:57 pm

Sid Caesar died yesterday at the age of 91. The N.Y. Times obituary (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/arts/television/sid-caesar-comic-who-blazed-tv-trail-dies-at-91.html) pays tribute to his remarkable breakthroughs as a comedian that Alfred Hitchcock compared to Charlie Chaplin and who counted Albert Einstein as one of biggest fans. Speaking of Chaplin and Einstein, a couple of lefties, I can’t say I am surprised that the obit did not pay attention to Sid Caesar’s early leftist affinities. While they never were manifested in his hugely popular TV show, his evolution as a comic was definitely just as much a product of the New Deal popular culture as Pete Seeger’s.

I had pretty strong connections to Sid Caesar even though I never spoke a word to him. This is partly a function of my being a young kid when he used to show up in Woodridge, my hometown, from time to time but also a function of his intimidating presence. He used to show up at the pharmacy next to my dad’s store “strapped”—he was heavily into guns. Plus, he was a big guy who gave off “don’t bother me” vibes. As it turned out, Sid was a health food nut even if he was not above developing a spoof on the bean sprout scene.

I know for a fact that he was a health food nut because the owner of the hotel where he got his start used to call my father up to order his best fruits and vegetables for Sid. This is captured in the excerpt from my abortive memoir below, as well as the leftist connections. (Btw, if any of my enemies—you know who you are—needs wising up, I am posting the excerpt under the provisions of the Fair Use provisions of the copyright laws.)

My first reference to Sid’s leftist past that formed the basis for the comic book passage was prompted by a visit to a conference on the Catskills organized by Phil Brown, a Brown University sociologist whose parents ran a small hotel not far from my home town. The entire report is at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/borschtbelt.htm

Here’s the relevant part:

Most people know about the resort hotels and the famed Jewish comedians who got their start there, including Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hackett among others. What is not so well-known is that the area was a hotbed of left-wing politics. I suppose that wherever Jews can be found there is bound to be left-wing politics, except Israel that is.

Sid Caesar got his start at the Avon Lodge about a mile from my father’s fruit store. His comedy show was the biggest thing on television in the fifties. The writing staff included Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks at one point. Caesar had a violent temper and during a writing session once held an errant writer outside the window of the NBC offices by his heels.

He would come to my village to do some shopping whenever he was upstate for a weekend getaway. Sid was a gun-nut and would always come to town with big revolvers in his holster and a cartridge belt fully loaded. He would spend hours at a time on the firing range at the Avon Lodge venting his rage on tin cans and bottles. When I drove my bicycle down the road near the Avon Lodge, I could always hear him shooting. Ka-boom. Ka-boom. Ka-boom.

The Avon Lodge was co-owned by the Arkins and the Neukrugs. Sid Caesar had married an Arkin. The Neukrugs were rumored to be red. I studied piano briefly with Henrietta Neukrug in 1957 and in the middle of practicing “Row-row-your-boat” one afternoon, I turned to her and asked, “Mrs. Neukrug, are you a Communist?” She glared at me and told me that I was rude. Many years later as my exploits as a globe-trotting radical became common knowledge in town, the Neukrugs decided to turn over a box of Henrietta’s mementos after she died. It included many pamphlets by William Z. Foster, WEB DuBois and Sy Gerson, etc., and a hand-painted portrait of Joseph Stalin. Her family’s gesture meant a lot more to me than the contents of the box.

Here’s the graphic version:

Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_1Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_2Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_3Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_4Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_5

September 28, 2013

Utopia in the Catskills

Filed under: Catskills,farming,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

In assembling still photos to be included in a video I am doing on a trip up to my hometown in the Catskills in August, I could find nothing on the net that showed Woodridge in its prime. A visit to the Sullivan County Historical Museum in Hurleyville turned up the intriguing first page of a PM article dated July 20, 1947 with the title “Utopia in the Catskills”. I eventually tracked down the full print version at the New York Historical Society that I scanned in for the results below. PM was a leftist newspaper with heavy Communist Party participation that was published out of NYC from 1940 to 1948 and funded by Chicago millionaire Marshall Field III, a scion of the Montgomery-Field department stores. They don’t make millionaires the way they used to.

In a nutshell, the article was as much of a find for me as the Ark of the Covenant was for Indiana Jones. It told me who I was and where I came from.

The title of the article refers to the strong left sympathies in the village and the importance of co-op’s. My grandfather Louis, who died around the time that this article was written, was president of the Workman’s Circle that is referred to in the article as follows:

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives.

There are lots more that I can say about this article but do not want to interrupt the flow with my observations. As you read through it, you can find my elaborations on both personal and historical matters by clicking various links, starting with a longer introduction on Woodridge and the left here.

PM July 20, 1947

Utopia in the Catskills

Story and Photos by Croswell Bowen

railway_stationThe station platform at Woodridge, which opens on to the town’s main street, is extra large to accommodate summer population of 30,000

Refugees who wanted to be farmers made Woodridge, N.Y., into a prosperous farm-resort town with five co-ops

West of the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie and Highland, beyond the Shawangunk (pronounced shongum) Mountains toward the Alleghany Plateau is the rocky, hilly country of Tom Quick, the Indian killer, and the now virtually extinct Irish tanners, The New York, Ontario, and Western Railroad threads its way among the foothills and mountains of the Catskills and these days its Diesel locomotives sound foghornlike warnings when they come to road crossings and towns.

Twice a day passenger trains stop at the town of Woodridge (population 300 in winter, 30,000 in summer), which looks like most of the other combination farm and resort country towns which sprinkle the Catskill Mountains.

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. The prices are competitive, that is, in the same range as nonco-op establishments. But the co-op members realize savings through a system of rebates or dividends paid out of what in nonco-op businesses is chalked up as profit and loss to the consumer. In the co-ops the profit is returned to members after small sums are set aside for reserve. Most of the citizens of Woodridge have small chicken farms and take summer boarders. If you were such a citizen, would, in Woodridge, have your farm and buildings insured at the Associated Co-operative Insurance Companies.

fogelson

co-op2
You would stop to buy your groceries from the Mountain Resort Owners’ & Farmers’ Co-op_Inc. If you needed extra beds or mattresses or window shades or garden furniture, this co-op would also supply you.

After this, you would drive your pick-up truck to the feed division of the Inter-County Farmers’ Co-operative Association Inc. for a few sacks of chicken feed. You might stop and chat with young Joe Cohen, the manager of the feed co-op. about poultry and end up taking a gallon of a new kind of disinfectant.

The friendly village

In another building, you’d drop off a crate of eggs at Inter-County’s egg co-op where eggs are processed, packed, shipped, and sometimes put into cold storage. Upstairs in Inter-County’s farm machinery co-op, you’d look over the new poultry equipment and other accessories, and perhaps end up buying a new tire. Leaving town, you’d remember you needed some gas and stop again at the grocery co-op and fill her up.

joe cohen new

Lou YoungThis is Louis Young, the father of SDS leader Allen Young who later on became a pivotal figure in the gay liberation movement. More on Allen here.

egg candlingThe women candled eggs while the men packed them. Not everything was up to date in 1947. It took Betty Friedan to shake things up.

packing new

packing 2 new

When you drive west through Ellenville past Spring Glen on Route 209 a sign tells you that you are entering Woodridge, The Friendly Village. This is not a Chamber of Commerce exaggeration. The summer population of the town, although mostly Jewish, includes a diversified group of nationalities. There are Negro entertainers and household servants, Puerto-Rican, Moslem, Indian, Cuban and Lascar [Indian sailors, an archaic term] hotel workers. A few of the old-time Irish settlers from the Irish tanner days are still there. Everybody gets along. Anybody can check into any hotel regardless of his race or creed.

Max Schwartz, owner-proprietor of The Actors Inn, a restaurant and bar, boasts that “nobody who lands in this town goes hungry or bedless if he’s broke. And we help him get a job if he’s willing to work.” We’re supposed to be a kosher restaurant,” jolly Mrs. Schwartz, his wife, says, “but we got ham for the gentiles and, my heavens, I’ve even had to learn how to get up curry and rice with lamb for the Moslems. And very, very hot stuff for the Puerto Ricans. We’re a regular United Nations restaurant.”

sam katzowitz

Sam Katzowitz, Mayor of Woodridge, sums up the town’s inter-racial  equilibrium somewhat more wryly. Recently, he was asked if the town elections shaped up along the conventional Republican and Democratic lines or were other factors present?

ethel katzowitz

In the Majority

“If you have in mind,” he said, “is there any anti-Semitism here, the answer is no. And, for a very simple reason. Jews in Woodridge are in the majority. But we treat the gentiles pretty good. I guess you might say we’re mostly all liberals.”

“Like liberals everywhere else,” he adds, “we don’t necessarily agree. We have our arguments, too.”

Political discussion in Woodridge is at a very sophisticated level. In any store, on any corner, you can hear talk of the relative merits of the Socialist Party or Communist Party in the trade union movement. The “Russian question” touches off explosive viewpoints.

The character of the town, the co-ops, and the high incidence of liberals were not indigenous to up-state hill country. This Utopia in the Catskills has evolved from a chain of events that occurred in Europe as well as locally during the past 50 years.

During the last half of the past century, the land around Woodridge (or Centerville station, as it was called until 1915) was inhabited mostly by Irish immigrants. The iron-muscled men of Galway and Cork and Mayo and Killarney cut down the tall hemlock trees and hauled them to tanneries which constituted the main industry of the Catskills.

The pay was bad and the work was hard. To eke out a living, they tried to do a little farming, a cow, a pig and some chickens. But the soil is rocky and sometimes solid rock is only a few inches below the top soil. Toward the turn of the century the tanning industry had changed and the hemlocks mostly cut down. The early Irish settlers died off and the young folks went to the cities.

During the 90s, Jews fleeing the terrible pogroms taking place in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and the Balkans, were arriving in the United States. Many had been farmers in the old country and wanted to be farmers in the new country.

The land in the Catskills was cheap. Much of it was abandoned. Some say the Polish and Lithuanian Jews bought the land because it reminded them of their native countryside. The deciding factor, however, was more probably that the prices of the farms suited what little money these early refugees had salvaged from their old-world homes.

Many of the early Jewish settlers were helped with money and advice by the Baron De Hirsch Fund. De Hirsch, a wealthy Hungarian railroad builder, believed that Jewish colonization was the answer to the terrible pogroms sweeping Europe. He also helped settle Jews in Palestine.

Unite the workers

Another influence among the Jews who settled in the region of what is now Woodridge was the Workman’s Circle. (http://circle.org/) This Jewish organization, called in Yiddish Der Arbeiter Ring, had been formed on New York’s Essex Street in the flat of Sam Greenberg, a cloakmaker. His aim was to “unite by a ring of friendship every worker in the land and with many links unite the workers of every land.”

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives. There were “Sunday schools” for children; dramatic and choral groups for elders.

But the settlers around Woodridge as well as in other parts of the Catskills did not prosper. The few natives left in the region did not welcome the strange-speaking newcomers.

The settlers found it as hard to farm the land as the Irish who’d perished before them. To help make ends meet they began taking in boarders. Mostly, the Jewish farmers took fellow Jews in from New York City. This was logical. They had friends in the city and these friends had other friends.

Jews who came into the farm homes in the Catskills found respite from the toil of the New York sweatshops. They knew they would find no discrimination. And further, the meals at the farmhouse were in compliance with the dietary laws of their religion. In this way the region became one of the great resort centers of the East.

Almost prohibitive

About the time of the first World War, the new farmer-hotelkeepers discovered they couldn’t get any fire insurance on their places. If a farmer took in one hoarder even for one week, be was charged a “hotel rate” for every room in his house, regardless of whether he rented it out. The hotel rate made the farmers’ insurance almost prohibitive.

The result was that the farmer-hotelkeepers organized their own insurance co– operative and on April 1913, the first policy was written. Each member put up a certain sum of money and at the end of the year, they were assessed a sum of money to pay as premiums. The insurance Department of the State of New York was puzzled by the new kind of insurance company and for a time the organizers, Philip Thomas and Victor S. Kogan had a hard time operating within laws which had been put on the books to cover oldline insurance companies that worked entirely for profits.

But the company grew and grew so that today it has 35 million dollars worth of insurance in force and 2300 policy-holders. On October 31, 1940, George N. Jamison, Superintendent of the Department of Insurance of the State of New York, addressed 1000 policyholders of the Associated Co-operative Insurance Co., the first sizeable policyholders meeting he’d ever heard about. “This,” he said, is a real policyholders’ meeting. We in the Department know your directors have rendered service to the community, one which in holders could go nowhere else to obtain. The co-operative deserves the praise for performing this function.

The insurance co-operative at Woodridge owns its own fireproof building today. Its 24 directors are elected for terms of three years. It saves its policyholders from 20 to 80 per cent of the cost of insurance in the nonco-op companies. The next big co-operative in Woodridge was organized in 1938. Twenty members put up $25 to form the Inter-County feed and grain co-operative. Today there are 400 members and the co-operative does business in Sullivan, Ulster and Orange Counties. New members are accepted after a probationary period of six months “to see if the hi suer is co-operatively minded and to make sure he is nut a disrupter.”

As the feed and grain co-operative grew its scope has been enlarged to include a farm machinery co-operative and an egg co-operative.. The gross business is a million and a quarter dollars. Feed and grain accounts for $1,100,000; farm machinery for $50,000; and egg storage and marketing for $50,000. Most of the members are poultry men. Lately, many GIs with Gl loans are becoming members.

The most recent co-operative to come into being in Woodridge is the Mountain Resort Owners and Farmers’ Co-operative. It was organized in 1944 when scarce hardware and grocery items were turned on the black market and the hotelkeepers had to pay premium prices or do without merchandise. Two hundred and fifty shareholders, each owning one share, put up $25. A building, railroad siding and warehouse were purchased for $4000. They are worth $10,000 today. Last year the gross business was $55, 000. This year it will gross $75,000. Gum sells for three cents a pack, motor oil for 15 cents a quart and $1.25 window shades sell for 81 cents. Its officers are a president, secretary-treasurer, and a board of directors of nine. A paid full-time manager handles the actual operation of the business. We asked all the people in key jobs in the co-operatives how they accounted for their success. All said virtually the same thing: “We try to sell the best merchandise at the lowest prices. We stick strictly to business and avoid political quarrels that might divide and disrupt us.”

July 31, 2013

When Comedy Went to School

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,Film,humor,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

Although I am sure that just about everybody will be as enchanted by “When Comedy went to School”—a documentary on stand-up comedians of the Borscht Belt that opens today at the IFC in NY—as me, I have a particular connection to the film as someone who lived in the midst of the resort area in its heyday. The film will give you much more of an insight into this yeasty slice of Jewish life than any fictional film like “Dirty Dancing” can.

A WSJ interview with Robert Klein (it is behind a paywall but can be read through Google News on a search for the article’s title “Borscht Belt, Behind the Scenes”), the film’s narrator and veteran stand-up comic who launched his career in the Catskills, mentions him working at the Alamac Hotel as a lifeguard. My mother was very close to the family who owned the hotel in my hometown and connected me to Kenny Gottlieb, a busboy who worked there. Kenny, who was an opera-loving Amherst student, turned me on to Weiser’s bookstore in N.Y. that was owned by his uncle Sam. Weiser’s was devoted to occult religions and as such was a shrine for Beat poets who went there to gather material on Plotinus, Gnosticism, St. John of the Cross et al. It was after my own visits to Weiser’s in my teens that I decided to become a religion major at Bard College as a latecomer to the beat generation. (Through Google’s long tentacles, I learned that Kenny died in 2009 after flying his Cessna into a hillside in Napa, California.)

Despite the Borscht Belt’s rural location, the “townies” were always absorbing New York’s cultural influences from the young men and women who worked in the hotels. It was at the New Roxy, my friend Eli’s hotel where Rodney Dangerfield used to perform as Jack Roy, where I made contact with Don the lifeguard. I have vivid memories of chatting with Don, who looked like James Dean and screwed half the women who stayed there over the summer, about what he was reading at the time. He turned me on to Genet. I was also turned on to Panamanian Red that I bought from Freddy the waiter. It cost $15 an ounce back in 1961 and one shared joint could put four people on their ass.

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You get a flavor of the affinity between the comedians who worked there and the burgeoning bohemian scene from Sandy Hackett, who reminisces about his dad Buddy in the film. It turns out that Buddy and Lenny Bruce, who both got started performing in the Catskills, were roommates in New York. If you knew anything about their respective public personae, it is a little bit like hearing that Charlie Parker and James Brown were roommates. The two comedians lived in a cheap studio apartment in the Village, where they covered the floor with sand in which they planted a beach umbrella. Women were invited up to smoke a joint and enjoy a faux day at the ocean.

For me one of the great pleasures of the film was watching the 87-year-old Jerry Lewis and the 91-year-old Sid Caesar holding forth on their early days in the Catskills in the 30s and 40s. By 1958, the two were king of the motion picture and television respectively. If you went to a premiere of a Martin and Lewis comedy, you’d expect to stand on a line to buy tickets that went around the block. Around the same time Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” had a bigger audience share on NBC than Seinfeld. For my money, Caesar’s show was ten times hipper than Seinfeld’s (Seinfeld’s career was also launched in the Catskill’s but at a time when it was on the decline.) It was on the “Show of Shows” where I saw him leading the cast in a parody of what was obviously a Kurosawa movie long before I knew that Kurosawa existed.

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At this point, it is worth including the panels above are from my abortive memoir done with Harvey Pekar even though his widow has warned me that I do not have her permission to do so. The shrill and vindictive woman obviously understands nothing about “fair use” laws.

Mel Brooks was among the writers for “The Show of Shows”. Some years later Woody Allen wrote for Sid Caesar TV specials. Both men got started in the Catskills. In a Wikipedia article on Borscht Belt humor, Brooks is included as an example of puns, one of the four dominant characteristics:

  • Bad luck: “When I was a kid, I was breast-fed by my father.” (Dangerfield)
  • Puns: “Sire, the peasants are revolting!” “You said it. They stink on ice.” (Harvey Korman as Count de Money (Monet) and Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI, in History of the World Part I)
  • Physical complaints and ailments (often relating to bowels and cramping): “My doctor said I was in terrible shape. I told him, ‘I want a second opinion.’ He said, ‘All right, you’re ugly too!'” “I told my doctor, ‘This morning when I got up and saw myself in the mirror, I looked awful! What’s wrong with me?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know, but your eyesight is perfect!'” (Dangerfield)
  • Aggravating relatives and nagging wives: “My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” (Dangerfield). “Take my wife—please!” (Henny Youngman); “My wife drowned in the pool because she was wearing so much jewelry.” (Rickles); “My wife ain’t too bright. One day our car got stolen. I said to her, ‘Did you get a look at the guy?’ She said, ‘No, but I got the license number.'” (Dangerfield) “This morning the doorbell rang. I said ‘Who is it?’ He said ‘It’s the Boston strangler.’ I said ‘It’s for you dear!'” (Youngman)

I don’t care much for the sexist junk about wives but all the rest of it rings a bell and was certainly an influence on my own sense of humor. The Wikipedia summary, however, does not mention what for me is the crowing element of Borscht Belt humor: self-deprecation. Although he was only part of the Catskills in the eleventh hour, Woody Allen was a master of self-deprecation. A typical Allen joke from this period: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

Some say that brevity is the soul of wit. For me it is self-deprecation. While I am the target of deprecators near and far, I always beat them to the punch. In order to make my posts on the most abstruse topics palatable to the average radical, I try to thrown in a few jokes like the chopped meat surrounding a pill given to a pet dog.

When I was in the early stages of writing the text for the memoir I did with Pekar, I told him that it would be filled with jokes. I said that it would be in the spirit of the stand-up comedians I used to hear when I was a teen in the Catskills. Too bad it will never see the light of day except for these “fair use” samples. That’s her loss financially and mine creatively. But most of all, it is a loss to her late husband’s legacy that matters less to her than her petty feud with me.

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