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Faculty Profile: Phil Brown and the Jewish Catskills

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Phil Brown has unusually diverse academic interests.  He has had a long and distinguished career researching the interactions between the environment and health, including disputes over environmental causation of illness, community response to toxic waste-induced disease, biomonitoring and household exposure to toxins, environmental health research ethics, and health social movements.  Brown now serves as Northeastern’s new University Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences and Director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute; at Brown University, where he taught from 1980 to 2012, he served as director of the Contested Illnesses Research Group, director of the Community Engagement Core of Brown’s Superfund Research Program, and director of the Community Outreach and Translation Core of Brown’s Children’s Environmental Health Center.

Delightfully, Professor Brown has a completely different area of expertise as well:  he is a leading scholar on the Jewish experience in the Catskill Mountains resort area, director of The Catskills Institute:  An Organization to Promote Research and Education on the Significance of the Catskill Mountains for Jewish-American Life, author of Catskill Culture:   A Mountain Rat’s Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area, and editor of In the Catskills:  A Century of the Jewish Experience in “The Mountains.”

Mention the Catskills to Jewish young people today and you might get a blank stare.  Yet for decades in the mid-20th century, the area served as a central locus for American Jewish culture.  Early in the century, a number of Jewish immigrants had bought land and attempted to farm in the area.  Struggling to make a living as farmers, they sensed a new opportunity as New Yorkers increasingly flocked to the area on vacation in search of fresh air, good food, and leisure opportunities.  The hotels they opened catered especially to Jews, to whom many prominent resorts were off-limits because of anti-Semitism. Particularly between the 1920s and the 1960s, middle- and working-class New York Jews came in droves to the “Borscht Belt’s” hundreds of hotels, boarding houses, and bungalow colonies.  The Catskills Institute’s website lists 1,172 hotels and 849 bungalow colonies, many of which were owned and frequented by Jews, especially Ashkenazi immigrants and their children and grandchildren.  By the 1950s, approximately a half-million people were visiting each summer.

Among them were Phil Brown and his family.  “I grew up in a family of ‘Mountain Rats,’ a Catskills term for those who lived and worked in ‘The Mountains’ over many years,” Brown remarks.  “I spent three months each year in the Catskills, from birth in 1949 to 1971, and returned through the late 1970s to visit my parents who were still working there.  (My father died in his coffee shop there in 1972, and my mother was a chef until 1978.)  My parents began in 1946 as owners of a small hotel, Brown’s Hotel Royal, which they had until 1952.”

As the Catskills Institute website notes, the Catskills’ Jewish resorts shaped both American and American Jewish culture.  In their parallel world of Jewish bungalow colonies, summer camps, and small hotels, Jews became more American by participating in American forms of recreation and leisure, while young people met future spouses and promoted Jewish upward mobility by earning money for college.  At the same time, the Catskills introduced Americans to immigrant Jewish culture, especially through the Borscht Belt’s many comedians, musicians, and performers.  As air travel increased in the 1970s and many American Jews became less interested in vacationing in Jewish milieus, the Catskills began to decline.  Today, only a few resorts remain.

In 1991, long after the Catskills’ heyday, a friend suggested to Brown that his Catskills stories would provide great material for a book.  “Then my mother died two months later,” Brown remembers, “leaving me an orphan, whose subsequent search for roots became also a search for the meaning of the Catskills which had been so important in my life.”  In 1993, he visited the many places he and his parents had worked and began writing what would become Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat’s Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area.  Two years later, he joined with a few other Catskills veterans to hold what they believed would be a single conference on the history of the Catskills, in Woodridge, NY, on Labor Day Weekend 1995.  Exhilarated by the conference’s success, the group founded the Catskills Institute, which went on to hold thirteen more conferences (ending only five years ago), develop the world’s largest collection of Catskills materials, and serve as a resource for students, scholars, and ordinary people seeking information and graphic material.  As the population that enjoyed the Catskills grows old, the Catskills Institute is working to preserve the legacy of this important Jewish-American cultural phenomenon.

Brown is currently working on a multi-faceted book entitled Summer Haven:  The Catskills, the Holocaust, and the Literary Imagination, with Dr. Holli Levitsky, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University.  “The book contains excerpts from both new and existing writing that explores how vacationers, resort owners, and workers dealt with a horrific contradiction – the pleasure of their summer haven over against the mass extermination of Jews throughout Europe,” he explains; among the writers included are Art Spiegelman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Ezra Cappell, and Michael Berenbaum.  The book explores further how Holocaust survivors in the Catskills found connection, resolution to conflict, and avenues to come together despite the differences that set them apart.  Brown and Levitsky are also conducting original research to examine aspects of the Catskills Holocaust experience, including the role of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in sending immigrants to the Catskills as a safe place with good jobs, the creation of bungalow colonies with survivors, and the efforts to support the creation and early years of Israel as a counter to the Holocaust.

To learn more about the history of the Catskills and view thousands of fascinating documents and images, please view the Catskills Institute’s rich website at http://catskills.brown.edu/index.shtml.