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September 2, 2014 / 7 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Catskill Mountains’

How A Conversation In A Pool Changed My Life

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

I was deeply saddened by the petira of Mrs. Irene Klass, a”h, wife and daughter of Rabbi Sholom Klass, z”l and Mr. Raphael Schreiber, a”h, founders of The Jewish Press. Although our paths only crossed once – and just for a minute – that one very brief encounter had a lasting, positive impact on the quality of my life. The handful of words that Mrs. Klass, a complete stranger, said to me ignited a flicker of light on the gloomy road I was on, a light that was to grow stronger and brighter with the passing of time. Almost comically, this encounter took place over 25 years ago in a swimming pool at the Homowack Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

I don’t remember why I was there; perhaps there was a Shabbaton that weekend and I needed a time out from the emotional turbulence I was engulfed in. It was a time of great turmoil in my life, when “happily ever after” was not the in the script of my personal storybook.

I do recall being in the pool and talking to a friend. We must have been chatting about family, for the discussion led to my telling her of a wrenching, bittersweet experience I had many years earlier in Israel, the summer before the Yom Kipper War. It ironically also involved a brief encounter with a stranger – an elderly Holocaust survivor (a rarity in 1973, since at the time of the Shoah, he was middle-aged. He, like millions of other Jews his age would have been deemed unfit to work and “selected “to be gassed.) We were at a gathering, and I saw a relative of my mother’s walk over to him, and point to me. His tired face got animated and he got out of his chair, shuffled over to me, shoved his face close to mine, peered intensely at me and said in Yiddish, “Aah, du bist Klein Shimmele’s einikel”. “Ah, you are little Shimon’s grandchild.”

He told me that he had been my grandfather’s boyhood friend, that they would skip school to fish and swim in the river, and would get into all sorts of mischief. And then he shook his head sadly and walked away.

I was stunned and shocked. In my lifetime, I had never been referred to as a grandchild. I was a daughter; sister; cousin; friend, – but I had never been an einikel. My childhood association with my parents’ parents – who were murdered by the Nazis – were flickering yahrzeit candles and being shooed away before Yizkor.

I simultaneously savored – and mourned – what to me was a sweet yet bitter moment – the first – and last time I would ever be someone’s grandchild.

Out of nowhere I heard a quiet, refined voice say, “What a moving story.” I turned and a slight, older woman smiled at me and said, “Please write it down and send it in to The Jewish Press.” When she saw my surprise and possible skepticism, she told me that her name was Irene Klass and if I mailed the article to her, care of The Jewish Press (email and computers were in their infancy at that time), it would get into the paper. And then she swam away.

I did write the story down, and mailed it – and true to her word, it was published. There, in the largest Anglo-Jewish newspaper in the world, a newspaper distributed in English speaking communities all over the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, South Africa, etc. were several hundreds of my words and my thoughts – with my name above in bold lettering!

In today’s world of instant global communication via email, blogging and You-Tube, where just about everyone can showcase their thoughts, opinions and experiences, having an article accepted in a newspaper is not a big deal.

But back then, it was a big deal for most people. And for me, especially, it was a very, very big deal. At that time in my life, I was floundering in a sea of negativity, buffeted by endless waves of denigration and put-downs that threatened to wash away my self-esteem. Irene Klass, with her sincere invitation to me to write an article for her popular, internationally distributed newspaper – conveyed to me that I did indeed have something of value to offer. And my drowning ego was given a rare, badly needed buoy.

I, like many people found myself in an environment where support and encouragement were the exception, rather than the rule: Not out of actual malice, I believe, but due to genuine cluelessness. In some instances, however, I had to associate with people I can only describe as mean-spirited bullies. The tips of the verbal arrows they aimed at me were saturated with criticism, disapproval and censure. My appearance; my weight; how I dressed; my hairstyle; my speech (I have a life-long lisp) – were scornfully scrutinized and dismissed as being substandard, inferior. This denigration even spilled over onto the one thing I was supposed to be good at – writing. I remember deciding to enter a short story contest in a women’s magazine – fantasizing over what I would do with the $1000 prize. As I put a sheet of paper into my typewriter, I was told not to bother – there was no way I was going to win.

Yet the wife of the publisher of The Jewish Press, an editor herself, was asking me to write an article for her esteemed newspaper.

My mother, a”h, an Auschwitz survivor, once remarked how even a small morsel of food could revive a depleted body and keep it going. Irene Klass had innocently given me a morsel of validation that fed my depleted self-esteem and revived it.

And she kept on giving me more morsels. Shortly after my first article was published, I sent in another to her. And that too was put into The Jewish Press. And then another. And another.

Initially I was surprised – it was understood that Mrs. Klass would put in the first one – after all, she asked me to write it. But why did she put in the “unsolicited” articles? The ones who had told me I couldn’t win; that I wasn’t good enough; that I was second tier; that I didn’t measure up – they couldn’t all be wrong, could they?

Continuous acceptance of my articles that evolved into a long-running column and recognition, words of praise and letters of approval from readers who wrote in or stopped me in the street, in the ensuing weeks and months and years, clearly indicated that they were.

When Irene Klass declared that I had something worthy to share with thousands of people – she unwittingly launched my first tiny step on a long journey of self-discovery. She had gently squeezed the “lemon” that I was told I was – and showed me that I was actually “lemonade.”

For me, the memory of Irene Klass will always be for a blessing.

Kutshers And The New Kosher Catskills

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

   For Yossi Zablocki, Kutsher’s was supposed to be there forever, as permanent as the mountains along Route 17. It was after all, for him and many others like him, much more than just a place to camp out for the summer and the holidays. It was an entire world – a brighter, greener, more tranquil world than the one he passed through each day as an attorney in lower Manhattan.

 

   Ever since he was a small child, his family had retreated to the Monticello resort, passing the days by the lake, sometimes venturing out on the small boats that line the docks as the weather warms up. Or else they talked away the afternoon in the sprawling dining room and the nearby coffee shop, while enjoying the endless supplies of kosher hors d’ouvres and cakes.

 

   By daylight there was the beautiful outdoors, with 1,400 acres of Catskills greenery to explore, and, after dark, the nightclub was lit up with entertainers in the old Borscht Belt style – from the Jackie Mason, Henny Youngman and Milton Berle era – who wisecracked with the kibitzers in the audience. That was how it was for 100 years, and that was how it always would be.

 

   Or would it? Mark Kutsher began to talk about retiring, taking it easy after a lifetime of running the business passed on from his parents, and had no family available to step in and take over the operation. And so it was that Zablocki and Mickey Montal, the hotel’s caterer, saw their opportunity to run a hotel and turn daydreams into reality. Within days, the two drew up plans to redirect the hotel, focusing especially on Pesach and the spring and summer months to follow.

 

Arial view of the hotel

 

   “It was a manic drive,” Zablocki recalls, as he rushed through the hours on almost no sleep, planning an entire new lineup of activities, themed weekends and special entertainment. He hired the celebrated “Glatt Boys” for the weekend of Shavuos, to be followed soon after by a Shabbat chazzanut planned for Memorial Day weekend.

 

   And that’s just the start: plans are now in the works for a Carlebach Shabbat, an Israel festival, a Jewish learning retreat, a Catskills heritage weekend, a Yiddish fest, and dozens more, seeking to draw household names, from world-renowned rabbis and chazzanim to the leading young Jewish bands.

 

   For the kids, he has booked carnivals, magic shows, and a spruced-up full-time day care program. As for food, Montal’s N-More Caterers provides the latest in kosher cuisine on a level fit to attract New York city’s Jewish diners, accustomed to the haute cuisine of Abigael’s and Le Marais.

 

   Meanwhile, he is also reaching out to Jewish institutions – day schools, synagogues, organizations – with the message that Kutsher’s is the only option for retreats and shabbatons: “Why go anywhere else?” he says, by which he means: Why go through the hassle of matching a roadside hotel with a caterer, and hauling up siddurim, Torah scrolls and mechitzahs, when in one place, he says, “you have everything you need at your doorstep?” The goal of all this – “To make our Kutsher’s the center of Jewish culture,” he says. “Nothing less.”

 

 

The newly renovated Marquis Lobby

 

   Zablocki – now sole partner in operating the resort – is driven in his efforts to promote the place by his understanding of what kept Kutsher’s in business for over 100 years. The family-based hospitality is a given, but just as important was a highly adaptive business model, which sought to change with the times as necessary.

 

   If the hotel once attracted guests as a matter of course – “Nu? Where else do you go on vacation?” – now it will have to lure them with new attractions that meet the demands of today’s Jewish community. That means the latest in entertainment, including young Jewish comedians and television celebrities, and themes like Israeli culture, Jewish learning and music, along with magic and adventure for a more demanding generation of children.

 

   Of course, the more familiar perks remain. The Catskills is still the most convenient vacation spot around, an easy place to catch a rural, far-from-the-city getaway without the cost and hassle of airline prices and the hunt for kosher food.

 

   But it may not be there forever. As Zablocki warns, “if they don’t come now, in a year or two there will not be anywhere to come to.” That is because the prospect of the Catskills without Kutsher’s means more than just the final chapter for a proud kosher resort. It would signal, more decisively than any prior event, the demise of the kosher Catskills.

 

   Kutsher’s Country Club is, in fact, the last surviving resort of its kind: that is, a 24-7 glatt kosher resort in the Catskill Mountains. Without it, where will the Jewish groups and institutions, the day schools, synagogues and organizations like the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, Hadassah and others go?

 

   For decades, the Catskills played host to their conventions, conferences, and retreats.

 

   For the organizers and conference planners, the decision was always easy. When it came time to plan the year’s annual convention, or Shabbaton, or shul retreat, it was understood that the institution would support the kosher upstate community that depended on it. In return, the planner got a weekend in the beautiful mountains, and no headache about having to find a kosher caterer, run a property on his own, arrange activities or put together a shul with all the religious accoutrements.

 

   “All those advantages now add up to only one place,” said Zablocki, “At Kutsher’s, we’re giving you all those pieces right at your feet, one complete package.” Why go anywhere else?

 

   For more information, please call (845) 794-6000 or (800) 431-1273, or e-mail kutshers@warwick.net.

  

   Isaac Stewart is a freelance writer who has covered the travel industry since 1991.

A Living Megillah (Part One)

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Many moons ago, when our children were small, my husband and I would spend our summers at Liebowitz’s Pine View Hotel in the Catskill Mountains. It was a special time – before today’s technology -when people actually talked to one another and were happy just to get away from the city and breathe some fresh country air. To me, however, that which was most special was that I had the zechus to host my dear parents every Shabbos. Then my talks took on an added dimension because my beloved, honored parents were there. Many amazing miracles occurred during these Shabbosim.

For now, I will limit myself to one little story, during which I had the great zechus of bringing some young Jews back to Torah. They had become involved in the Jews for J movement, which, in those days, was very popular.

What were these young people doing at the Orthodox Pine View Hotel on Shabbos? I will try to summarize it as concisely as I can.

One summer, while in Jerusalem, a rebbe approached me and told me that back in the States there was a Jewish man who was baptizing unsuspecting young Jews and converting them. “It would be a huge mitzvah if you could reach his heart and bring him and his followers back to Torah,” he said.

I was all too familiar with the Jews for J movement because as I was reaching more young people with a Torah message, they tried to subvert my work and, to confuse issues, they called themselves “Hineni for J.”

When I returned to the States, I called the man whom the rebbe had spoken of and invited him to come see me. Of course, he refused, and tried to persuade me that it was I who was in error.

Undeterred, I persisted with my invitation and told him that I would be leaving for the Catskills the following week with my family, and if he wished, he could join us for Shabbos. “It would be our pleasure to welcome you.” I assured him. And with that, I gave him the phone number of the hotel not knowing if he would ever show.

Several weeks later, he called. “I’m taking you up on your invitation, but I’d like to bring some of my Jewish friends. Will that be all right?”

I readily agreed and prepared the guests at the hotel so that they might help me make them comfortable. They came to missionarize with their Jews for J literature and pamphlets. They tried to debate me to prove that I, as a Torah Jew, was following the wrong path. I told them that I would be happy to discuss the subject, but it was Erev Shabbos, and I had to get ready for the holy day, so it would have to wait until after Shabbos.

On Friday night my husband and my father’s Shalom Aleichem rang out throughout the dining room. It was not only the angels that we greeted that night, but we extended Shalom Aleichem to those lost Yiddishe neshamos who, for the very first time in their lives, sat at a real Shabbos table. As always, before Kiddush, my father and husband blessed all the children. And when my father placed his hands on these young men’s heads, tears flowed from his eyes. He couldn’t bear the thought that Yiddishe neshamos should have come to such a tragic state.

When the young men felt his loving hands on their heads, and saw his tears, their eyes became moist and the pintele Yid, dormant in their souls, came to life. My father always conducted a beautiful Shabbos tisch and the guests would join us in singing and dancing. Suddenly, these young boys were caught up in the joyous sanctity of the moment and danced long into the night. Thus, their transformation commenced.

Shabbos morning, after Kiddush, I spoke on the parshah and the awakening became complete. They no longer had a desire for debate. The only questions that troubled them were how and where they could study Torah and how they could make up for their lost years? Spontaneously, everyone started to sing, Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish People Lives – Od Avinu Chai – Our Heavenly Father is forever in our neshamos…. and it was with that song that the men danced the boys into the dining room.

On Sunday morning we made plans for their new lives. One of the young men told me that he was engaged to a gentile girl and scheduled to be married in church. He felt it only fair that he go home to personally inform the girl of his new life.

My father overheard the conversation, and in his broken, limited English called out to him, “Sonny, Come here – you go back to girl…. girl cry…give you kiss… you finished man. Send letter and go to New York with Rebbetzin now – study in Yeshiva.”

And so it was. Today, these young men are already zeides with children and grandchildren – all b’nei Torah.

There are myriad stories each connected by the common thread in every Jewish heart. It testifies that no matter how alienated a Jew may be or how far he may have wandered from his roots, in an instant, he can come back. He need only hear words of Torah and experience a Shabbos, and the pintele Yid will be kindled and connect him to the eternal flame of Sinai.

So why, you may ask, am I telling this story now?

My father’s yahrzeit was last week, and he often said to me, “Mein kind, Di kenst schreiben a lebedig Megillah – my child you can write a living Megillah testifying to the eternity of our people.”

In the spirit of kibud Av – honoring my father’s wishes – I related this little story from the past, and in next week’s column, B’Ezrat Hashem, I will share some beautiful stories of today that continue to prove that the Yiddishe neshamah is more powerful than all the forces of assimilation and can bring a Jew back even when it appears that all is lost.

(To Be Continued)

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/rebbetzins-viewpointrebbetzin-jungreis/a-living-megillah-part-one-2/2009/12/30/

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