As soon as I kicked in the door of the abandoned house in the heart of the Catskills, I felt like I was in an episode of “The Twilight Zone: Borscht Belt edition.”
In some areas it seemed like the residents were just out for the afternoon. Pictures and tchotchkes adorned the walls. A mezuzah with the parchment still inside was on a doorpost. A working upright piano sat in one corner. Ironing boards were open.
Mattresses lay on beds; in one room the beds were still semi-made.
But elsewhere, things were in a state of advanced decay. The roof over the kitchen had caved in. The sink was overflowing with rotting leaves. In a bedroom, vines poured in through the window and spread over much of the ceiling. Mold was having its way with the walls.
I had come to the Catskills hoping to get one last look at Kutsher’s, the last of the great Borscht Belt resorts, after hearing the news that its demolition was imminent. For much of the 20th century, Kutsher’s and other Jewish hotels like it helped make the Catskills the summer destination of choice for New York Jews.
But when I reached the mountains a few days later, I found the roads leading to Kutsher’s blocked by chains and sawhorses posted with warnings against trespassing into the hard-hat zone. I tried to make my way on foot, wading through wet, overgrown grass, but three burly construction workers spotted me and I was forced to beat a hasty retreat.
Which is how I found my way into a crumbling bungalow colony at the edge of Kutsher’s 1,500 acres.
Aside from the main house with 10 bedrooms and side building with a dining room and kitchen that I had broken into, there were a handful of bungalows, a pool and a lake. The buildings all were vacant, in varying states of disrepair and overcome by nature.
One room had half a dozen ovens and refrigerators. Opening one fridge, I half expected to find a cold can of Tab. No dice. In the corner of what appeared to be the living room, there was a public telephone. I picked it up. No dial tone.
Most of the bedrooms were disheveled or empty, but in one I found toiletries and a shoeshine kit carefully arranged on the dresser, three drab but clean dresses hanging in the closet, and a shelf filled with unused legal pads and blank paper.
Then I spotted the first clue to who may have lived here.
Tucked into the mirror was a photograph of four happy-looking elderly couples posing in front of the lake out back now obscured by foliage. Their names were carefully inscribed on the back: Nat & Sylvia, Herman & Eleanor, Milton & Norma, Jack & Charlotte. There was also a date: August 2001.
Who were these people and why did they leave? What purpose did this odd house serve? Were the people in the photo still alive? When was the house last occupied?
This being the age of the Internet, it took less than an hour of sleuthing, a credit card and $3.95 to unravel the mystery of this strange Catskills time capsule.
The simple part was figuring out who lived there. An address label affixed to some shelves in the bedroom with the shoeshine kit read Goldberg. That matched the name on a Jewish National Fund Tree-in-Israel certificate posted on the wall in another room. Along with the photograph I found, I had my target couple: Nat and Sylvia Goldberg.
Combing through online directories and death notices, it didn’t take long to locate family members. Soon I had Nat and Sylvia’s daughter, Judy Viteli, on the line.
She almost cried when I told her where I had been.
“Ah, the kochelein,” she said wistfully.
“The kochelein,” she said. “It’s a Yiddish word.”
Over the course of several conversations, including one in which we went through old pictures at her kitchen table, Judy and her sister, Paula Goldberg — now 60 and 63, respectively — told me the story of what had transpired half a century ago in that house, why it represented the best years of their lives and how it all came to an end. This is their story.
The kochelein — a term that literally means “cook alone” — represented a particular kind of bungalow colony: a place where several families shared a house but where everyone was responsible for their own food. That’s why there were half a dozen fridges and ovens in the kitchen: Each of the 10 families was allotted half a refrigerator and a shared oven to prepare meals.
A pharmacist from the Bronx, Nat Goldberg began bringing his family to this kochelein, called Fairhill, in 1953, when Judy was still in diapers and her sister Paula was 5. The rest of the house was filled with cousins and close friends, all from the same working-class Bronx neighborhood. Everybody, of course, was Jewish.
There was practically no privacy: Parents and their children slept in the same room, all the families shared only two bathrooms and everyone ate their meals in the shared dining room.
From a kid’s perspective, the summers were idyllic. Days were spent hiking in the woods, swimming in the lake, picking wild blueberries, playing hide-and-seek, trying to sneak into the resort at Kutsher’s and waging endless girls vs. boys wars. On rainy days they’d pack into the dining room with their parents to play mah-jongg or a variation of rummy, gambling for split peas. After the rain stopped, the kids would run outside to hunt salamanders.
Once the Goldberg kids turned 10, they were allowed to hitchhike into Monticello; their mother would wave goodbye as they climbed into strangers’ cars. On weekends they might catch rides with their father en route to the racetrack.
On Saturday nights, when the adults went out, the kids left to their own devices smoked, played kissing games and did whatever else they could think of that their parents had forbidden.
“Every one of us will tell you it was the best time of our lives,” Paula said of those summers. “Our mothers never knew where we were and didn’t care.”
For the adults, the bungalow colony was both an extension of and a break from their lives in the crowded Jewish enclaves of the Bronx. It was mostly the same people, but there was cleaner air, less privacy and less testosterone: The men, who worked Monday to Friday, came up only on weekends; the women and children stayed all summer.
“It was a total matriarchy,” Paula said.
It was the 1950s, before three major factors destroyed the Jewish Catskills: air conditioning, which made staying in the city more palatable; declining discrimination against Jews, which opened up previously unavailable summertime alternatives; and the rise of the working woman, which made moving away for the summer untenable.
The bungalow colony was not for the wealthy. Accommodations were simple. Water came from a well. When it went dry one summer, the families went days without showering and walked around with divining rods. The swimming pool — now cracked, overgrown and shrouded by trees — wasn’t built until sometime in the late ’50s.
With the exception of Nat Goldberg, none of the men at the kochelein had gone to college, and they all worked blue-collar jobs. Jewish families with more money went to resorts like Kutsher’s, where meals, entertainment and a wide range of recreational facilities were included. At Kutsher’s, residents of bungalow colonies like the Fairhill kochelein were referred to derisively as “bungees.”
Entertainment at the kochelein was mostly homemade: Someone would play the piano or the adults would hold silly parties where everyone wore their clothes backward or husbands and wives swapped clothing or held mock weddings or soup-eating contests.
The men were constantly pranking each other. In the mornings, the first thing everyone would do was get in line for the bathroom, toothbrush and soap in hand. With as many as 40 people sharing just two bathrooms, dillydallying was severely frowned upon — not least by your stern, socially conscious mother.
“Everything happened in front of everybody else — all the babying, all the disciplining,” Judy recalled. “There was no private place to yell at anybody.”
One morning when she was 11, Judy had to conceal a hickey she said a boy had forced on her neck the night before.
“It was the summer, you couldn’t wear a scarf,” she said. “So I put on makeup before I came out from the top of my head down to my neck thinking nobody would notice.”
To no avail. As soon as she walked into the dining room, a girl named Arlene spotted it and broke into peals of laughter. Judy was humiliated; her mother made her wear pancake makeup until the hickey subsided.
The food was kosher — to some degree. At home in the Bronx, Sylvia would let her kids have milk after meat, but at the bungalow colony she was stricter because Aunt Faye was sitting at the next table.
“We used to pretend to be kosher,” Judy said. “It was shameful if you weren’t kosher. But people were different degrees of kosher.”
Because the ladies didn’t drive, the mothers would list the groceries they needed in a spiral notebook hanging from a hook in the dining room, and the Polish Catholic family that owned the property — Alex and Mary Chicko — would go to town every day to buy the provisions, adding a penny or two to each item as a delivery fee.
The families all shared a single public telephone. If Milton should phone from the city to speak to his wife who was down by the lake, whoever answered would get on the P.A. system and make the announcement, summoning Norma to the receiver.
If the kids misbehaved, the parents would punish them by dragging them along to Kutsher’s shows instead of leaving them behind with their boyfriends and girlfriends.
For Paula, one kochelein relationship proved to have special staying power: with Mark Goldberg, a boy whose family had been coming to the Fairhill kochelein since the 1920s. She was 5 and he was 6 when they met, and they began “going together” in the summer of 1959.
That was when 13-year-old Mark asked Paula to a movie theater in town to see “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and the two kissed during the film — with their eyes open, Paula says.
He was fresh; he was a bad boy,” Paula said with a mischievous smile.
The two broke up at the end of every summer and then got back together the following July. Some summers Mark’s family didn’t go up to the mountains, but Mark always came — even if it was in the care of someone else’s parents. That is, until the summer of ’66, when Mark’s father collapsed at the kochelein of a heart attack and died. Mark was 19.
When Mark was 22 and Paula was 21, they married. The couple recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.
The later years
By the 1960s, things had begun changing at the kochelein. A pool had been built. Two more bathrooms were added to the main house. There had been three or four bungalows onsite at least since the early ’50s, but in the ’60s the owners decided to build several more, enlisting the summertime kids to help.
Most significantly, the owners cut a deal that traded the use of part of their land to Kutsher’s in exchange for nightly passes to the resort’s shows. Kutsher’s eventually bought the bungalow colony outright.
“That changed our lives,” Paula recalled. “Our parents could get dressed up and go every night and see all the Borscht Belt comedians. They could go dancing on the stage. Our little bungalow colony had very special power based on the land.”
Judy says she enjoyed the shows, except for one thing: “The comedians would tell their joke, and then the punchline would be in Yiddish. I’d ask Mom what he said and she’d say, ‘I’ll tell you later.’”
When she was old enough, Judy began working summers at Kutsher’s as a camp counselor. It was hard work, she says: 12-hour days, six days a week, for just $15 per week. At the kochelein, the traditions continued.
At summer’s end, when each family finished packing up the car to leave, the remaining families would assemble for a parting ceremony.
They’d all bang pots and pans and sing a song to the tune of the “The Farmer in the Dell”:
We hate to see you go
We hate to see you go
We hope to heck you never come back
We hate to see you go
The Goldbergs were usually the last to leave.
“We left a day later than everyone else because God forbid we should get stuck in traffic,” Paula recalled.
As they graduated high school and college, the number of kids at the bungalow colony dwindled. Some went up only for weekends, some not at all.
Even as the Catskills fell into decline in the ’70s and ’80s, the adults kept going to the Fairhill kochelein — relishing the space without kids, according to Paula. They stopped only when they couldn’t physically do it, obstructed by illness, death or retirement to Florida.
By the 1990s, most of the kochelein’s rooms were empty.