THE BLOG
08/25/2014 04:43 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

Dirty Dancing Childhoods and a Reunion

Jacoby's resort flourished in the Catskill mountains in the aftermath of WWII. In the flush of the '50s, Jacoby's had a loyal following of newly successful families eager to escape the heat of the city, enjoy costume balls, long-running mah-jong and card games on shady lawns. Bungalow Colonies provided a place for families to enjoy summer together; kids supervised in day camps by vacationing principals and teachers, parents revisiting, or, in some cases, creating, their own American childhoods. Resorts were multi-acre properties surrounded by fields of blueberries. The air was fresh and clean and the only sounds were of birds and crickets. At Jacoby's there were even Steinways in various states of repair available to guests. In short, the Catskills were a heavenly escape from the noise, traffic and bustle of New York City. Fathers returned up Route 17 each Friday afternoon to join their families for festive and relaxed weekends.

In 2000, the movie A Walk on the Moon exposed the wide world to the daily life of bungalow colonies. Pamela Grey, an LA-based screenwriter, told the story of her summer at a colony when Woodstock took over the Catskills. The film was so popular that Grey has now become the "go-to" person for Jewish film projects.

I spent my seminal years in a bungalow colony. "Highland Park" was our home away from home for 10 years. My father, a type A real estate developer and founder of SoHo, had no compunction taking us kids out of school two weeks early to get us up to the country the week that the colony opened. We spent three blissful months there each summer. Before Title 9 and the emphasis on girls and sports (there were no soccer teams for us to join, no leagues of our own) it was in the bungalow colony that I learned to play softball, volleyball and run track. It was there that I was the star of the "girls against the boys" baseball game -- the batter who was up, tie score, bases loaded. I hit the grand slam that sent us to victory.

It was also there that we learned to kiss, to do arts and crafts and to create real community. The colonies were a gift that gave a wider view to kids who spent the bulk of their years living in apartment complexes in the inner city.

But several things distinguished Jacoby's within the Catskill community. In the early '40s, Nathan Jacoby milled the lumber to build the place. Once constructed, he taught ceramic classes, tending kilns with the same ingenuity he used to maintain washing machines in the laundry shack. Arline Jacoby set up painting easels and Harry Jacoby was the blue-eyed crooner to a generation of families who returned each summer.

Reading a recent article in the New York Times' "Escape" section about Jacoby's, Annice Jacoby's mourning for a sense of place is evoked along with the nostalgia for a lost time. Annice reports,

Summering in the Catskills informed several generations of New York Jewish families. As the Catskills shifted out of fashion, and from secular to observant and Orthodox clientele, Jacoby's has been reinvented as a co-op, with families from Soho and Park Slope taking the place of families from Mid-wood and the Bronx.

At Brown University, Phil Brown was inspired by growing up at his parent's iconic hotel, to form the Catskill Institute. This archive is recommended to explore how contemporary culture was informed by the heyday of these resorts. Stories demonstrate the arc of anti-semitism that created the Catskills as resorts that didn't turn Jews away, and the Catskills impact on culture from Hollywood to Broadway. Find wonderful anecdotes about Lenny Bruce starting as an emcee/tumbler at a bungalow colony near Jacoby's

This September 14, people are gathering for a "Jacoby's Bungalows" Picnic Reunion, an event that has inspired anecdotes, reflections on the meaning of family life, and the ways in which the "bungalow colony" allowed Jewish children and families access to the natural world with freedom.

Jacoby's' campers are finding each other in modern ways. I learned from Jay Friedman, who went on to serve in the Peace Corp and to a career at the CDC, that Ben Gulkow, the farmer down the road, was a resistance fighter in the Jewish uprising. Jay wrote, "Ben Gulkow would gather hay from all the surrounding properties including Jacoby's." One day Arthur Fried (now a Rabbi in Israel, son of Helen Fried, national leader in Hadassah) and I asked him if we could help. Gulkow taught us to milk cows and drive the horse and wagon among other skills not readily available to New York City boys. Fast forward to 2008 when I saw the film Defiance with Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber about Jewish partisans in Poland during World War 2. At the end of the film was a list of characters was a Ben Zion Gulkowitz. This history was drawn from Ralph Berger "With Courage Shall We Fight", featuring a photo of Ben Zion, the partisan hero who was the same dairy farmer in Woodbourne." As children in the Catskills a half-century ago, we understood who came to America before or after WWII by the tattoos on their arms."

Annice tells me that "As a child at "Jacoby's" I loved to poke around the abandoned farmsteads, filled with old sleighs and sewing machines, tin pans and papers. I found a tiny child's bank, shaped like a house, rusted shut. A coin rattled inside. This toy sits on my kitchen windowsill, the coin still trapped. My guess is that it's a buffalo nickel. The treasure has become an instrument. We may not inhabit the place but the place inhabits our spirits interminably."

For information on the Reunion: go to Jacoby's Bungalow Picnic Reunion. All seasons of Jacoby's families welcome.

Joan Gelfand, with Annice Jacoby
San Francisco, CA