Relay: Back In The Borscht Belt

    Eighteen years ago, a few months after my grandmother on my father’s side celebrated a milestone birthday, she and my stepgrandfather, Milt, took the entire family on a weekend getaway to the Catskills.
    There were 16 of us then and our destination was the Concord, the largest resort in the Borscht Belt, and at the time one of the last of its kind. According to Wikipedia, it had some 1,500 rooms and a dining room that seated 3,000. The food was kosher, to cater to what had historically been a Jewish clientele.
    The weekend we were there, Howie Mandel was the Saturday evening entertainment, offering a stand-up routine rife with four-letter expletives. (The children were supposed to be in bed.) Though I was already 22 and in college, my grandmother — a modern woman and not overly proper — told me recently that she had been surprised by his language and embarrassed that I was exposed to it.
    Before that trip, everything I knew about the Catskills I had learned watching “Dirty Dancing.” But despite the instructive value of the movie, I knew nothing of the area’s history or its popularity as a Jewish summer vacation spot. My father and his two sisters had gone to summer camp in the Catskills and had memories of family vacations not far from the Concord.
    Most of the other big Borscht Belt resorts were already closed by the time of our visit. Five years later, the Concord would follow suit, sitting empty and abandoned, with only its golf course operational, for a decade until demolition finally began a few years ago.
    To me, the Concord was like a landlocked cruise ship, a mammoth place where activities were scheduled throughout the day and you dressed up for dinner. It was fun, in an unexpected way.
    Two weeks ago, as a belated celebration of Nana and Milt’s 25th anniversary and an especially big birthday for Milt, my grandparents again gathered the family for a weekend in the Catskills. This time we were 21 and our destination was the Villa Roma Resort and Conference Center in Callicoon. Not quite as vast as the Concord, it still offered an array of on-site activities including indoor and outdoor pools and boccie courts, tennis, golf, shuffleboard, a bowling alley, a nightclub, bumper boats, and, my favorite, a go-kart race track, a k a the Monaco Speedway. Had it rained, we could easily have entertained ourselves without ever leaving the expansive building.
    The family portraits looked very different this time than they had 18 years ago.
    Age aside, there had been two divorces, an uncle lost to cancer, and the addition of two fiancées, a grandchild, a grandson-in-law (my husband), and two great-grandchildren (my kids). Cousins who were toddlers or not yet born in 1993 were old enough, or almost, to share a beer with this time around. After rendezvousing with the rest of the arriving family members at our hospitality suite on Friday afternoon, my daughter declared it “a party” and determined to sleep as little as possible for the entire weekend.
    She didn’t want to miss a moment, and I don’t blame her.
    At dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, with all but the youngest of us clustered around a big table with a view of the pretty hills beyond, my grandmother gushed about how lucky she was to have all of us there together. I couldn’t agree more.
    The older I get the more I appreciate time with family. And with relatives who are emotionally connected but geographically scattered, that time doesn’t come often enough. Who else will volunteer to hang out with your 3-year-old or vie for a chance to chase after your fiercely independent 1-year-old walker? For other people, even the closest of friends, it gets old. For family . . . well, they’re family.
    Having experienced the fun of her aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents at dinner and then breakfast on Saturday, Jade had no interest in spending time away from them in the kiddie pool — “too splashy” — or even going to the playground. She just wanted to “go to the party.”
    There were three outdoor pools, but securing a lounge chair near them was harder than getting a parking spot at Indian Wells in August. The pool gates opened at 9 a.m.; however, if you were not up and waiting on line by 7, you were out of luck for the day. Being a beach girl, the idea of sitting in such close quarters with so many other people by the side of an overly warm and overcrowded pool did not appeal to me. Maybe that’s because I did not get on line at 7 and therefore did not have a lounge chair.
    I wondered, as I stepped between the tanning-oil-slathered bodies, where did these people come from? What was Villa Roma’s primary demographic? I’m a reporter, an amateur anthropologist. I can’t help it. I always want to figure a place out. Did they come from a nearby city? From suburban New York or New Jersey, and if so, why wouldn’t they go to the beach? Were they upstate vacationers? People without pools or beaches at home?
    An answer of sorts came later that evening during the resort’s Saturday comedy show. A comedian whose name I did not catch with a routine aimed at Italian-Americans from Jersey, like him. Who knows? We may not have been the typical Villa Roma guests, but it didn’t matter. It was fun to be somewhere different, to be away from one resort area in the height of the season and enjoying another.
    And did I mention there were go-karts?

    Carissa Katz is an associate editor at The Star.