Jewish vacation spots revisited in new exhibit


In his 1972 novel, Enemies, A Love Story, Isaac Bashevis Singer's protagonist Herman Broder happens upon a boisterous scene in a social hall at a Jewish resort in the Catskills. World War II has just ended, and yet the hall resounds with laughter. Even refugees from Hitler have joined in the revelry.

"Why is it all so painful to me?" asks Broder, a Holocaust survivor himself. The scene, he decides, "shamed the agony of the Holocaust."

At the end of Singer's tale, it is those who are still able to laugh who ultimately survive their horrific experience at the hands of the Nazis and go on to construct a new, Jewish-American identity.

To laugh or cry: The same dilemma comes to mind while sauntering through a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The show, The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity, and the Jewish-American Dream, opened last Sunday, just days after Israel declared war on Hezbollah.

A light-hearted assemblage of souvenirs, postcards, photographs, clothing and travel accoutrements, the show abounds with frivolity. Imagine an audience thrumming their approval of comedian Myron Cohen with the wooden drumsticks - once supplied for that very purpose by the Concord and other resorts - that are on display.

But The Other Promised Land also provides evidence of American anti-Semitism, including a chilling "We Cater to Gentiles Only" sign on loan from the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Excluded, Jews didn't reject their new nation, or their right to re-create. They turned to their own vacation spots in the Catskills, Atlantic City, Miami and elsewhere, even while embracing a broader, middle-class American identity. "These treasured times away from home were more than just escapes; they were microcosms of the American dream," observes Melissa Martens, the show's curator.

That dream didn't prosper at the expense of reality. In an essay on the Catskills for the exhibit catalog, Phil Brown notes that Holocaust survivors were welcomed to the mountain resorts, given jobs and vacation discounts. During World War II, the summer retreats also became a central place for raising money to rescue Jews.

As the original "Promised Land" again responds to threats to its existence, the Jewish Museum exhibit is a reminder that joy and renewal of the spirit, however frivolous, are as important to the life force of a people (and a country) as its defense.

"The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity, and the Jewish-American Dream" is scheduled to run through January at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. For more information, call 410-732-6400 or visit

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