|By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 29, 2006 - Sheila Fidelman may be in her eighth decade, but she remembers her days in the hospitality business with laser-sharp clarity. The food. The fashions. The nightly floor shows, where guests danced to big-name bands.
"It was just a glorious, gracious time," said Fidelman, whose last name was synonymous with a celebrated resort in South Haven, Mich., which proudly touted itself as the "Catskills of the Midwest."
Every Memorial Day, during the first six decades of the 20th Century, the small beachside community became the epicenter of the Jewish vacation universe. Generations of Chicago families would leave their sweltering city apartments to breathe in the balmy Lake Michigan breezes--as well as a heady whiff of first-generation American prosperity.
Today, the matzo ball soup has given way to gazpacho, and South Haven is a more upscale getaway, with condos, golf courses and cafes. But its immigrant roots--along with those of similar places, from Miami Beach to the real Catskills--have been lovingly documented in "The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity and the Jewish-American Dream," an exhibition at the Spertus Museum in Chicago.
The exhibition is a treasure trove of sepia-toned memorabilia: photos, menus, kitschy postcards and even a rhinestone-studded swimsuit, worn by one young bride on her honeymoon.
But behind the innocence lurk darker reasons for why a Jewish vacation experience was necessary: anti-Semitism.
Jewish Americans were among the first ethnic groups to embrace vacations for the working class. Many were employed in New York's garment industry, which shut down for several weeks in the summer, said Melissa Martens, a curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which organized the show.
Fearing that an influx of immigrants would tarnish their image, many patrician playgrounds, such as Palm Beach, Fla., and Newport, R.I., were off-limits. Some hotels yanked the welcome mat subtly. Others did so more overtly, such as hotels that stamped "Gentiles Only" or "Catering to a Gentile clientele" on brochures and matchbook covers.
While other ethnic groups may have had their retreats--the Irish at Grand Beach, Mich., for example--only African-Americans (who found a destination in Idlewild, Mich.) risked being turned away at check-in like Jewish Americans.
"It was just the way things were," said Adrianne Varhula, who lives in Northfield.
So Jewish people created their own resorts, with famous names such as Grossinger's and the Concord in the Catskills, or the Fountainbleu and the Saxony in Miami Beach. (Real estate covenants in the 1920s and '30s restricted the newcomers to the south end of Collins Avenue.)
In the Midwest, such destinations often started with an entrepreneurial farm owner renting rooms or cottages to summer boarders. In time, the guests--not the produce--became the bumper crop. The resorts were close enough to reach on a tank of gas but still a world away, providing a blend of familiar surroundings and a way to become American.
"It was a way to experiment with both minority and mainstream cultures," Martens said.
Going north, the Wisconsin enclaves had names like Nippersink, Schwartz's and Oakton Manor. To the south, dozens of mom-and-pop camps, cottages and hotels stretched from the Indiana Dunes to Michigan City, Union Pier and South Haven, home to more than 50 such enclaves in their 1950s heyday. They spanned the scale from humble cabins to glitzy resorts. People convened for recreation, nature and more than a touch of gin rummy and canasta.
"The American dream was shared by everyone," said Sarah Giller Nelson, who curated the Midwestern part of the show, which closes Sunday.
At the top of the heap was Fidelman's, which brought in chefs and bakers from the big-name hotels in Miami Beach for the summer months. (Jewish resorts are credited with pioneering the "all-inclusive" concept, so food--and lots of it--was a huge drawing card.)
Comedians--usually on the way up or way down--also made the circuit. Big-name musicians, such as Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, played nightclubs amid faux Polynesian decor and evocative names, such as the Stardust Theater and Mai-Kai Lounge.
"And, oh, how we dressed," recalled Fidelman, who still lives on the property where her in-laws started taking in guests almost a century ago. "The Chicago ladies would compete with the Detroit and St. Louis ladies. Men always wore jackets at dinner. ... But ties went out when the Nehru [jackets] came in" during the 1960s.
Looking good was important for the younger generation too--who often had their first brush with romance during these annual getaways.
Clancy Sigal, a Hollywood screenwriter and author, recalled how he had a "huge crush" on a nubile 14-year-old blonde, later stolen by the son of the resort owner.
The rest of the summer, "I simply lurked in the bushes, spying on anything that remotely smelled of sex," Sigal said.
Helene Levitan and Leonard Pine were more successful, meeting at age 7 at Camp Kinderland. The camp, along with a cluster of cottages called the Colony, was established in 1924 in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., by members of the Workman's Circle, a socialist fraternal organization.
By age 10, Pine stole his first kiss around the campfire. But because he lived on the West Side and she was a North Sider, they would only see each other during the summer--but it was enough. They married in 1954 and had the first of three children a year later, whom they also brought to the retreat.
The couple now live in Palm Desert, Calif., and will celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary in September. Their story is part of the exhibition, which will be localized as it tours the country.
By the 1970s, most of the resorts were gone. In South Haven, Fidelman's closed in 1985, and Sleepy Hollow still hangs on, although in a different incarnation. The ethnic-specific vacation became a casualty of air-conditioning, air travel and assimilation.
"But it is a lens," Martens said. "Vacations are the one time a year when we can do whatever we want, so these times have always had a lot to tell us about what we hold dear--friends, family and becoming American, but on one's own terms."
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