Mon­ti­cel­lo: A Borscht Belt Catskills Tale

May 17, 2013

Mon­ti­cel­lo: A Borscht Belt Catskills Tale” is a nov­el about a young teenage girl who dis­ap­pears when a hotel mag­ic trick per­formed by a stu­dent magi­cian goes wrong. The plot holds read­ers but it’s under­ly­ing pur­pose is to bring read­ers back to the Gold­en era of the Jew­ish Catskills when one mil­lion Jew­ish peo­ple called it a sec­ond home. Read­ers will meet Jew­ish peo­ple who just kept kosher and were not too involved in syn­a­gogue life. They will see how this group inter­min­gled with Chas­sidim as well as some peo­ple who read and spoke Yid­dish but shock­ing­ly’had noth­ing to do with any orga­nized form of Jew­ish reli­gion. Oth­er under­ly­ing themes are the role of holo­caust sur­vivors and the pres­ence of big­otry among dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty . What hap­pened to the 600 hotels and 10 000 bun­ga­lows? The book dis­cuss­es dif­fer­ent the­o­ries but has a sur­prise end­ing. The book takes read­ers through the twists and turns of life. There is romance hap­pi­ness and even sad­ness. There is cel­e­bra­tion and peri­ods of mourn­ing. The book is complete

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Elliot Udell

  1. In the hey­day of the Jew­ish hotel empire there were 600 hotels and 10,000 bun­ga­lows and soci­ol­o­gists say that one mil­lion peo­ple vaca­tioned there every sum­mer. Today there are at best two hotels left and a frac­tion of the bun­ga­lows. Based on dis­cus­sions with­in the book, what was the true cause of the demise of the Borscht Belt Empire?

  2. In the mid-six­ties, there was a soci­o­log­i­cal change affect­ing Amer­i­can life. Women start­ing work­ing. House­holds began to have two bread­win­ners. In what way did this change, affect the via­bil­i­ty of the Borscht Belt?

  3. In the sto­ry, Elis­sa a young teenage girl dis­ap­peared as a result of a mag­ic trick gone wrong. Assum­ing that mag­ic” was not at play, what real­ly hap­pened to the young girl?

  4. When the bun­ga­low empire crashed, so did the hotels, yet the own­ers of the icon­ic hotels felt that they were elite from the bun­ga­low colonies and room­ing hous­es. One char­ac­ter in the book describes an invis­i­ble thread that con­nect­ed the bun­ga­lows and hotels and when one seg­ment of the resort went south,” do did the rest. In what way were the hotels, bun­ga­lows and room­ing hous­es eco­nom­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed? What was that invis­i­ble” thread?

  5. In cit­ing var­i­ous forms of big­otry present in the com­mu­ni­ty, the sex­tant of the local syn­a­gogue said: Prej­u­dice is a dis­ease that is per­ma­nent­ly etched into the brains of many peo­ple, both Jews and Gen­tiles. Many of us suf­fer with this dis­ease. All of us suf­fer as a result of it.” What did he mean and how does this relate to peo­ple from all walks of life, in our day and age?

  6. How did dif­fer­ent holo­caust sur­vivors, depict­ed in the book, deal with reli­gious obser­vance? Why the dis­par­i­ty? Do any of you know sur­vivors who fit the psy­cho­log­i­cal mod­els of holo­caust sur­vivors depict­ed in the book?

  7. For­giv­ing peo­ple is a very noble attribute that brings peace and tran­quil­i­ty to those who for­give oth­ers. The ben­e­fits are clear­ly in the court of the for­giv­er. The access to this ben­e­fit as described in the book is to prac­tice stand­ing in anoth­er person’s shoes.” What are some exam­ples in our own lives where this can be practiced?

  8. The sex­tant in the book described exam­ples where con­gre­gants had press­ing reli­gious issues. To an inno­cent onlook­er, some of these issues seemed triv­ial or even ridicu­lous. The sex­tant points out to a main char­ac­ter in the book that what may seem unim­por­tant to some, may be extreme­ly impor­tant to oth­ers and we should not dis­count feel­ings when it comes to per­son­al issues. Every per­son seek­ing help and guid­ance needs to be greet­ed and treat­ed with respect. What are some reli­gious issues today in any reli­gion where some deem them impor­tant and oth­ers deem them as being trivial?

  9. Max Yas­gur rent­ed his farm out to the pro­mot­ers of the Wood­stock Fes­ti­val. Because of back­lash from the com­mu­ni­ty, he moved out of town and did not live much longer. Aside from his being a kind-heart­ed per­son, what were the eco­nom­ic and agri­cul­tur­al forces that induced him to rent his farm to the pro­mot­ers of Wood­stock? What were some of the changes in the dairy indus­try that put eco­nom­ic pres­sure on all dairy farm­ers in the 1960s?

  10. An impor­tant con­cept in Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty life is called mesir­at nefesh.” It means sac­ri­fice for the rest of the com­mu­ni­ty. It can be seen clear­ly and heard loud­ly in every denom­i­na­tion of Judaism. It is the thread that con­nects all Jews from every reli­gious walk of life. In the book, the cler­gy are depict­ed as spend­ing their own mon­ey to pro­vide free meals for poor peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty. The local milk­man, who was not very reli­gious, is depict­ed as giv­ing free food to a non-Jew­ish fam­i­ly that was going through hard times. A third exam­ple was where the sextant’s wife made a free break­fast for a Jew­ish per­son vaca­tion­ing” for a night in the local jail. This is part of the fab­ric of Judaism. In your own lives and in your own com­mu­ni­ties, what are some exam­ples of this?

  11. The book depicts an exam­ple where a tragedy enabled the Chas­sidic com­mu­ni­ty and the non­re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties to not only start talk­ing with each oth­er but to start lov­ing each oth­er. What can we all do to pro­mote greater love and under­stand­ing so that all seg­ments of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, world­wide can bet­ter work togeth­er and get along better?

  12. Should we judge peo­ple as being all bad or all good or even apply the terms good and bad to most peo­ple? In the book, Jere­my, the teenag­er is con­trast­ed with the rab­bis at the syn­a­gogue and local butch­er. The lat­ter all gave lots of char­i­ty. It would be easy to say that the cler­gy were all good and Jere­my was all bad because Jere­my would get into trou­ble. When push came to shove it was Jere­my who in his dis­tinct way saved the life of Elissa.

  13. The pro­tag­o­nist seems to be exam­in­ing his own rela­tion­ship with Judaism while his peers are hav­ing more sec­u­lar expe­ri­ences. What influ­ences might have caused Elliot to grav­i­tate toward religion?