At an out­door mahjong game in 1955, these play­ers and their friends met and vaca­tioned every sum­mer at Green’s Lake­side Hotel, Port Jervis, New York, near the influ­en­tial Catskills region. Games took place on the lawn between the fam­i­lies’ bun­ga­lows. The women’s swimwear and hair­pins speak to the leisured tem­po of sum­mer­time vaca­tion com­mu­ni­ties. Cour­tesy of Lor­na Drake, Freudy Pho­tos Archives, LLC. From MAHJONG: A Chi­nese Game and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Amer­i­can Cul­ture by Annelise Heinz

For over a decade, the Fein­stein fam­i­ly joined thou­sands of oth­er most­ly mid­dle-class Jew­ish fam­i­lies on an annu­al sum­mer migra­tion to the Catskills. Begin­ning in 1958 with a very small bun­ga­low colony with neigh­bors from their apart­ment build­ing, they joined a larg­er com­mu­ni­ty two years lat­er. Their move up in Catskills accom­mo­da­tions mir­rored their moves to larg­er city apart­ments and, in 1963, to a sub­ur­ban house near the cov­et­ed shul with a pool.” After trav­el­ing a cou­ple of hours north by car with her hus­band, Mar­tin, and two chil­dren from their home in Queens, Glo­ria Fein­stein set up their cot­tage, one of a group of twen­ty-four bun­ga­lows, where she would spend the sum­mer with her chil­dren, away from the swel­ter­ing heat of the city. Mar­tin Fein­stein then went back to Queens, con­tin­u­ing his work as an attor­ney dur­ing the week and return­ing to the cot­tage to join his fam­i­ly on the week­ends. With her hus­band away and their chil­dren at day camp, Gloria’s house­hold respon­si­bil­i­ties relaxed. Meals became sim­pler. She could assume her chil­dren were safe and enter­tained. She was sur­round­ed by acquain­tances whom she saw only at the bun­ga­low colony, all fol­low­ing their own sim­i­lar rhythms. Although there were con­straints — the twen­ty-four bun­ga­lows shared one wash­ing machine — domes­tic expec­ta­tions were low­er there than at home. In the after­noons, cir­cu­lat­ing games at mahjong tables filled the small patch­es of lawn between the cot­tages. The click­ing of mahjong tiles was one of the sounds of sum­mer. Fam­i­lies ate accord­ing to the same estab­lished din­ner­time and, after Glo­ria had made a sim­ple sup­per and the chil­dren were in bed, she joined her neigh­bors in the colony’s casi­no,” and played mahjong every week­night. Gloria’s daugh­ter Bar­bara lat­er remem­bered women play­ing mahjong all the time. Real­ly all the time” — except, how­ev­er, when the hus­bands returned. When the men were there,” Bar­bara recalled, the wives were there for their men.”

Stel­la Pre­bler, Pearl Abrams, Pearl Fein­stein (stand­ing), Shirley Fried­man, Ruth Fein­berg and Dot­tie Cowen (L‑R) gath­ered for mahjong at Gold-Dan’s Lake House and Cot­tages. Locat­ed in between Mon­ti­cel­lo and Lib­er­ty in the Catskills of New York in the mid-1950s, the cot­tages were also near chil­dren’s overnight camps. The cig­a­rettes, table cov­er­ing, and col­or­ful tile racks seen here were ubiq­ui­tous at Amer­i­can mahjong games. Cour­tesy of Har­vey Abrams.

The Catskills Moun­tain region became an icon­ic place for upward­ly striv­ing Jew­ish Amer­i­cans to grab hold of the Amer­i­can good life in a dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish envi­ron­ment. The Borscht Belt,” as it was com­mon­ly known, was not only the largest Jew­ish resort area, but also the world’s largest com­mu­ni­ty of con­tigu­ous resorts. The core of the Jew­ish Alps” cov­ered 250 square miles of hills and farm­land about 100 miles north­west of New York City. Hav­ing evolved in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the Catskills region host­ed an unprece­dent­ed efflo­res­cence of Jew­ish leisure cul­ture after World War II. At its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, vaca­tion com­mu­ni­ties dot­ted the land­scape, with hun­dreds of options for lodg­ing avail­able, from cramped room­ing hous­es to cozy bun­ga­low colonies to lux­u­ri­ous hotels. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans spent time in the area, often return­ing sum­mer after sum­mer, and the hotels cre­at­ed an enter­tain­ment cir­cuit that honed Jew­ish humor into a nation­al art. From the war years through the ear­ly 1960s, the mid­dle-class milieu of bun­ga­low colonies in par­tic­u­lar cre­at­ed a venue for female leisure with its dai­ly rhythms of eased domes­tic­i­ty. By the 1950s and 1960s, women play­ing mahjong and cards dot­ted the resort ter­rain. Every­where! They were like, every­where,” a for­mer Catskills hotel wait­er remembered.

Dur­ing the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, accom­mo­da­tions slow­ly evolved to become more com­fort­able as grow­ing num­bers of New York­ers escaped sum­mer heat and over­crowd­ing by going to the moun­tains. By the 1930s, a kind of hybrid accom­mo­da­tion of small out­build­ings or rooms with a shared farm­house kitchen pro­vid­ed an afford­able and increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar option dur­ing the Depres­sion. The cot­tages were known by their Yid­dish name kucha­layn, lit­er­al­ly mean­ing cook-alone — or more accu­rate­ly for these crowd­ed kitchens, cook-for-yourself.

Going to the coun­try was sim­ply what women did.” It was also a demon­stra­tion of sta­tus that became increas­ing­ly pro­nounced as accom­mo­da­tions con­tin­ued to diver­si­fy. By the 1940s, those who could afford it gen­er­al­ly pre­ferred to stay at a bun­ga­low colony, a struc­tur­al cousin to the kucha­layn. (To add con­fu­sion, the bun­ga­low colonies could also be referred to as kucha­layn.) A bun­ga­low colony gen­er­al­ly pro­vid­ed small ful­ly equipped cot­tages with a recre­ation build­ing known as the casi­no” — home to mahjong games dur­ing the week and cou­ples’ danc­ing on the week­ends. Colonies could host a great stir of activ­i­ty, even orga­niz­ing com­mit­tees dur­ing the first few weeks to adju­di­cate dis­putes among the chil­dren and plan soft-ball and mah-jongg tour­na­ments.” Women pro­vid­ed much of the labor nec­es­sary to keep the com­mu­ni­ty infra­struc­ture and their fam­i­lies going, but there was still more time for relaxation.

Dur­ing the ear­ly 1950s through the mid-1960s, the Catskills expe­ri­enced enor­mous growth. The end of wartime short­ages brought an explo­sion of ren­o­va­tion to meet pent-up demand. Each year, legions of vis­i­tors descend­ed on the region, with esti­mates rang­ing from one to over two mil­lion guests. The traf­fic spurred new express­way con­struc­tion, eas­ing the dri­ving com­mute and replac­ing the train. Class was a sig­nif­i­cant, though not clear-cut, dis­tinc­tion between the increas­ing­ly lux­u­ri­ous hotels and the more com­mu­nal bun­ga­low colonies. The big hotels” were in a class of their own, though they were far out­num­bered by small fam­i­ly hotels. Among the trend­set­ters, Grossinger’s and the Con­cord led the pack. Both hotels adver­tised mahjong tour­na­ments as part of their high­ly orga­nized sched­ule of activ­i­ties, with vis­it­ing experts from the Nation­al Mah Jongg League. This super­no­va peri­od” in the Catskills, as his­to­ri­an Phil Brown dubbed it, direct­ly coin­cid­ed with the flour­ish­ing of mahjong culture.

Where Jew­ish women relaxed togeth­er, mahjong was very often present, both among those who trav­eled to the Catskills and those who did not.

Each kind of envi­ron­ment devel­oped its own tem­po of leisure. The plea­sure dome” hotels catered more fre­quent­ly to cou­ples’ short-term stays and mahjong was present more at the pools and tour­na­ments than scat­tered every­where as it was on the lawns between bun­ga­lows. Small hotels shared the colonies’ cul­ture of week­end-com­mut­ing hus­bands. To com­men­ta­tors like David Boroff, who decried women’s influ­ence on mod­ern Jew­ish cul­ture, the Catskills could appear to pro­vide women with total leisure” and regres­sion to an ado­les­cent cama­raderie-of-the-girls” — acquired on the backs of their poor work­ing hus­bands, whom he likened to slaves. From a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, the sum­mers apart pro­vid­ed both par­ents some respite from cramped quar­ters and fam­i­ly demands amid ongo­ing, though reduced, labor. Across the board, the resort com­mu­ni­ties allowed fam­i­ly mem­bers to pur­sue inde­pen­dent recre­ation, for women to play hours of mahjong while chil­dren were oth­er­wise occupied.

The Catskills pro­found­ly shaped an evolv­ing Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture, but the region host­ed diver­si­ty among Jews, too. Amid the dom­i­nant cul­ture of sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion mid­dle-class Con­ser­v­a­tive sub­ur­ban­iz­ing urban­ites was a sig­nif­i­cant minor­i­ty of work­ing-class kucha­layn res­i­dents and Ortho­dox bun­ga­low colonies. In the late 1940s, Ruth Milch sea­son­al­ly left her full-time work as a key­punch oper­a­tor in Brook­lyn, while her hus­band drove back and forth from his job as a gro­cer mid­dle­man. Refugees from the Holo­caust brought their fam­i­lies, too.

Where Jew­ish women relaxed togeth­er, mahjong was very often present, both among those who trav­eled to the Catskills and those who did not. As part of the grow­ing mid­dle-class ethos, a leisured domes­tic­i­ty spread and diver­si­fied. Women played mahjong at beach clubs on Long Island, at com­mu­ni­ty swim­ming pools in the Bronx and New Jer­sey, at Jew­ish coun­try clubs in Atlanta, and resorts by Lake Michi­gan. In the late 1950s, a new land­scape of leisure devel­oped through beach clubs, par­tic­u­lar­ly on Long Island. Influ­enced by Catskills cul­ture, beach clubs were clos­er to home and there­fore more amenable to the fam­i­ly life that 1950s cul­ture cel­e­brat­ed. Fam­i­lies could pay a sum­mer mem­ber­ship for a liv­ing-room style cabana to stay in or a more afford­able lock­er for their belong­ings. At $200 to $800 for three months, the cost was com­pa­ra­ble to that of a bun­ga­low colony but allowed for hus­bands to join their fam­i­lies on week­day evenings. Although most went back and forth to their homes overnight, women’s cul­ture still flour­ished dur­ing the day as chil­dren attend­ed day camps. As the New York Times described it, the heart of the clubs is the card game, the mah-jongg, the chit-chat in front of the cabanas.” Bar­bara Dellon’s nuclear fam­i­ly rel­ished their sum­mers in the Catskills, but her grand­moth­er played at a Long Island beach club and avoid­ed what she saw as drea­ry bun­ga­low colonies. Mahjong was her dai­ly beach­side activ­i­ty, despite the sand that even­tu­al­ly encrust­ed her set.

Sum­mer com­mu­ni­ties were the epi­cen­ters of mahjong’s rip­ples into neigh­bor­hoods. Women could learn the game over one or two sum­mers and return to their new com­mu­ni­ties with skills to share. Ruth Unger, who would lat­er serve for over three decades as pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Mah Jongg League, real­ly learned” the game at a bunch of lit­tle places” in the Catskills after the war and brought her knowl­edge to her Brook­lyn apart­ment build­ing with oth­er young moth­ers. The New York­ers who came to the Catskills, along with small­er num­bers from Detroit, Boston, and Bal­ti­more, used neigh­bor­hood net­works to build sum­mer com­mu­ni­ties and took some ele­ments of Catskills cul­ture with them when they returned home. In 1960 the League respond­ed to play­ers’ desires for more time to prac­tice the year’s new rule card before the sum­mer vaca­tion­ing months of mahjong by bump­ing up the release date from the end to the begin­ning of April.

Play­ing mahjong in the Catskills became a sig­na­ture part of grow­ing up as Jew­ish and female in 1950s New York. One woman fond­ly described her kucha­layn as the shtetl revis­it­ed or, more accu­rate­ly, trans­formed and trans­port­ed to a clean­er, safer, place.” In this remem­bered idyl­lic and specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish con­text, she learned how to swim, find Indi­an arrow­heads, dance, play Mah Jongg, kib­itz, and had my first real crush and my first real heart­break there.” Root­ed in a shel­tered cul­ture of the 1950s, the Catskills helped many baby boomers come of age.

From MAHJONG: A Chi­nese Game and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Amer­i­can Cul­ture by Annelise Heinz. Copy­right © 2021 by Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press and pub­lished by Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. All rights reserved.

Annelise Heinz is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon. Her work has been fea­tured on Nation­al Pub­lic Radio and inter­na­tion­al Chi­nese tele­vi­sion. She has lived and played mahjong in the Unit­ed States and South­west­ern China.