|It must have been
quite pastoral back in July 1938 when Isaac Bashevis Singer
first glimpsed the bungalow colony grounds after a long,
tedious drive from Manhattan. He might have stood at the
entrance off the narrow serpentine road, beneath a jade-green
canopy of tall, resin-scented cedars. Ahead of him lay a
flowing, even more verdant landscape rising sharply into a
series of tree-studded hills. But Singer must surely have
questioned what he was doing in this "wilderness" so far from
his tiny, one-room flat in lower Manhattan and why he'd
allowed his young friend, Zygmunt Salkin, to inveigle him into
journeying up to the country.
ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
years earlier, Salkin had waited at Ellis Island
with I. J. [Israel Joshua] Singer, Isaac's older
brother, to welcome the thirty-nine year-old
Polish immigrant to America. Since his arrival,
the younger Singer hadn't fared as well as he
wished in his writing career, so when Salkin, a
budding theater director, approached him with a
plan to move his fledgling troupe to a Woodridge,
N.Y. bungalow colony to rehearse an English
version of I. L. Peretz's At Night in the Old
Marketplace, Isaac consented to oversee the
In his pitch to
Singer, Salkin had painted a very bleak picture.
"There was a time when I dreamed about reviving
the Yiddish theatre. But I've convinced myself
that this is a waste of time," said Salkin, as
reported in Singer's memoir of his salad days in
Manhattan, Lost in America. "Something has to be
done for the theatre .... "
Salkin's despair was
well-founded. The Golden Age of serious Yiddish theater was
over. Maurice Schwartz's grand and noble Yiddish Art Theatre,
established in 1918 at Manhattan's Irving Place Theatre with
high hopes and higher aspirations, with plays by stellar
Yiddish playwrights such as Perez Hirshbein and David Pinski,
had, over the next two decades, devolved into offering a menu
of mostly lighter, crowd-pleasing fare still Yiddish in
language, but grandiose in production, the stage often filled
chock-a-block with actors, singers, and dancers, the
choreography ornate, the scenes many in order to boost
attendance. Schwartz had become what noted actress Celia Adler
called "a slave to spectacle."
Jacob Ben-Ami's Jewish Art Theatre, with even loftier aims,
had lasted two seasons, from 1919 to 1921. By the thirties,
all that remained of Yiddish theater was ARTEF (Arbeiter
Teater Farband), a vibrant but leftist group more interested
in propaganda than artistry.
And, of course, there was the Second Avenue fluff of
sentimental comedies, overcooked melodramas and mindless
musicals, known collectively and pejoratively as shund,
which purist critics defined as trash.
In 1937, the great author-critic Alexander Mukdoiny wrote,
"The Yiddish Theatre is finished. It is no longer even bad
theatre. It has no actor, no repertoire, no directors and no
designers.... Professionalism, talent and ambition are
Zygmunt Salkin's attempt at a solution that summer of 1938 was
to gather a group of stage-struck youngsters and present them
with his own English translation of the I. L. Peretz play, to
be produced under Singer's guidance. The practical part of his
agenda was the free use by the troupe of a gathering hall in
the bungalow colony known as Grine Felder (Green Fields). But
this was no ordinary Catskill resort for the families of
middle-class Jewish shopkeepers and businessmen who would come
for a respite from Manhattan's swelter. When Salkin and Singer
arrived, Grine Felder had been for two years summer home to
the most concentrated assemblage of Yiddishist elite anywhere
on Earth. While other groups--artists, leftists,
Bohemians--organized their own colonies, none equaled the
caliber of talent at Grine Felder.
Indeed, not anyone could vacation at the unique colony.
Malvina Fainberg, 93, a summer resident from 1947 to 1987,
describes the admission practices:
"There was a long waiting list, composed of only those
recommended by Grine Felders already there. I was considered
because my brother-in-law [Jules Fainberg] was one of the
original founders. One had to be first interviewed, parents
and children alike, by the membership committee. Next, we were
evaluated by the cultural committee as to his or her possible
contribution to the various cultural activities going on."
The colony's origins are almost mythic. In the autumn of 1936,
a delegation from nearby Mirth bungalow colony had approached
Raphael Kasofsky and Meyer Arkin, owners of the popular Avon
Lodge a mile outside of Woodridge. Representing thirty-two
families dissatisfied with their present summer
accommodations, the delegates asked the two owners to build
them a modern enclave of approximately forty units on
thirty-five acres of unused Avon Lodge property. The group
would then assume all aspects of managing the colony, from
maintaining the grounds to collecting the rents and paying the
By the next spring, the spanking new colony was ready for
occupancy. Its name would be Grine Felder, after the
enormously successful play and movie by Perez Hirshbein, who
was among the colony's founding fathers. At the eleventh hour,
however, Hirshbein decided to remain at Mirth, out of loyalty
to its owner.
Those making the transition couldn't have been more pleased
with the two- and four-unit structures, its modern kitchens
and screened porches, and the large recreational building
which they promptly named the Amphion Theatre and stocked with
rows of benches and three massive Melodigrand pianos. They
especially appreciated the illusion of isolation and solitude,
the bungalows scattered helter-skelter, each on a small
hillock and hidden from the rest by stands of maples and oaks.
Among the notables who
pioneered Grine Felder were David Pinski, a major
Yiddish playwright whose work a decade earlier had
dominated both Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre and
Ben-Ami's Jewish Art Theatre; Mendl Elkin, one of the
founders of the Bronx's Unzer Theatre and a writer,
director, teacher, and lecturer also involved with
Pinski and Hirshbein in various ripples of Jewish and
cultural life in New York City; Nahum Stutchkoff, author
and playwright, whose radio series Tzores bei
Leiten ("Trouble Increases") ran for twenty years on
WEVD in New York City, "the station that speaks your
Samuel Charney, who wrote under
the name "S. Niger," was also an original at the colony.
Editor, journalist and historian, founder of the Zionist
Socialist Party and president of the Shalom Aleichem Folk
Institute, Charney was considered the dean of Yiddish literary
excellence was also well represented in the persons of
Lazar Weiner and Moishe Rudinow. The former was a famed
composer of orchestral works and the conductor of the
Mendelssohn Symphony Orchestra, the latter chief cantor
at prestigious Temple Emanu-EI on Manhattan's Upper East
And from the world of labor: Joseph Schlossberg who, in
1914, helped found the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of
America and later served as a member of the New York
City Board of Higher Education, as well as writing
several books on the American labor movement.
In his journal as recording
secretary of Grine Felder, Abraham Shiffrin, a noted poet,
short story writer, and former president of New York
University’s School of Journalism, describes some or the
day-to-day cultural activities at the colony.
He writes of Grine Felder’s
children putting on a performance of Robert Sherwood’s Abe
Lincoln in Illinois, followed by a more Yiddish-centered
production of I. L. Peretz’s Two Brothers.
Under Shiffrin’s direction, the parents of these children
presented another Peretz play, Arendar, a stirring
three-acter. Other evenings, David Pinski would command the
Amphion stage with talks about the lives and works of his
fellow artists: the two Sholems, Asch and Aleichem; Peretz;
and Ossip Dymov.
Wednesday evenings were especially glittering. The women's
cultural committee would take charge of "Tea Parties," at
which Lazar Weiner would often play an original composition or
accompany an invited guest such as Alexander Zadri, the
world-renowned violinist. They'd play Mozart and Brahms, but
more frequently Yiddish folk music.
At another Wednesday gala Jacob Ben-Ami, the quintessential
Yiddish actor, would give a dramatic reading. At another, the
great Russian basso Sidor Belarsky, a recent immigrant and
star of the City Center Opera Company, would sing solo or
duets with Moishe Radinow to the accompaniment of the
Refreshments would be served after, and the conversation was
rich and heady--the fate of European Jewry; the tense
situation in Palestine; the paintings of Marc Chagall; the
German-Soviet Pact of 1939, which badly splintered the left;
the American economy, still ailing from the Depression.
Rosina Fernhoff, an actress
who has performed in America and Israel, recalls that
her father, Dr. William Fernhoff, "would often make
after-hours calls to this most unusual colony. I would
be his driver, and for me, an aspiring young actress and
dancer, nothing was more exciting than to be in the
presence of such artistic giants as Perez Hirshbein and
Long after my father treated his Grine Felder patient,
we'd linger to listen to the music, to absorb the poetry
and drama, to speak with creative people whose common
bond was the preservation of Yiddish language and
During the day, Pinski would
hold classes in Yiddish history for children and adults. In
addition, Shiffrin noted that "we have a reading circle in
Yiddish, to which about thirty residents come each Tuesday, in
the open meadows, to listen to readings of works from our
In his journal, Shiffrin also tells of the colony's own weekly
newsletter, The Locust, a breezy two-pager that he
edited and to which Elkin, Pinski, Niger, and other Grine
Felders were happy to contribute.
Involved in his directorial and re-editing chores, I. B.
Singer nevertheless took note of his hosts. In Lost in
America he recalls with amusement that each bungalow was
named for a Yiddish writer or Socialist leader: Peretz, Sholem
Aleichem, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman.
But, sourly, Singer carps that "when the Yiddishists learned
that I was getting ready to dramatize something by Peretz ...I
became an overnight target. Yiddishism in America suffered
from a lack of young forces. I was comparatively young, and my
book (Satan in Goray) had already received some notice
among the Yiddishists, even though the critics complained that
I failed to follow in the path of Yiddish classicists and gave
myself over exclusively to sex, as well as demonstrating a
lack of concern for social problems."
This being the case, it is difficult to imagine two more
antagonistic extremes in the spectrum of Yiddish literary
culture. Singer, always the self-absorbed loner, demonstrated
his antipathy to the Grine Felders in this acid-etched group
portrait: "They seethed with those offering readymade
remedies for all the world's ills ... Some placed all their
hopes on Freud, while others hinted that Stalin was hardly as
bad as the capitalist lackeys painted him."
By summer's end, though but a novice at directing, Singer had
helped whip into shape At Night in the Old Marketplace
on the Amphion's stage, when unused by the Grine Felders.
Salkin talked of receiving financial backing and booking a
theater in Manhattan, but neither materialized. Peretz's
anglicized play never opened.
Grine Felder, however,
continued for almost fifty more years, despite the deaths or
the defections of its most illustrious founders and the shift
to more mainstream families. In 1973 a neighboring ski lodge
bought the colony and ran it for five years; eventually it
fell into bankruptcy. Finally, the town of Fallsburg took the
colony in lieu of unpaid taxes.
The grandeur and glory of Grine Felder is forever gone, in
ruins like so many Catskill resorts and hotels. Its Amphion
Theatre, the site of so much poetry, drama, and music has
collapsed into itself, only the three pianos remaining
upright, their keys faded and frozen tight, their rotting
hulks evidently not worth stripping or stealing.
The bungalows themselves are slowly rotting, the screened
porches festooned with cobwebs, the kitchens gutted except for
corkscrews of flypaper still hanging from ceiling beams, their
victims long ago turned to fossils.
Nature has all but reclaimed Grine Felder, leaving scant
indication of what a bountiful feast had once taken place
there, summer after joyous summer: An extraordinary band of
Yiddishists had endeavored to hold onto a fast vanishing world
while America was struggling with its own problems of the
Great Depression and later, World War II; when the stars shone
a bit brighter and Grine Felder was the closest its founders
would ever come to paradise on Earth.