“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
Monticello: A Borscht Belt Catskills Tale
May 17, 2013
Courtesy of Elliot Udell
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
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