Peysakh in "Di Montins."
Updated: Apr 27
Passover is the ultimate at-home Jewish holiday and yet, despite growing up Orthodox, it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I experienced my first at home seder. Thanks to my late cantor father, Zindel Sapoznik (z”l) the only seders with which I was familiar were those which he led at Borscht Belt hotels.
By the time my family arrived in America in 1949, the once time-honored traditions of old style cantors (my father’s profession) and the leisure culture of the Catskills were both in decline thanks to the changing tastes of American Jewry.
Yet, that decline was temporarily slowed owing to the influx of Holocaust survivors – like my family – for whom those cultural values were still vibrant.
I was pressed into service at the age of six to sing in choirs – a meshoyrer -- the one time farm system of up and coming cantors as my father had done at my age under cantor David Kusevitsky. Thanks to my induction, I had a front row seat for the slow fade to black of the once thriving Yiddish culture in the Borscht Belt.
For this city kid, it was an exotic pilgrimage to “di montins” (the Catskills) up Route 17 past the Red Apple Rest (and its de rigeur milk and apple pie -- and the last time I'd be able to have chometz /unleavened bread for a week --- mid-way to our Sullivan County destination.
The hotels at which we worked were not the well-known A-list places like Grossinger’s or Brown’s – but B-list entries like The Majestic, The Blumenkranz and The Normandie, among others. These slow moldering places sustained a distinct mystery and infinite appeal to me with their ineffable waft of the past so endlessly present.
The hotel seders were chaotic affairs with hundreds of guests clamoring for food, loudly impatient with the orderly process of the seder. My father’s running joke would be to threaten to edit the seder from 10 plagues and four questions to five plagues and two questions. Yet, when he stood up to sing the blessing over the wine, the dining room would invariably fall silent as his powerful sepia tinged voice brought order to the place with the sound of their collective pasts.
There were two cornerstone hotel seders moments: One was the featured solo of the basso singing “Go Down Moses." It would be years before I discovered that they were all making their best attempt to impersonate singer and activist Paul Robeson who had made the spiritual famous.
The other was singing the Yiddish version on Ma Nishtano by one of the choristers, a highly sought-after slot which, even though my father was cantor, I was not assured in getting. (One year, at the Blumenkranz Hotel, I lost my solo to the other choir boy at a game of Milles Bornes, choir boy card playing being a normative part of the traditional meshoyrer experience as my father told me about his own young days…)
There are episodic memories of the once stellar apex of Yiddish popular culture whom I saw on those hotel stages. Molly Picon, Jenny Goldstein, Fyvush Finkel and others. For several years in the mid-60s, we worked at the Majestic Hotel at which Dave Tarras led the house band. For years, it was normal to see Tarras in shul during the day listening to my father and then us sitting in the night club audience listening to Tarras at night.