For Jews who could afford it, “the” vacation spot for decades was the Catskills. The Borscht Belt was the place to go to escape the summer heat, eat huge platters of food, and feel comfortable among other Jewish families. If you were lucky, you were there the weekend one of the comedians who would go on to fame—think Jerry Seinfeld and before him, Don Rickles or Henny Youngman would keep you from falling asleep after those dinners of good, heavy Jewish cooking.
My parents never went to the Catskills, in part, because my mother preferred the sea to “the mountains.” For years, her favorite spot was Nantucket, the island off Cape Cod, long before it became the popular destination it is these days. It was a time before motels, MacDonald’s, and amusement parks; it was a time when the only way to get there was by a five hour ferry ride from Woods Hole. Nantucket was all sand dunes and beaches surrounding a town which boasted a cobblestoned main street, a 5 and 10 cent store, and one or two small grocery stores along with several local restaurants. Of course, all this was secondary to the ocean and those beaches.
We stayed in a guest house—that was customary in those days—just off Main Street. An ancient and erratic bus with open sides provided transportation to the ocean and the public beach. The bus rarely appeared in the late afternoon, so at the end of the day, the four of us walked back to our guest house along the main road which was always coated with windblown sand scrunching on the soles of our sandals. On the way, we passed bushes of beach plums, tilting windbreak fences, and the only really good hotel on the island called the White Elephant.
As we walked by, my mother would say, “elegant.” She’d add without taking a breath, “but they don’t allow Jews there.” We’d stop and look down the long lawn to a large white and pink building and, scattered on the immaculate lawn, we’d see tables with people, most of them dressed in white, sitting under blue and white umbrellas.
Arriving back at our guest house, we’d be sandy and hot from the long walk, but soon we’d be cool, showered, and dressed for supper. During the two weeks we spent in Nantucket, we went to every restaurant in town except the one in the White Elephant.
The routine rarely varied. We’d have breakfast out, maybe at the place which had the best homemade doughnuts; we’d walk around town, write letters and postcards, and pick up the ingredients for a picnic lunch. By 11:00, we’d be off to the beach where we’d spend the rest of the day.
I’d jump into the ocean and only emerge to eat or if my mother called me to dry off and get ready for the trek home. The saddest part of the day was my mother calling, “no more today. Time to dry off and go home.”
Nantucket meant two weeks of vacation. A shorter vacation that became a tradition for my mother and me was Atlantic City for a winter weekend. Mom read about special Washington’s birthday rates in the New York Times; my father snorted at the idea and said he didn’t mind if we went without him. My brother was either away at school or working, and so, for a few years, we had an annual jaunt, just Mom and me.
During the day, we strolled, ate salt water taffy, and looked at the sea which reminded us of Nantucket. If we got tired, we sat in on one of the omnipresent boardwalk auctions of trinkets and phony art. Once there was a teacher’s convention in the big hall at the end of the boardwalk, and we went in to browse. When people asked, my mother told them she was a music teacher, and we got a big bag of free pencils and pads. She was delighted by the attention.
We always stayed at a small, kosher hotel just off the boardwalk. The third year of our annual weekend together, my mother announced that she was going to reserve a room for us in another hotel. “I’m tired of that place. Let’s try something different.”
She made reservations at the Carlton hotel, and when the weekend came, we took the train from Penn Station, as we did every year. At arrival, we hailed a cab and got out in front of a place that was definitely not our old standby, the Golden Sands Deluxe Hotel. Unlike that hotel which was down a quiet side street off the Boardwalk, the Carlton was smack on the Boardwalk, and it had two doormen. A plush rug, not linoleum, covered the lobby floor. We walked toward the reception desk with a man behind it, watching our every step. He had on a dark suit with a carnation in the buttonhole.
Arriving at the desk, my mother drew herself up to her full five feet, a height over which I towered by six inches by the time I was 12. She announced, “Mrs. Leonard Rosett and daughter.”
The man said, “Just a minute.” He disappeared into the back and was gone a long time.
My mother turned to me and said, “I think I know what’s happening.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. The man finally came back and said to her, “I’m sorry, but we have no reservation in that name, and we’re all booked for the weekend.”
Mom frowned at him, but she didn’t say a word. We went outside, and she said to me, “Let’s go to the Golden Sands.” We did, and within the hour, we were settled into our room. Mom had been uncharacteristically silent even after we had checked in, unpacked, changed our clothes, and gone down to dinner.
“They must have lost the reservation,” I ventured to say to Mom after we had finished their always delicious matzo ball soup.
“Lost, my eye! A bunch of anti-Semites.” My mother was as angry as I ever saw her.
“But they took our reservation when you called them from home.”
“That doesn’t mean a thing. They wanted to get a look. With our name, they weren’t sure, but one look at me, and they knew.”
My mother was convinced that she “looked” Jewish. No matter that every time she went to the Italian grocer, he chattered away in Italian at her, or that the French baker always spoke French to her and winked when she picked up her order.
I’ve never forgotten her anger that day; she was positive that the hotel had turned us away because we were Jewish. She explained further to me that evening.
“You remember that our reservation card said, ‘conditional reservation’ and I wondered about it, but I should have known. They wanted to take a look, that’s all.”
The next year, she once again refused to stay at the Golden Sands which I still remember as having not only that matzo ball soup, but also the best chopped liver I’ve ever eaten. She insisted upon making a reservation at another Boardwalk hotel. We arrived at a place which was two notches above the Golden Sands and one below the Carlton. She announced our name, and after a quick look, the receptionist signed us in and rang for the bellboy to show us to our room.
That night at supper, when we were assigned to a small table in the corner of the dining room, my mother was convinced that we were being given a raw deal. She changed her mind when the supper came, lobster, a reminder of Nantucket, and which would never make an appearance at the kosher Golden Sands.
So the weekend proceeded with our usual routine, but Mom was conflicted. We were having a good time and, not so incidentally, enjoying the food at the hotel, but she was convinced that our table was the smallest in the dining room, our service the iciest, and our room, the dingiest. I don’t know if she was right or not.
That was the last year we spent a winter weekend in Atlantic City. Mom said she was bored with our routine here, and I was getting busy now that I was in my first year of high school. About a year later, my mother told me that the Golden Sands Deluxe Hotel had closed. Perhaps, that was a factor in our abandonment of winter weekends in Atlantic City. Always a safe fall back in case we hit the wall of a conditional reservation, the Golden Sands was no more.
Although she was aware of the possibility that Jews might not be allowed into a country club, a hotel, or a restaurant, my mother did not see anti-Semites lurking behind every reception desk. At the same time, until the end of her life, she remained aware that a club, hotel, or restaurant might have a sign, visible or not, that read, “no Jews allowed here.”
Clare Goldfarb lives and writes in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the co-author of “Spiritualism in 19th Century Letters.” Her work has appeared in journals including “South Atlantic Quarterly,” “American Literary Realism,” “SN Review,” “Still Crazy,” “Lilith,” “Entropy,” and “The Lowestoft Chronicle.”