Leisure and Recreation in the United States

by Jenna Weissman Joselit

A group of several women during "reading hour" at the YWHA's summer camp at the White Plains, New York, estate of Frieda Schiff Warburg and her husband Felix Warburg.
Courtesy of the 92nd Street Y, New York City.
In Brief

In the late nineteenth century, Jews started creating their own spaces to vacation, as a reaction to the discrimination and exclusion they faced at many established leisure spots. Those who vacationed, particularly women, were criticized for their supposed improper behavior; commentators worried about a lack of modesty in clothing and behavior. The harshest criticism usually came from within the Jewish community, with articles lambasting the absence of religious activities on vacations. However, over time summer resorts began to include congregations, and summer camps for children were the quintessential example of efforts to combine leisure and religious identity. Some social groups, namely the Jewish Working Girls’ Vacation Society, created women-only leisure spots in cities across the country, attempting to teach women traditionally feminine skills and traits.


In the wake of the Civil War, one of the bloodiest wars in the nation’s history, Americans discovered pleasure. “Vacation” became a verb as well as a noun and, in some quarters, even a form of moral exhortation. A vacation, insisted reformer Melvil Dewey, is not just a luxury but a “necessity for those who aim to do a large amount of high-grade work.” Well-to-do, hardworking German-born Jews of the 1870s heeded Dewey’s words.

Like other affluent Americans, they vacationed at Saratoga Springs, then one of the country’s premier watering holes, and enjoyed the bracing sea air of the New Jersey shore, where luxuriously appointed hotels dotted the beach. “Fond of fun and frolic,” they spent their mornings and afternoons promenading on the boardwalks and boulevards of America’s resort towns; in the evenings they dined, danced, and gambled. America, they believed, was truly God’s playground.

Discrimination against Jews

Within a few short years, however, their faith was shaken. In 1877, Saratoga hotelier Henry Hilton refused to host leading Jewish financier Joseph Seligman and his family at the world-renowned Grand Union Hotel. An otherwise valued guest, Seligman was banished from this latter-day Eden, Hilton explained, because his presence might attract “colonies of Jewish people,” whose behavior was considered “obnoxious” by the “majority” of Grand Union habitués.

At the time, many American Jews believed Hilton’s behavior to be little more than the idiosyncrasy of a misguided curmudgeon. But when, two years later, a similar statement was made, this time at the popular middle-class New York resort town of Manhattan Beach, waves of alarm spread across the pages of the country’s Jewish newspapers. “We do not like the Jews as a class,” declared Austin Corbin, president of the Manhattan Beach Company, in the summer of 1879. “There are some well-behaved people among them; but as a rule, they make themselves offensive to the kind of people who principally patronize our [rail]road and hotel. I am satisfied we should be better off without than with their custom.”

As the Hilton and Corbin incidents made clear, the pursuit of pleasure for Jews was often fraught with disappointment. Nowhere, it seemed, was the fault line between expectation and reality, between acceptance and social ostracism, more exposed than when Americans were at play. A holiday by the sea or in the country, which promised a respite from daily restrictions, instead often heightened them. “Race prejudice at summer resorts,” explained Alice Hyneman Rhine in an 1887 exposé of the phenomenon, was “sweeping” the country.

Rhine reported that like Hilton and Corbin (“Hilton the Second,” as he was dubbed in some quarters), many hotel owners were taking a dislike to Jews because of their supposed boisterousness. Others disapproved of the Jews’ “disregard of table etiquette and ignorance of the courtesies of the drawing-room.” Still others frowned upon their attire: “It is said of [the Jews] that their ill-breeding shows itself in an ignorance of the canons of good taste in dress, which causes them to affect patent leather boots, showy trousers and conspicuous and vulgar jewelry.”

Publicly, Jews were quick to defend themselves against such charges and to denounce “race prejudice” as a form of “petulant bigotry” at best and of “unjust, injurious, wicked,” and un-American behavior at worst. Privately, though, many Jews conceded that some of the allegations were not without merit, especially those regarding displays of flamboyance. When Jews walk and talk loudly, dress “showily,” and use a toothpick “profusely” while in public, said one Jewish newspaper, it was no wonder that hotel keepers were justified in “exercising discretion.” Columnist Henrietta Szold, or “Sulamith,” as she styled herself at the time, was quick to agree. Writing in the Jewish Messenger in the aftermath of the “Corbin affair,” Szold was as fierce in her condemnation of the behavior of fellow Jews as she was of Corbin’s. She roundly took them to task for their all-consuming pursuit of money and their cavalier disregard for spiritual matters.

Szold’s was hardly the last word on the subject. Well into the 1890s, German Jewish women were publicly exhorted—often by one another—to keep up their guard on vacation, to comport themselves with “unobtrusive modesty,” and to eschew material and emotional excess at all costs. In 1895, for instance, Rosa Sonneschein’s newspaper, The American Jewess, featured an editorial, “The Jewess at Summer Resorts,” in which, characteristically, denunciation mingled with apologetics:

Our Jewish ladies will, as usual, form no inconsiderable contingent of the gay throngs on pleasure and recreation intent.... Let them continually bear in mind that is it their bounden duty to so comport themselves in public, as to give the lie to those aspersions cast upon the entire race ... because of the forward, vulgar and pompous demeanor of a few individuals.

If a non-Jewish woman adorned herself with all manner of trinkets and “glittering gewgaws,” laughed boisterously, and treated waiters with undisguised contempt, she would have only herself to blame. “Let, however, Mrs. Abrahams indulge in the same offenses against the canons of good breeding and Jewish womanhood, en masse, must atone for her sins.”

To prevent the further proliferation of women like Mrs. Abrahams, the American Jewish community needed “social missionaries,” insisted Sonneschein. “We need Jewish women of wealth, who will make propaganda for a dignified simplicity of dress and speech, who by their example will teach the masses to maintain their dignity at hotels and watering places.” Warming to her subject, the magazine publisher asserted that the American Jewish community required “missionaries to teach the world that American Jews are the product of civilization.”

Vacation Destinations Exclusively for Jews

In the years following Sonneschein’s peroration, the vacation “habit” extended to virtually all segments of the American population, from the well-heeled dowager to the recently arrived working girl. “There are towns in this state, in the Catskill region, and along the seashore whose summer population is made up almost entirely of East Siders,” observed a writer for the American Israelite in 1903, contemplating the recent democratization of leisure. “A Sunday afternoon spent on the boardwalk at Arverne or on Ocean Avenue, Long Branch or Bath Beach, will attest to the truth of this statement. It would seem that the entire East Side has closed up home and shop and has gone to the seashore.”

Preferring to spend vacations in the company of their own kind rather than run a gauntlet of disapproving gentiles, Eastern European Jewish immigrants created a summer world of boardinghouses, bungalows, inns, and “exclusive” hotels populated entirely by Jews. In some instances, would-be farmers played host to guests from the city. An article entitled “A Voice from the Ghetto,” in the August 1903 pages of the American Hebrew, made this wry observation:

For eight months in the year [the Jewish farmer] is forgotten ... but with the oncoming of the summer, a host of friends appear on the scene.... These friends are not unlike friends everywhere. They like to visit you at your summer home and dine with you, and some of them bring their baggage along with them for an extended stay.

Soon, quite a number of enterprising farmers began to charge their guests a modest fee for room and board. “In this way,” concluded “A Voice from the Ghetto,” the farmer “entertains his friends at no loss to himself.”

While vacationers fancied farm life, others made do with the kochalein [literally, “cook for yourself”], one of the most inventive and affordable of summer institutions. “For about sixty dollars for the season, which could last from Memorial Day to Chanukah if one wished, each family had had a sleeping room, cooking and food storage privileges in a communal kitchen with half a dozen wood stoves and ... tomatoes, cucumbers, and string beans from the garden,” wrote Jack Luria, a veteran of many kochalein summers at Schaine’s boardinghouse. A delight for children, the shared living arrangements could fray adult nerves and give rise to daily quarrels as too many women fought to use too few stoves. Luria quoted his mother as saying, “If you had cooked a summer in Schaine’s kitchen, you need not fear the tortures of Gehennom [hell] in the world to come.”

For those more concerned with keeping up appearances than with saving money, nothing less than a “first-class” hotel would suffice. Observed one student of immigrant social mores:

Social climbing demands it.... One cannot do without it and still maintain the respect of one’s friends. One would fall considerably if it were known that he or she had not gone to Tannersville, or Hunter, or Arverne ... especially if one happened to belong to the fair sex.

To satisfy the demand for accommodation, Jewish businessmen purchased or assumed control of existing luxury hotels. “Now Under Jewish Management,” announced the Grossmans, the new owners of the luxurious Pavilion Hotel in 1927. Our hotel benefit[s] a new American people and a new generation. The ballroom, where the Vanderbilts, Goulds and Astors danced to soft music their dainty minuets and ancient waltzes, will now see Jewish youths and maidens gyrating to jazz. The dining hall that rang to the tune of Yankee Doodle will resound now to the Hatikvo. Dark eyes flashing with Oriental fire will gaze from the porch of that aristocratic hotel.

As they sat, gazing, on the veranda or rowed on the lake or dressed for dinner, Eastern European Jews and their children gave themselves over completely to the “gospel of relaxation.” “We are all talking and thinking and dreaming of our vacation,” they told a reporter for the Tageblatt. With the first hint of spring, advertisements for the Ocean Spray Hotel, High View Villa, Clinton Farmhouse, and the Pleasure Lake House filled the pages of the Tageblatt and other American Jewish newspapers, fueling readers’ dreams.

Gendered Criticism

By midsummer, editorials urging vacationers to mind their manners and behave with restraint were just as frequent. Warning against the “indifferent parvenus, the reckless gamesters, the frivolous and the giddy,” the communal press urged Jewish pleasure-seekers to cultivate their intellect as well as their sensations.

Women often bore the brunt of such public exhortations. Time and again, the prospect of idle Jewish women sporting red lacquered nails and flimsy, though expensive, summer dresses greatly troubled the community’s cultural custodians. In 1922, for example, the Froyen Zhurnal, a popular Yiddish women’s magazine of the period, encouraged its female readers to be “intelligent vacationers.” “Think twice before going into any undue expenditures,” the paper cautioned, recommending that working women plan carefully for their much-awaited vacations, especially in planning their wardrobes. “Girls, remember, please ... that to be rigged out in fine style,” one doesn’t need much, just one or two skirts, two dress blouses, two “dressy gowns,” a wide-brimmed hat, and a sweater. “Rest assured, you girls, who have to rely upon a limited wardrobe during your vacation, that the woman who has gone on vacation with her trunks full of elaborate clothes will not find contentment and pleasure if she will have to rely wholly upon her clothes for that.”

In addition to sartorial advice, the community’s cultural arbiters dispensed a different kind of wisdom, suggesting that women spend their summers “wisely.” Attend lectures, read “good books,” and engage in good deeds, they were told. After all, recommended the Hadassah News Letter in 1927, “psychologically, a summer resort is a superb setting for disseminating Hadassah knowledge. The necessarily constant companionship of the resorts and the leisureliness of vacationing create just the right atmosphere for conversation and exchange of ideas.”

Despite such entreaties, Jewish daughters seemed to delight in the pursuit of pleasure, much to the disappointment and consternation of communal leaders such as Dora R. Spiegel, president of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. Writing in 1934, Spiegel fulminated against those women who “talked small talk all day long between food, drink, mah jong and golf and judged all others by the clothes they wore.” Though these women “eschew all talk of politics and books lest they be thought bores, they like to think of themselves as the cream of Jewish society.” “Perhaps they were,” Spiegel acidly concluded, “but the cream has turned rancid.”

American Jewry’s leading literary lights felt much the same way. Taking aim at the apparent ease with which so many Jewish daughters took to the good life, Jewish writers produced some of the harshest critiques of American leisure culture ever published. Take, for example, editor and writer Abraham Cahan’s wrenching tale of deracination, The Rise of David Levinsky, in which forty pages are given over to depicting the social machinations and sartorial aspirations of largely female vacationers at a fictitious Catskill resort.

Saturday dinner “was not merely a meal. It was, in addition, or chiefly, a great social function and a gown contest.” Bediamonded and bedecked, young women were “powdered and painted. Prosperity was rapidly breaking the chains of American Puritanism, rapidly ‘Frenchifying’ the country and the East Side was quick to fall in line.” Belletrist Maurice Samuel was equally scathing. In his 1925 poem, “Al Harei Catskill,” published in the high-toned Menorah Journal, he mocked the mindlessness of Catskill culture.

And here in Catskill what do Jews believe? In Term used for ritually untainted food according to the laws of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws).Kosher, certainly; in Shabbas, less ... in charity and in America. But most of all in Pinochle and Poker, in dancing and in Jazz, in risqué stories and everything that’s smart and up to date.

Gender Dynamics

In the Catskills and other summer retreats, the prospect of romance loomed large, inflaming passions, and roiling the search for quiet. “Our seashore pastimes are becoming artificialized and complicated and straining,” observed Brooklyn rabbi Alexander Lyons in 1915, referring to such popular resort towns as Arverne and Long Branch. “They are becoming too extensively fashionable parade places and ... matrimonial marts.” Much the same could be said of many of the adult summer camps that sprang up during the interwar period to provide affordable vacations for single men and women in their twenties.

While some adult camps like Boiberik, Lakeland, and Unity House, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union-sponsored facility, stressed their educational programming (and their older, married clientele), others, such as Camp Utopia in the Poconos or the fictitious South Wind popularized in Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar, seemed entirely given over to personal fulfillment. “Part of that vacation at camp had as its goal sex on the part of the boys and marriage on the part of the girls,” reminisced Moss Hart, who in the 1920s served as Camp Utopia’s social director. “It was a game of endless variations—a stately minuet of lying and pretense,” which often crescendoed into marriage.

Having found a mate, many married people, ironically enough, found themselves without one for much of the summer. By and large, gainfully employed middle-class and working-class men of the prewar era could not afford to take a lengthy vacation. Sending their wives and children off to the country for an entire summer, the men joined their families only on weekends, arriving with great fanfare on the Friday evening or Saturday afternoon train—the so-called husband train—and leaving in a more subdued fashion on Sunday night. In their absence, Jewish leisure society was, de facto, a gendered affair. By the sea or in the mountains, at the grandest hotel or in the most modest kochalein, women and children dominated the scene.

Other vacation spots, like those maintained by the Jewish Working Girls’ Vacation Society, practiced a deliberate form of gender segregation. Established in 1892 by Esther Jane Ruskay and Selina Greenbaum on the model of the “unsectarian” Working Girls Vacation Society, the New York organization provided affordable vacations for those least likely to afford them: single, working Jewish women. For three dollars a week, milliners, stenographers, and machine workers—over one thousand women a season—enjoyed a respite from their ordinary routine amid the “cheery hospitality” of the society’s two vacation homes, one in Bellport, Long Island, and the other in the Adirondacks. At these facilities, staffed and inhabited entirely by women, the “Jewish working girl enjoys all the advantages of mountain air or seashore.... Here her health and her pleasures are studied, her comfort provided for, and her social well-being considered.”

A proven success, the Jewish Working Girls’ Vacation Society inspired the formation of similar societies throughout the country. The Welcome House Vacation Home in Long Branch, New Jersey, for example, catered to the recently arrived immigrant woman. “These girls feel happier among themselves rather than being with English-speaking girls,” explained Carrie Wise, its director. In Chicago, the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women maintained a summer sewing school in which students capped their education with a two-week group vacation.

The Philadelphia Vacation Home for Jewish Working Girls sought to acquaint city-bred girls with the beauties of botany, giving them “a glimpse into the wonders of mother nature.” Frolicking in the surf or catching butterflies, formerly fatigued, downtrodden young women reemerged as “care-free, merry-hearted sprites.” Small wonder, then, that contemporary observers likened the Jewish Working Girls’ Vacation Society to a “truly American fairy tale.”

Several philanthropic organizations helped the underprivileged find respite from “sultry” city streets by exposing them to the cooling breezes of “marine ozone” or mountain air. “Summer Outings for the Jewish Poor,” explained the National Conference of Jewish Charities in 1904, “form an especially valuable branch of what is technically known as ‘preventive’ charity.” Claiming that “Jewish faults and failings can be traced to their being cooped up in towns,” conference officials argued for programmatically acquainting tenement residents with the joys of rural life. “You cannot pitch forth the Ghetto dweller into the country. You must lead him there by his own desire, and summer outings are one of the most effective methods of inducement.”

The “worn and fragile mother” of the ghettos came in for special consideration. “If preventive charity is to have a chance ... here is the opportunity,” settlement house workers were told. Remove the tired mother, “overburdened with care, with drudgery, with discouragement,” together with her children, to restful surroundings, and within a week, one would witness a marked physical and social improvement. “Too tired to take the journey on Monday morning ... they return home on Saturday night, rested and bright and hopeful.”

Heartened by such empirically based evidence of success and convinced that there was “probably no means by which so much happiness can be conveyed for so small expenditure,” dozens of Jewish welfare organizations such as the Educational Alliance and the Henry Street Settlement sponsored a steady round of harbor excursions, picnics in the park, and week-long trips to the country or the seashore for the urban poor.

Religious Services

Many of these philanthropically inspired facilities, attentive to the ritual requirements of their clientele, made sure a “truly Jewish spirit” reigned at their resorts. The New York Jewish Working Girls’ Vacation Society insisted that its strictly kosher meals be opened with a “short Hebrew grace” and closed with a “benediction.” Others, like Philadelphia’s Vacation Home for Jewish Working Girls, placed a premium on Friday evening services. “The festive air of lighted candles and best gowns,” an eyewitness related, “set Friday evening apart as something altogether different from the other evenings.”

Elsewhere, however, the familiar rhythms of Jewish life were sharply interrupted as many summering Jews appeared to take a vacation from God as well. “Out for a holiday time,” Jews have “thrown off all restraints of religion and of Jewish self-respect and deport themselves as though no tie bound them to race or religion,” observed one vacationer. On Friday evenings, they danced in the ballroom instead of singing zemirot at the dinner table; on Saturday, more people attended tennis matches, lawn parties, swimming contests, and horse shows than SabbathShabbat services. Not one to let this “reckless indifference” go unnoticed, Esther Jane Ruskay angrily denounced her coreligionists for their “summer resort Judaism.” Year after year, until her demise in 1911, she filled the pages of the American Hebrew with her impassioned, seasonal pleas for ritual constancy and steadfastness.

Still, laments about “summer Judaism” continued to multiply, becoming in their own way as much a summertime ritual as a two-week vacation. “Many Jews and Jewesses who are compelled to pay a considerable charge for excess baggage because of the number of gowns and hats and shoes which they feel called upon to take with them consider it an encumbrance to include also their Judaism when they leave for the summer vacations,” wrote Althea O. Silverman in the 1930s. But Judaism, she insisted, should not be discarded like a winter coat. “A garment of the soul,” Judaism was appropriate for every season. “It might be thought and felt and lived during the summer also—in the cottage, in the bungalow, in the hotel, as well as in the city home and in the Synagogue. The spirit of Judaism,” Silverman ringingly concluded, “suffers no climatic disturbances.”

Toward that end, concerned organizations like the Union of American Hebrew Congregation’s Bureau of Summer Services expended much effort to provide religious services and rabbis at summer resorts throughout Michigan and Wisconsin where “Jewish people congregate in large numbers.” Others urged the vacationing American Jew to follow the lead of his or her “Gentile neighbor,” who, spending time at a local chautauqua or a Methodist summer colony like Ocean Grove, “makes the best possible use of the summer life for religious propaganda. Wherever he goes his church goes along.” Resistant at first, Jews eventually developed summer congregations. By the 1920s, according to the United Synagogue Recorder, summer synagogues with memberships “equally divided between men and women” began to take root in resort towns everywhere.

Summer Camps

For many Jews, camp provided the best solution to the doldrums of “summer Judaism” and, by extension, the anomalies of the American Jewish experience. “American Jewish children ... do not live a natural Jewish life,” explained Shlomo Shulsinger, who, with his wife, Rivka, founded Massad Camps in the 1940s. “Radio, movies, newspapers, books, games—all the factors which go towards developing a child’s character and mode of living are far removed from Jewish realities.” At a Jewish summer camp, however, youngsters could live in an environment where Jewish culture mattered: Buildings and walkways carried the names of legendary Jewish personalities, while lively, contemporized Yiddish or Hebrew could be heard on the baseball diamond and on the outdoor stage.

Initially, Jewish summer camp was inspired more by charitable than cultural concerns. As “armies” of poor, unsupervised Jewish children took to the streets in July and August, many communal leaders such as Rabbi Maurice Lewisohn worried about their physical and moral well-being. “There is no plainer fact than the relation of the lack of recreation to moral breakdown,” he observed, adding, “recreation is not only educational, it is a moral force.”

To Lewisohn’s way of thinking, supervised play, especially in the form of a two-week stint at a summer camp, was the perfect antidote to the anomie of the slums. In the early years of the twentieth century other like-minded Jews formed a number of “philanthropically correct” summer camps where young boys, “far removed from the temptations and pettiness of city life,” learned the gentleman’s code of behavior. “Camp should become the Mecca for every young man who enjoys camping and is willing to live up to the rules,” stated William Mitchel, the director of Surprise Lake Camp in 1910.

In the years that followed, girls, too, raised their eyes toward these mountain Meccas, and began to enroll in summer camp. “Nowadays even the girls may go to a camp, though they may not live in tents,” reported the American Hebrew in 1911. Over the next two decades, as camping increasingly became an acceptable middle-class phenomenon, the number of Jewish camps catering to girls grew dramatically.

Eager to throw off their previous association with the poor, these camps made a point of stressing their affluent clientele and well-equipped campuses. Camp Jo-Lee for Girls in North Belgrade, Maine, for example, was “limited to girls from the finest American Jewish homes throughout the United States.” Meanwhile, Jo-Lee’s competitor, Camp Dunmore for Girls in Brandon, Vermont, advertised its “atmosphere of refinement” and promised to “develop the mind and body of the growing [Jewish] girl along the lines of recreational play and sports.”

Whether single sex or coeducational (increasingly “the thing to do,” reported one disgruntled camping professional in the 1930s), Jewish summer camps tended to reflect and promote gendered notions of play. Boys played basketball; girls gardened. “Boys had a lot more sports and girls a lot more culture,” recalled veteran Cejwin camper and counselor Susan Addelston.

Even popular pursuits commonly associated with Native Americans, from council ring to tracking, were experienced differently by the sexes. “Young boys,” observed Surprise Lake Camp’s longtime director Max Oppenheimer, “like to play at games in which the cunning and swiftness of the Indian is brought out.” The girls, by contrast, associated Indians with more sedentary matters. “I have good and bad news,” wrote Ruth Braude, a camper at Camp Waziyatah, to her parents in the summer of 1932, informing them that at a recent Indian council ring, green feathers were awarded for good posture, yellow feathers were distributed for fair posture, and red feathers were given out for poor posture. “I got a green feather and Hilda [her sister] got a red one. My feather is good news. Hilda’s is bad.”

With their emphasis on feathers, fun, and friendship, bygone summers inevitably yielded to new seasonal demands. Little by little, advertisements for school shoes replaced those for sandals, while the sale of seats in synagogues and temples, “the first premonition of the approach of fall,” replaced those for summer getaways. But no sooner did worshipers, bedecked in their holiday finery, exit the synagogue, their collars turned up against the autumn chill, then thoughts turned once again to the “vagaries of vacation.”


Cahan, Abraham. The Rise of David Levinsky (1917).

“The Ghetto and Summer Resorts.” American Israelite (August 20, 1903): 8.

Joselit, Jenna Weissman, and Karen S., Mittelman, eds. A Worthy Use of Summer: Jewish Summer Camping in America (1993).

Kanfer, Stefan. A Summer World (1989).

Rhine, Alice Hyneman. “Race Prejudice at Summer Resorts.” Forum (July 1887): 523–525.

Ruskay, Esther Jane. “Summer Resort Judaism.” American Hebrew (August 18, 1905): 351–352.

Wouk, Herman. Marjorie Morningstar (1955).

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How to cite this page

Joselit, Jenna Weissman. "Leisure and Recreation in the United States." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 29, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/leisure-and-recreation-in-united-states>.