The great Passover strike of '77

February 26, 2006
 By Barry Lewis
 Times Herald-Record
 'My family used to go there."

"I worked up there."

"We spent every summer there."

I hear that all the time. Right after I tell someone I live in Sullivan County.

It doesn't matter - big-time politicians, hot-shot developers or the person I just happened to bump into while touring another state. They all wear the memory like a badge of honor.

As if they'd passed some initiation where they had to show off the secret handshake.

Yeah, they've been to the Catskills.

Then they smile. And you can practically see the projector rolling in their minds, flashing home movies of those summer trips when they left Jersey and the City and took the Quickway up to the Mountains, stopping for a midway bathroom break at the always-open Red Apple Rest.

It might have been a one-time weekend getaway. The same few days at the end of July. A whole summer at the bungalow colony.

Doesn't matter.

They were here.

And they can't wait to tell me about their time spent in what was affectionately known as the Borscht Belt. To share a moment that is as much a part of their life as the day they got married or the birth of their child.

And they wonder.

Whatever happened to those waiters and busboys?

To the kid they bunked with for two straight summers? To the girl they played spin-the-bottle with behind the casino? To the family who was in the next bungalow year after year?

It was their life, and it's forever part of their history.

It's what makes this place so special. It connects with generations who saw the Catskills as their only affordable escape from the sweltering summer sun that would lay claim to tar beach. A place where you could feel a cool breeze in August, which, for apartment dwellers, was like finding a pool in the desert.

You couldn't drive a quarter of a mile without coming across another hotel.

Another bungalow colony. Another sleep-away camp.

I, too, was a summer-in-Sullivan child, a lucky kid who for two months left Brooklyn with his family for the shores of Loch Sheldrake and, later, Swan Lake.

The history I long to share with future generations isn't just about the mahjong games by the outdoor pool, bingo in the lobby or color war at camp.

It's a story that in the annals of time will forever be known as the great Shady Nook Passover strike of 1977, when the daring dining-room staff of this classic old-time Catskill resort threatened not to serve another bowl of borscht unless there was heat in the staff quarters.

Having already spent one frigid sleepless-in-Sheldrake night wearing my parka and every other piece of clothing I'd brought from home, I was quick to join my brethren busboys in our labor dispute.

After all, we're talking early April in Sullivan County.

There was snow on the ground.

A bunch of city kids. What did we know about snow in April?

We even had snow in our staff quarters. That turned out to be a mixed blessing, in that it was so cold even the mice and roaches wouldn't stay with us.

At stake: the real possibility of hundreds of aging hotel guests being locked away for 10 days without brisket, without Sanka and without stewed prunes.

Could these waiters and busboys, nothing more than high school kids and college freshmen, walk away from the potential hundreds of dollars in Passover tips and give up sure summer jobs?

And walk where?

You can't just hail a cab or take the D train back to Brooklyn.

On the flip side, how long could hotel management keep telling guests they'll open the dining room as soon as the floor dries?

On the second night we took our sit-in to the lobby and slept under the fake palm trees.

One of my guests, an early riser, saw me sleeping on the couch and started to shake me.

Did he ask why I was sleeping in the hotel lobby?

Did he ask if I was all right?

If you worked the mountains, you knew what he asked.

"Could you bring me some buttermilk? And a few prunes."

Eventually, we all got moved to guest rooms with heat, hotel owner Jack Barron got his dining room staff back, and all the guests got enough food in their system to last another year.

I got my tip money.

And a dozen white shirts that I no longer could wear because they all had red borscht stains on the right shoulder. From the trays.

I also got my first glimpse of my future wife and stories that I've cherished for nearly 30 years.

And that was after just 10 days in the Catskills.


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