- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Nearly 100 years ago, the Jewish Agricultural Society helped Morris and Belle Fidelman purchase a fruit orchard in South Haven, Mich., and the barber and his wife soon moved their young family to 80 acres in the country.

Friends and family members they left behind in Chicago often visited in the summer, contributing money for seeds and equipment. The hospitality business soon proved more profitable than the fruit.

By 1930, the farmhouse was replaced with a building that could accommodate 150 guests, and Fidelman’s became one of the many Jewish resorts that drew thousands every year to South Haven, known as the “Catskills of the Midwest.”

The story of Fidelman’s — and similar resorts and hotels in Atlantic City, N.J.; Miami Beach; and the Catskill Mountains of New York — is told in “The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity and the Jewish-American Dream,” an exhibit at Chicago’s Spertus Museum through June 4.

“Our logo was ‘80 acres of Instant Happiness.’ That was on all of our fliers and our brochures and even our matchbook covers,” Sheila Fidelman said at a recent reception for the show.

The petite Mrs. Fidelman — still glammed up at age 81 and wearing high heels — served as a dance teacher, singer, hostess and secretary at the resort begun by her in-laws and owned by the family until 1985.

The exhibit is colorful and bright, filled with photos, postcards, tacky souvenirs, memorabilia and clothing, such as a modest wool bathing suit from the 1920s and a red negligee taken by a woman on her 1948 honeymoon — but never worn because she deemed it too racy.

A highlight is a rare wicker rolling chair used to roll tourists along the Atlantic City boardwalk in the 1880s.

Throughout the exhibit are reminders of why many of the traditionally Jewish vacation destinations were created: anti-Semitism.

The exhibit includes a photo of a vacationer posing in front of a “Gentiles Only” sign. “Catering to a Gentile clientele,” reads a matchbook cover for a Miami Beach hotel. A 1938 newspaper placement advertises “restricted clientele,” and a postcard for a Michigan resort informs readers, “No Hebrews entertained.”

Restrictive real estate covenants forced Jewish families to buy on the southern edge of Miami Beach in the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in the development of the South Beach area.

Meanwhile, wealthy German Jewish families were welcome initially in the Catskills in the 1870s, but as the Jewish population in America soared with immigration from Eastern Europe, many hotels closed their doors to Jewish guests.

So Jewish entrepreneurs built elaborate resorts in the area as close as 90 miles from New York City. Jewish immigrants moved to the area to try farming but, like the Fidelman family in the Midwest, ended up taking in boarders instead. Socialist workers groups opened up bungalow colonies and children’s camps.

The result was a wide range of options for Jewish tourists, who often returned to the same spot year after year, says Melissa Martens, a curator at Baltimore’s Jewish Museum of Maryland, which organized the show.

“Some hotels might be seemingly very mainstream and might help fulfill American notions of equality and democracy and having made it, while other hotels might be a place where everybody speaks Yiddish or everybody speaks German, or there might be a synagogue on the premises or a visiting rabbi,” Miss Martens says.

“The Catskills becomes an incubator for Jewish-American culture because it was like a Jewish Brigadoon in the mountains where people could go and be as Jewish as they wanted or they could be as American as they wanted and there would probably be a hotel that suited them perfectly.”

As air travel became less expensive and middle-class families became less dependent on destinations located within driving distance, the vacation patterns of Jewish travelers — like those of all American tourists — changed in the 1950s and 1960s, Miss Martens says.

So a portion of the exhibit is dedicated to so-called heritage tourism, trips in which Jews journey to places such as New York City, Europe and Israel to explore Jewish history and culture.

Miss Martens credits the popularity of such trips to the interest in genealogy ignited by the miniseries “Roots” in the 1970s and even Hollywood movies such as “Schindler’s List” and “Exodus.” Such experiences can range from taking a side trip to see a historic synagogue during a Paris vacation to organizing a whole itinerary around historic Jewish sites.

“Once you have the freedom to go wherever you want, you also want to be able to exercise the option of having a Jewish vacation or reconnecting with the past,” Miss Martens says.

Beginning in July, “The Other Promised Land” will be on exhibit for six months at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

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