Think it’s hot now? At least there’s air conditioning to keep you focused. American Jews of 100 years ago weren’t so lucky; summer without cooling often meant that it was much too hot to sit and pray comfortably in synagogue. Instead, those who could afford it left their homes for lengthy vacations, during which they apparently forgot their sober communal responsibilities and . . . had fun. This was apparently such a problem that it was given a name—“summer Judaism”—and “gave rise to considerable soul-searching about the nature of faith and the limits of community,” in the words of the historian Jenna Weissman Joselit.
Growing affluence, along with the heightened acceptability of leisure as a social value, enabled thousands of American Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to abandon the city in favor of the countryside or the seashore. Up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest, too—from Kennebunkport, Maine, to Waupaca, Wisconsin—they joined existing communities, formed their own, or frequented a hotel. No matter their destination, a light-hearted, carefree “summer atmosphere” prevailed.
Forsaking responsibility for fun, American Jews threw themselves with glee and relish into the pursuit of pleasure. “The feeding and pampering of the body [is] the only and exclusive concern of these summer resorts,” observed Dr. Max Raisin in 1916. “There is altogether too much gaudiness in dress among the women and among men and women alike too great an indulgence in rich food and in the giddy social whirl with its dances and picnics.”
Dances and picnics—and more:
Anyone familiar with Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, several chapters of which are set in a Catskills hotel in the years prior to World War I, will recall his pointed description of how the space reserved for praying also doubled as a card room, blurring the line between the sacred and profane without so much as a raised eyebrow. No sooner had Sabbath morning services concluded than the ark was whisked away, replaced by tables, chairs, and other trappings of a casino. To add insult to injury, card games drew a capacity crowd; religious services barely mustered a minyan.
This was too much—something had to be done. But what? “Once it became increasingly clear that a concerted, institutional response to the ‘summer problem’ was warranted, the Central Conference of American Rabbis took matters in hand and in 1908 formed the Committee on Divine Services at Summer Resorts.” Other efforts included the Reform movement’s creation of a Bureau of Summer Services whose staff
worked hard throughout the year to ensure, come the summer, that no community would go without a rabbi and Sabbath services. The bureau’s “strenuous efforts” paid off. By 1915, according to carefully assembled statistics, 45 rabbis and laymen held 176 services in 29 places, nearly triple the number of five years earlier.