Exhibit looks at how vacation spots reflect, shape Jewish America

Suitcases, photos, souvenirs and clothing are on display in "The Other Promised Land," a new exhibit in Chicago.

vacation exhibit 88.298 (photo credit: )
vacation exhibit 88.298
(photo credit: )
Nearly 100 years ago, the Jewish Agricultural Society helped Morris and Belle Fidelman purchase a fruit orchard in South Haven, Michigan, and the barber and his wife soon moved their young family to 300 dunams in the country. Yet 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, Miami Beach and the Catskills - is told in "The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity and the Jewish-American Dream," an exhibit on view at the Spertus Museum. "Our logo was 80 acres of Instant Happiness. That was on all of our flyers and our brochures and even our matchbook covers," said Sheila Fidelman at a recent reception for the show. The petite 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. But throughout the exhibit are reminders of why many of these traditionally Jewish vacation destinations were created in the first place: 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," while a postcard for a Michigan resort informs readers, "No Hebrews entertained." Restrictive real estate covenants forced Jewish families to buy in 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 initially welcome 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 145 kilometers 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 worker's 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, said Melissa Martens, a curator at the 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," Martens said. "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 middleclass families were less dependent on destinations located within driving distance, the vacation patterns of Jewish travelers - like all American tourists - changed in the 1950s and 1960s, Martens said. So a portion of the exhibit is dedicated to so-called "Heritage Tourism," trips in which Jews journey to places like New York City, Europe and Israel to explore Jewish history and culture. Martens credits the popularity of such trips to the genealogy craze ignited by the miniseries Roots in the 1970s and even Hollywood movies such as Schindler's List and Exodus. Such experiences can range from 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," Martens said. "The Other Promised Land" will be on view at Spertus through June 4. Beginning in July, it will be on exhibit for six months at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. After that the show will likely appear at other museums and galleries, although none have been finalized yet. Other museums will be given the chance to localize the show, Martens said, as Spertus did with its inclusion of Jewish resorts and summer camps in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.