On November 20, 1972, Jennie Grossinger, the woman who put her family’s New York resort-hotel on the map, died in her cottage on the hotel’s rolling grounds, at the age of 80. Though Grossinger’s has been closed for nearly 30 years, it is still remembered as the grandest of the hostelries of the Borscht Belt – the Catskill Mountains region that once served as the summer home for tens of thousands of New York City Jews.
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Jennie Grossinger was born on June 16, 1892, in Baligrod, in southeast Poland, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Her father, Asher Selig Grossinger, was from a family of former landowners, and he had become the overseer of someone else’s farm. Her mother, the former Malka Grumet, was an innkeeper’s daughter.
In 1897, Selig traveled to the United States in search of a better life. Three years later, when he thought he had found it, he brought his wife and two daughters (Lottie had been born in 1895) over to join him on New York’s Lower East Side.
At age 13, Jennie left school and began working as a button sewer in garment factory. Selig tried setting up several businesses of his own, including a small family dairy restaurant. But as his health deteriorated, he was advised to move to the country.
No green thumbs there
His first endeavor there did not go well. In 1914, Selig bought a 35-acre farm near Farmdale, in the Catskill Mountains, several hours north of the city.
Jennie was now married, to a first cousin named Harry Grossinger (also the name of Malka and Selig’s third child), but she moved up to help at the farm, while her husband remained in New York.
Within a year, it became clear that the Grossingers were not going to make a go of it in agriculture. By the first summer, they began taking in boarders at their seven-room farmhouse.
Though the building lacked plumbing or electricity, the kosher food Malka served up was a hit, and the guests appreciated the hospitable atmosphere. The first season, they cleared $81.
Hospitality is the quality noted by everyone who’s written about Grossinger’s over the years, and universally, it is Jennie who is given credit for creating the heimish feeling.
By 1919, the family had bought a new piece of ground in nearby Liberty, New York, and the resort continued to expand, until by 1931, it covered 1,300 acres (more than twice the size of the Principality of Monaco). At the peak of its success, Grossinger’s boasted an 18-hole golf course, a 1,700-seat theater (offering Borscht Belt entertainment!), and winter sports that included ski slopes covered with the first artificially made snow in the U.S.
Kashrut and slick PR
The food was strictly kosher, and no smoking was permitted in public spaces on the Sabbath, but that didn’t stop Grossinger’s by the 1940s from attracting large numbers of Gentile guests. The hotel’s slick PR campaigns drew celebrities, politicians and also offered training facilities to world-class prizefighters, starting with Barney Ross, in 1934, who wanted a training camp with kosher food.
Jennie Grossinger, whose parents died, respectively, in 1931 (Selig) and 1952 (Malka), reigned over the resort together with husband Harry, until his death in 1964, when she turned over its operation to her children, Paul and Elaine.
Much of Jennie’s fame revolved around her philanthropy, which ranged from the millions of dollars in war bonds she sold during World War II, to the hospital whose construction she funded in Israel. During the war, she gave away more than 3,500 five-day visits to Grossinger’s to servicemen, and she also was savvy enough to agree to the suggestion of offering a free honeymoon stay to any couple that had met at Grossinger’s.
One can only imagine what Jennie Grossinger would have thought had she known that a mere three years after death, her hotel would turn away, without so much as a crust of bread or thimbleful of water, a group of hungry teenagers from Camp Shomria, in nearby Liberty, who had been sent off to fend for themselves for 24 hours on Survival Day.