The Jewish Travel Guide That Inspired the Green Book

From a Washington Post story by Jess McHugh headlined “The Jewish travel guide that inspired the Green Book”:

Fearing that her land would be seized as World War I approached, Austrian-born Pessah “Pearl” Ravitz fled to New York City to start a new life. She had imagined New York as a place of promise, ripe with opportunity for a resourceful woman such as herself. The city was quick to disappoint. Ravitz was met with discrimination because of her Jewish identity, and life in the metropolis was stifling….

“They came to this country looking for the streets paved with gold, but what they got was a lot of antisemitism,” said Alan Kook, her great-great-grandson.

Ravitz managed to buy land not far away in Pennsylvania and began to re-create the life she had enjoyed in Austria, where she had owned a successful farm and supplemented her income in the winter by taking in traveling circus troupes as boarders. In Pennsylvania, too, she put up boarders in the summer, welcoming friends and friends of friends looking for relief from the city heat. She would cook and entertain, styling the farm as a mountain getaway.

Ravitz was one of thousands of Jewish farmers who thrived with this hybrid farm-inn model in early 20th-century America. More than 1 million Jews had immigrated to the United States by 1924, with many clustering around New York City. Working-class Jews living in cramped tenement houses were keen to escape to the countryside in the summer, but many hotels explicitly forbade Jewish guests. This is how people like Ravitz — and many others, scattered around the Catskills, Connecticut and New Jersey — came to run thriving boarding businesses. Some would eventually give up farming to expand their hotels.

The Jewish Vacation Guide, first published around 1916, compiled these addresses, alongside a whole network of Jewish-owned or Jewish-friendly places where it was safe to for Jews to eat, sleep and visit. This guide, and other travel advice like it published in the Yiddish press, served as a vital tool in navigating the potential danger of Jewish travel in early America. It went on to inspire the “Green Book,” a widely used guide for Black travelers.

Antisemitism was widespread in 20th-century America. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan saw a major resurgence in the 1920s, with estimates ranging from 3 million to as many as 8 million members nationwide. While the KKK overwhelmingly targeted Black Americans, Jews also faced frequent discrimination. “No Hebrews or Consumptives Accepted” read many hotel advertisements in the first quarter of the 20th century. “Gentiles only” appeared in hospitality advertising, as did “Christian clientele only.” A study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 1957 found that virtually every state had hotels and resorts that barred Jews.

The Jewish Vacation Guide connected Jews to a network of places that did not just tolerate, but welcomed them. Dozens of the listings touted kosher meals, often made with farm-fresh butter and eggs. The conditions at some of the rented rooms were far from luxurious, but they made up for modest offerings in hospitality and affordability.

One farmhouse advertisement promised: “You will be made to feel at home.” The majority of the listings were written in Yiddish, given that many Jewish Americans were immigrants or the children of immigrants whose primary language was Yiddish.

Many of the properties were concentrated in the Catskill Mountains. “This is the genesis of the Catskills as a Jewish vacation region. It really started as a grass-roots thing: people from the city who wanted to get out of the city during the summer,” said Eddy Portnoy, academic adviser at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. “When Jewish farmers realized this could be a lucrative prospect, they began re-creating their own houses as boardinghouses, or even building extra houses on their properties.” The vacation guide itself was published by the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America.

While many of the properties in the guide were mom-and-pop affairs, by 1917 some of the farmhouses had begun to transform into resorts. “The Grand Mountain House” in Sullivan County, N.Y. advertised itself as a “country summer home with all the up-to-date city conveniences,” including an orchestra, a casino, billiards, tennis, baseball and a professional chef.

The success of these hotels, thanks in part to the guide, soared in the following decades. The Catskills became a vacation hot spot. Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, which was one of the most successful resorts in the region for decades, began as a dilapidated barn in the 1910s. It transformed into a sprawling 1,200-acre, 35-building resort, complete with dancing, sports, lakes and its own airstrip. Grossinger’s hosted Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding.

The guide contained not only hotel listings but everything one might need on a vacation: automobile repair, drugstores, grocers, tailors, cobblers and a Kodak photography studio. Traveling safely was about more than just finding a welcoming hotel. It meant preparing for many possible contingencies: No one wants to find himself with a broken-down car in the mountains, only to be refused service at a garage.

This type of scenario — refusal of service, or even violent reprisal — was a serious concern in Jim Crow-era America, and it inspired the postman Victor Hugo Green to write a similar guide for Black people. In the introduction to his “Negro Motorist Green Book,” Green credited Jewish guides for serving as a template for his book, noting that “the Jewish press” had “long printed information about places that are restricted.” First published in 1936, the Green Book similarly listed hotels, restaurants, mechanics, barbershops and nightclubs.

Travel generally carried a much higher risk for Black people than for Jews. As the book’s cover warned: “Carry your Green Book with you … you may need it … ” Black motorists risked exclusion from “Whites only” spaces, police harassment, physical violence and lynching. “While we might be inclined to make analogies between antisemitism and anti-Black racism, it’s important to identify where those analogies end,” said Eli Rosenblatt, an assistant professor of religious studies at Northwestern University. “Jews who were predominantly of European origin at the time availed themselves of spaces for Whites only.”

Both guides would eventually become obsolete. In 1967, three years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Green Book ceased publication. It’s not clear when the Jewish Vacation Guide stopped being published, but for Jewish travelers, the expansion of the Catskills into a sought-after travel destination in the mid-century meant that they had their pick of hotels much sooner.

When Black and Jewish Americans both faced frequent discrimination in accommodations, they sometimes opened their doors to one another. In the early 1950s, Grossinger’s invited Jackie Robinson, the first Black man to play major league baseball, to stay for the summer. Grossinger’s, which started off as a ramshackle farm offering relief from city stress and antisemitism, had grown into an oasis. The Grossinger family extended the feeling of “heimish” — what Portnoy described as a homey coziness — to a man battling constant discrimination and harassment.

“I doubt that she [Jennie Grossinger] knew or could have fully appreciated how important the invitation was to Jack and me in the early Fifties,” Robinson’s wife, Rachel, wrote in her memoir. For their family, there were few hotels “to rival the Big G.”

Jess McHugh is an author and journalist. Her book “Americanon,” a history of U.S. bestsellers, was published in 2021.

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