Of all the things that made us modern—industrialization, gender equality, an expansive understanding of civil rights—the transformation of the ocean from a fearsome place into a frolicsome one ranks high on the list. By the mid-19th century, first in the Old World and then, a bit later, in the New, those with the means and the inclination to take a summer vacation increasingly sought out the sea.
Resort communities sprang up to meet the demand, giving rise to the leisure economy and with it, the grand hotel, whose luxurious amenities were an attraction in and of themselves. From Brighton on the English coast to the Riviera in the south of France, the pursuit of seaside fun became de rigueur among Europeans with deep pockets and time on their hands.
Americans caught the bug, too. Seeking a release from the horrors of the Civil War and abetted by a spurt of postwar prosperity as well as an enhanced railway system, the well-heeled of the Gilded Age took to vacationing by the sea with a vengeance: Conjure up images of Newport, Rhode Island, and you’ll understand what they wrought.
It didn’t take long, though, before the appeal of what one historian calls “water-based tourism” also took hold of the lower and middle classes. A month-long stint at a grand hotel may have eluded them, but a day at the beach or by the bay was well within reach: Welcome to New York’s Coney Island, the Jersey Shore, and Maryland’s Tolchester Beach, where letting go was celebrated rather than condemned.
Immigrant Jews were among those thronging the subway, the railroad, and the steamship in search of “summer pleasuring,” prompting the American Hebrew to observe as early as July 1880 that “our own peculiar people are conspicuous by their presence … the Hebrew knows what are the good things in life and loves to enjoy them.”
Some contemporary observers thought the Jews enjoyed themselves a bit too much. Taking in the sights of Atlantic City, the “Queen of Seaside Resorts,” in 1921, Senator Hiram Johnson of California could not contain his consternation at the sight of so many Jews noisily, hungrily at play on the city’s fabled boardwalk, in its restaurants, and at its hotels: “Everywhere, and in everything, the Israelite predominated.” Some of their number, he was quick to point out in a letter to his sons, were the “sort we know, the rich, assertive, self-sufficient.” Others, he shuddered, were not our kind. “They were the short, swarthy men, the squatty, dumpy women and the innumerable daughters, at an early age bursting into overblown maturity … oh, how many of them!”
Johnson’s animadversions were not solely his own; in fact, they were widely shared, so much so that many hotel owners, including the proprietors of the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall in Atlantic City—whose guests, it was said, enjoyed fine food and “friendly treatment”—closed their doors to “summering Jews,” claiming there was simply no room at the inn. Other hoteliers sought to discourage them from even thinking of making a reservation by publicly advertising a “restricted clientele” in their promotional brochures, or, more subtly, yet effectively, still, by indicating the presence of nearby churches.
America’s Jews got the message—and wasted no time in forming their own summer colonies, or “Jewish settlements,” where little, apart from the composition of their clientele, distinguished them from any other seaside resort. Residents of Long Branch, New Jersey, and Far Rockaway, Long Island, to name just two of the most heavily frequented Jewish summer enclaves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gave themselves over, body and soul, to the summer’s “curriculum of amusement.”
Jewish newspapers took note of the goings-on within these Jewish summer colonies. Sometimes they merely reported on who came and went, hosted a tennis match, or sponsored a luncheon. Now and again, they weighed in, too, underscoring the high stakes of an exclusively Jewish environment, especially one predicated on pleasure. In a 1908 piece titled “The Jews of Far Rockaway,” the American Hebrew put it this way: “One wonders why Zionists talk about going to Palestine in order to be at home. The sand beneath your feet is, to be sure, American soil, but a chemist or geologist would probably be unable to find a national characteristic in it, to distinguish it from Palestinian sand.”
Without saying so in as many words, the paper’s observation, a poke in the ribs if ever there was one, raised the possibility that America’s Jews had no need for Zion when the Promised Land could be found just an hour or two away from midtown Manhattan—in Far Rockaway.
“You will like Tel Aviv,” an affable elderly gentleman told the celebrated author, Ludwig Lewisohn, shortly before he was to embark on a trip to the world’s first Jewish city, in the early 1920s. “It’s like Far Rockaway.”
Although Lewisohn bristled at the comparison—Tel Aviv, he subsequently related in his 1925 book, Israel, was “not a city of refuge”—there was no gainsaying the “magic of the ever-present sea” or the ways in which the seaside settlement “glows with life.”
In the years that followed, with the establishment of the Zionist Information Bureau for Tourists in Palestine, a new kind of traveler was encouraged to visit the country: not the pilgrim of yore, the seeker of holy sites, but “Zionist tourists,” eager to see for themselves the “progressive upbuilding of the Jewish National Home.”
Minimizing antiquity in favor of modernity, itineraries of the “New Palestine” placed a premium on visits to the recently established agricultural settlements and, most emphatically, to Tel Aviv. “To the pilgrim and the archaeological student, Palestine is a land of undying interest. But this is not all. Palestine is also a land of sunshine, of the blue sky, of the starlit night, of the gentle breeze,” observed one of their number, Samuel Sharnopolsky’s 1936 Guide to Palestine.
Nowhere was the sun brighter, the breezes softer, the beaches more inviting and health-inducing, or the hotels, with their ocean views, more modern than in Tel Aviv, that self-proclaimed “Riviera of the Jews,” whose sidewalk cafes and “latest beach equipment make one all but forget that one is in ancient Palestine.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.