We’re going to break down every moment. But first, some history: Beginning in the 1920s, and lasting through the 1970s, the Catskills were once a major vacation destination for American Jews. Jewish families from New York fled the sweltering city for the relative cool provided by a mountain climate — and the social scene was hopping, too. As one writer explains, the Catskills were “the lifeline of millions of members of the local Jewish community, the embodiment of the American Dream, and the place that no successful businessman or famous entertainer, whether Jewish or not, could allow himself to skip.”
The resorts where they stayed, nicknamed the Borscht Belt after Ashkenazi Jews’ affinity for the beet soup, became a staple of New York Jewish culture. It only makes sense that this iconic locale got its due in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
“The Catskills was the getaway,” Amy Sherman-Palladino, the show’s creator, explained. “It’s just really interesting that there were 500 hotels and hundreds of thousands of people congregating in these hotels for two months. They were the cruise ships of their day.”
Let’s dive into what made the Catskills episodes of season two (Episode 4, 5, and 6) work so well:
Production designer Bill Groom explained they spent “extensive time” scouting for this location, because so much has changed in the Catskills since the time period that Maisel is set in. As am New York writes, “Groom says he chose the resort for its virtually untouched layout, which included individual family cottages and a private lake, a specific ask from Sherman-Palladino.”
There was so much that was visually *delicious* (for lack of a better word) about these episodes, and I think a lot of that comes down to the production design. From the cabin where Midge and her family stays, to the scenes at the lake, to really just every single backdrop — they were beautiful!
The costumes in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are amazing, but the ones in the Catskills are particularly divine. Before we even get to the Catskills, we witness how Midge and Rose are packing like they’re leaving New York forever:
And then, once we arrive, Midge’s outfits keep getting better and better:
Notably, her outfit when she’s on the boat with Benjamin was one of favorites of Maisel‘s costume designer Donna Zakowska. Zakowska explained to Vulture, “The costume really mixes the period and is true to the period, but also captures the humor of it and absurdity. When [Benjamin] is sitting across from the boat looking at her he’s like, Oh my God.”
And it’s not just Midge’s — every person in every scene is perfectly outfitted for summer at the resort. Take the scene when she’s gossiping with friends:
The colors!! The historically accurate (I assume) necklines!
Plus, we can’t talk about the Catskills costumes without mentioning Abe’s workout romper.
Designed specifically for Tony Shalhoub (the actor who plays Abe), Zakowska modeled the romper on exercise clothing of the time.
The costume actually helped Shalhoub understand his character better. As he told Vulture: “I’m not just the guy in the suit in the classroom. I’m not just the guy sitting in my den reading in my cardigan sweater. I’m also the guy who exercises in a onesie at sunup on the dock.”
Led by an enthusiastic activities director — also called a “tummler,” which is Yiddish for someone who “stirs up tumult and excitement” — named Buzz Goldberg (Brandon Uranowitz), the activities are spot-on for the Catskills of the 1950s.
As one recapper pointed out, Buzz is most likely modeled on “Catskills legend” Lou Goldstein. As his New York Times obituary reads, “Lou Goldstein was the consummate tummler, one of a zany species of entertainer who kept them laughing, or tried to, long ago in the borscht belt hotels of the Catskills…. But Mr. Goldstein was more than a tummler. He was also probably the most famous impresario of Simon Says.”
Goldstein’s “forte became the Simon Says routines. (He spelled it Simon Sez.) Contestants stayed in the game as long as they did only what Simon told them to do, of course, and Mr. Goldstein, with a rapid-fire delivery, was masterly at tricking them into doing what Simon had actually kept mum about.”
The Catskills episodes also showcase a wide variety of activities: stargazing, bird watching, ping-pong, boating, biking, and more. It’s an authentic representation of what Jews actually did on their summer vacations.
This is minor, but I think very critical to the world-building of the Catskills scenes. In the background, you can hear various announcements at Steiner resort.
My favorite? “Attention, Mrs. Greenstein, Mr. Greenstein will wait five more minutes, but that’s it.”
It just absurd and ridiculous and makes perfect sense that a Jewish man named Mr. Greenstein is fed up waiting for his wife.
Okay, this isn’t a general Catskills thing, but I need to end my love for the Catskill episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to write about my favorite person in these episodes: Shirley Maisel, Joel’s mom and Midge’s mother-in-law.
Shirley is your typical overbearing Jewish bubbe, and while you could critique her character as a stereotype, the actress who plays Shirley, Caroline Aaron, brings a joy and personality to the character.
“Who would bring Cossacks into a room full of Jews?” she asks, outraged at the resort’s final show of the season that includes people from around the world.
And in the best exchange, Joel tells her to take her coat off. Shirley refuses.
She’s complaining about being too hot, but if she takes it off, she’ll be too cold. The classic dilemma faced by Jewish women everywhere.
After a discussion about Joel meeting someone new, he compliments his mother, telling her she looks nice in the coat.
Her response? “But do I look rich?”
Shirley, keep doing you.