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What’s a Tummler? Your Guide to Mrs. Maisel’s Best Catskills References

Photo: Amazon Studios

Spoiler alert: This article contains details from episodes four, five, and six of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season two.

If you weren’t familiar with the Catskill Mountains and its history as a Jewish vacation haven prior to viewing season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, then the three episodes of the Emmy-winning comedy series set in upstate New York may have served up a walloping case of culture shock. While Maisel is certainly not the first time this now-bygone world where affluent Jews “got away from it all” has been depicted onscreen — films like Dirty Dancing and A Walk on the Moon also covered this mid-20th-century period — the Catskills are such a prominent character in the second season that it’s understandable if you need an explanation of some of the more arcane references featured.

From episodes four to six, which are set in summer 1959, aspiring stand-up comic Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) and her family leave the steamy streets of New York City for the cooler climes of the all-inclusive Steiner Mountain Resort. (While Steiner itself is fictional, the Maisel production team did shoot the vacation scenes at this old-school resort in Deposit, New York.) At Steiner, Midge and her fellow “Steinerites” bask in the seemingly unlimited activities, food, Yiddishisms, and available single men — all of which were commonplace at these sprawling holiday camps.

“We felt that was an important part of the cultural history of Jews, just in general,” Maisel executive producer Daniel Palladino (who wrote and directed two out of the three Catskills-set episodes) told Variety. “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.” For some cast members, shooting these scenes had them strolling through their own family history: “My mother spent every summer in the Catskills,” Michael Zegen, who plays Midge’s estranged husband, Joel, told The Hollywood Reporter. “So it was special for me to relive her experiences.”

One thing that is not discussed in the Maisel episodes, however — other than a sardonic joke made by Zachary Levi’s character, Dr. Benjamin Ettenberg, about a “twilight meeting of Holocaust survivors” in “We’re Going to the Catskills!” — is the genesis of these resorts, and why they were populated almost entirely by Jews. These locations initially grew out of the widespread accepted anti-Semitism in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. But even by 1959, with Jewish assimilation rising and restrictions on hotels declining, it was clear that Steiner’s heyday was coming to a close. While many businesses limped on over the next few decades, by the 21st century, most of these onetime palatial resorts had been reduced to abandoned ruins.

As someone who is the product of parents who met in “the Mountains” and who spent nearly 15 years celebrating Passover at either Grossinger’s, the Raleigh, or the Concord, I think Maisel creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, whose comedian father worked the Catskills circuit, has done an excellent job re-creating this brief, nearly forgotten time in American Jewish history. But for those who may need a bit of a primer on some of the more prominent Catskills references featured in the current season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, we’ve got you covered.

Reference: “The Borscht Belt”
Mentioned by: Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby)
Episode: Five, “Midnight at the Concord”

“The Borscht Belt” was a colloquial term used to describe the all-encompassing Jewish resort area of the Catskill Mountains, named after the classic Russian beet soup regularly found on the menu of the popular hotels. (To me, it always looked like a giant glass of Pepto-Bismol whenever my relatives would order it, but, to each their own.) It’s also not surprising that the phrase is employed by Midge’s comedy mentor, because not only were the Catskills a vacation site, they were also a training ground for aspiring stand-ups like Bruce himself, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield — and now, Mrs. Maisel.

Reference: A “tummler”
Mentioned by: Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub)
Episode: Six, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”

We only hear the Yiddish term for someone who “stirs up tumult and excitement” once in Maisel, to describe a roving card-trick magician with horribly bad timing, but in actuality, the real “tummler” for all three of the Catskills episodes is Buzz Goldberg (Brandon Uranowitz). In his role as Steiner social director, Buzz — never seen without a whistle around his neck — is in charge of mandatory fun, be it hosting the annual beauty pageant, the end-of-the-year show, or the most competitive version of “Simon Says” this side of the Hudson River.

Reference: The Concord
Mentioned by: Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) and Midge Maisel
Episode: Five, “Midnight at the Concord”

The fact that Midge’s plunger-toting manager scored her a 12 a.m. blue gig at the Concord is a huge coup within the Borscht Belt firmament. Not only is it the biggest room Midge has ever played, but the Concord, which closed in 1998, was once one of the grandest hotels in the area. (While I never experienced its golden years, I did spend a decent amount of time there in the 1980s and 1990s.) The resort can also claim Barbra Streisand, Bob Hope, Ethel Merman, Jay Leno, and Jerry Seinfeld as former headliners.

Reference: The “giant portions of food”
Mentioned by: Midge Maisel
Episode: Five, “Midnight at the Concord”

Mrs. Maisel fits in very nicely on the Catskills comedy circuit because she knows her audience: Girl opens her Concord set with a bunch of jokes about the 24-hour food availability at the Borscht Belt resorts. While I can personally attest that everything she says about the meals is absolutely true (and, yes, the comics would still be riffing on this topic 30-plus years after Midge did), you don’t have to take my word for it. In the below video, comedian Freddie Roman (who also garners a mention by Susie in “Midnight at the Concord”) talks about how at your average hotel, “the menu lists seven juices, a choice of four soups, four appetizers, seven main courses, and eight desserts — and if you want one of each, you can have them.”

Reference: Card games and mahjong
Prominently featuring: Benjamin Ettenberg (Zachary Levi) and Shirley Maisel (Caroline Aaron)
Episodes: Four, “We’re Going to the Catskills!” and Six, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”

One of my biggest memories of time spent at these resorts is of the games room, where elderly men and women (but especially women) would spend hours on end kibitzing over either cards or mahjong tiles. In episode four, Midge yanks vacationing doctor Benjamin away from his “cribbage with the bubbes” game for a forced boating excursion. Whereas Shirley Maisel, a.k.a. Midge’s loudmouthed mother-in-law, has such an addiction to mahjong that she boasts of her ability to play for “14, 15, 16 hours” on end in the sixth episode. Now, while Shirley may know how to come back from a $1,200 loss (that’s the equivalent of $10,000 in 2018), I still wouldn’t advise that she go up against Eleanor Young or Rachel Chu anytime soon.

Reference: Matchmaking
Prominently featuring: Rose Weissman (Marin Hinkle) and Midge Maisel
Episode: Four, “We’re Going to the Catskills!”

If you were young and single in the Catskills in 1959, you were looking for a husband — unless you were Midge Maisel. And if you were Midge Maisel, then it was Rose Weissman who voluntarily took up the cause of her daughter’s unattached status. Matchmaking was an activity as popular as shuffleboard or bingo in the Borscht Belt, as evidenced by not only Rose, whose hard sell of Benjamin Ettenberg extends through multiple scenes in the fourth episode, but Midge as well. To be fair, Midge didn’t come to the Catskills to channel her inner Dolly Levi, but when asked to set up a pair of kids during a Steiner dance challenge, she’s happy to oblige.

Reference: Phil Foster
Prominently featuring: Entire main cast
Episode: Six, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”

The surprise performer at the Steiner end-of-summer spectacular, comedian Phil Foster (played by Brad Heller), was an actual Borscht Belt stand-up vet. In real life, Foster eventually became known as the guy who played Laverne DeFazio’s father on Laverne & Shirley, but in the Maisel universe, he’s the source of a pointed question directed to Midge by her father, Abe, who recently learned of her own nightclub career: “Are you as funny as him?” Not that Midge needs to dignify that question with an answer, but we all know she’s right when she responds with a resounding “yes.”

What’s a Tummler? Mrs. Maisel’s Best Catskills References