The Borscht Belt - The Jewish Alps - The Catskills

It was the highlight of the year - our getaway to the Borscht Belt. There would be a group of families, cousins, and friends of my parents, and we would pile into cars and reassemble at the agreed-upon location that year - either The Concord, The Nevele, Fallsview, or Kutschers. We only went for a few days, not the entire summer like in "Dirty Dancing" or "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel", but to us, it seemed like a decadent dream. It was the 1960's, the food was endless, as were the activities and entertainment. The adults would get all dressed up to go out for an evening of comedy, music, and dancing, and pile all of us kids into one room with the oldest cousin in charge.

And it just so happens that I wound up living here in The Catskills. I have driven by the derelict sites of the old hotels that had hoped to become Casinos and Convention Centers and the bungalow colonies that did become Hasidic summer camps. Out of curiosity, I did a little research into the history of the "Jewish Alps".
Borsht Belt, Catskills
The Catskills had been a resort area for Gentiles in the 19th century. As Eastern European Jews immigrated in the early 20th century, some became farmers in the area. As their urban peers became more prosperous, they looked to do something they could never have imagined doing in the old country: take a vacation. In the 1920s and into the 1930s, however, some hotels and resorts' advertisements refused to accept Jews and indicated "No Hebrews or Consumptives" in their ads. This issue led to a need for alternatives that would readily accept Jewish families as guests. So the Jewish farmers began taking on boarders. Their boarding houses morphed into small hotels and bungalow colonies, hence the Borscht Belt was born.

The big resorts — like Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s, the Concord, and the Nevele were pioneers of the "all-inclusive vacation,” offering three meals a day, snacks, entertainment, child care, sports facilities - plus a knish to die for. At the hotels, food was of primary importance and there was a sense that "too much was not enough". And in the Catskills, the food seemed limitless.
The Catskills Borscht Belt
The entertainment was first-rate. Musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Dean Martin, and comics Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Seinfeld all toured the hotels. Many unknowns who later became famous worked at the resorts, including Mel Brooks, Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, and Red Buttons. Wilt Chamberlain, of NBA basketball fame, was a bellhop at Kutsher’s in the 1950s.

In its heyday, as many as 500 resorts catered to guests of various incomes. These resorts, but also the bungalow colonies, were a popular vacation spot for New York City Jews from the 1920s through the 1960s.  But by the end of the 1970s things changed. Jewish families were migrating to other areas of the country, the rail lines to the Catskills reduced their service, and air travel became less expensive. The next generation had no interest in vacationing at the same places they had been dragged to as children, and as intermarriage took hold, neither did their goyish spouses. Their parents retired and moved to Boca Raton or Scottsdale. Eventually, the hotels and bungalows, most of which were never great profit centers to begin with, fell into decay.   By the 1970s most of them were closed.  A few held on, Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel closed in 1986 and the Concord Resort Hotel struggled to stay open until 1998.  The old bungalow colonies, meanwhile, were often usurped by Hasidic Jews.

The Catskills were the essence of the Jewish ethos - faith, humor in all its irony and pathos, ambition and romance. Lenny Bruce used to say ‘If you live in New York, you’re Jewish, even if you aren’t.’ That was the Borscht Belt.

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