The Catskill Mountains of New York have been a vacation destination for folks looking to escape the city as far back as the late 1800s. The Catskills is an area that encompasses Sullivan County.
It’s only around a 2 hour drive from New York City and was accessible by train and bus, making it the perfect vacation spot for New Yorkers looking to escape the oppressive city heat.
The version of the Borscht Belt we think of today, with sprawling hotels and bungalow houses, began to take shape around the 1920s. Jews were barred from many establishments as a result of widespread antisemitism. Hotels would put in their advertisements that they were for “Gentiles Only”.
As a result, Jews created their own self-contained resort communities. Visitors got the American vacation experience that everyone else had, but with the comfort of food and community with their people. Kosher food was served, Yiddish was spoken, and Mah-Jongg was played.
The Borscht Belt peaked in the 1950s-1960s. Its audience was still majority Jewish, but by that point, it began to attract a small secular crowd as well. At its height, the Catskills had over 500 hotels and bungalow colonies spread across the area. Popular hotels included Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, the Concord Resort Hotel, Brown’s Hotel, Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club, and the Nevele Grand Hotel.
Guests stayed anywhere from a couple of weeks to whole summers. During the week, the occupants were mainly women, children, and retirees. The men would come up from the city on the weekends. Because these communities were self-contained, they offered a lot of amenities. Amenities included Olympic-sized swimming pools, full golf courses, basketball courts, baseball fields, gyms, card rooms, game rooms, boating, horseback riding, classes for adults, camp for the children, night activities and entertainment, and of course, lots of food. All amenities, entertainment, and food were included in the price.
By the late 1970s and 1980s, the popularity of the Catskills declined. There were many contributing factors including accessibility and affordability of commercial air travel, women joining the workforce, the wider acceptance of Jews in secular spaces with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the younger generations’ interest in assimilating into American culture. The older generation retired and moved to Florida, and the younger generation wasn’t interested in vacationing in a bubble. Those hotels that survived into the 1990s, like the Concord and the Nevele, still offered similar experiences, but were showing their age.
For most people who didn’t experience Borscht Belt culture first hand, Dirty Dancing (1987) offered a peek into that world. Most recently, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel showed a new generation what those summers were like. It also introduced viewers to the Borscht Belt’s most recognizable export; nightlife entertainment, most specifically, comedy.
From its inception, the Borscht Belt had entertainment. In the early days, it was Yiddish Theater. As the decades went on, vaudeville acts, musicians, and singers graced the stages. But it was many of the Jewish comedians who honed their skills there that would go out into the world and change entertainment history. Out of the Catskills hotel entertainment scene came the iconic “Jewish Comedy” or “Borscht Belt Comedy” style. Routines were full of self-deprecating one-liners, neurosis and hypochondria, differences between Jews and non-Jews, and jabs at overbearing wives and mothers, all said with a sprinkle of Yiddish. If the rest of the world was going to poke fun at these Jewish idiosyncrasies, why not hear it from the source?
Well known names synonymous with American stand-up frequented the Catskills circuit. Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett, Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Allan Sherman, and Henny Youngman. The Borscht Belt also saw early appearances by Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, who would all find success in Hollywood. The tradition continued for decades, with older acts returning and newer acts joining the ranks, such as Andy Kaufman and Jerry Seinfeld.
Not all the comedians started their Catskills careers with the vision of being a comedian. Quite a few made their way to it from the inside. As a teenager, Sid Caesar played saxophone with bands at hotels. He began to develop small comedy bits to share between sets. Mel Brooks worked as a tummler, a person who encourages participation in activities, keeping the guests entertained, and schmooze with the older ladies, the perfect job for an aspiring entertainer. Jerry Lewis’ parents worked the Catskill scene throughout his childhood as vaudeville performers. He would spend the summers working as a busboy or towel boy, cracking jokes and entertaining the visitors.
Today the comedic legacy lives on, but almost all the hotels are gone. Many of the hotels were abandoned, photos of which can be seen in Marisa Scheinfeld’s book “The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland”. Others were turned into wellness retreat destinations, facilities for other religions, or second-home communities. The Concord Hotel became Resorts World Catskills Casino. Many of the bungalow colonies are now summer destinations for Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews fleeing the sweltering Brooklyn summer. In the last few years, fires have destroyed many abandoned buildings on hotel properties, including the Homowack Lodge, The Pines Resort Hotel, Brown’s Hotel, and Grossinger’s. The Borscht Belt remains an important part of American Jewish history both past and present.
Contributed by Eliza Rinn, Circulation and Cataloging, New York Klau Library