Borscht Belt

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The former Granit Resort/The Hudson Valley Resort & Spa in 2015

Borscht Belt, or Jewish Alps, is a nickname for the (now mostly defunct) summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains in parts of Sullivan, Orange, and Ulster counties in New York. Borscht, a soup associated with immigrants from eastern Europe, was a metonym for "Jewish"; these resorts were a popular vacation spot for New York City Jews between the 1920s and the 1970s.[1] Most Borscht Belt resorts hosted traveling Jewish comedians and musicians, and many who later became prominent began their careers there.

The tradition of Borscht Belt entertainment began in the early twentieth century with the indoor and outdoor theaters constructed on a 40-acre (16-hectare) tract in Hunter, New York, by Yiddish theater star Boris Thomashefsky.[2]

Beginning in the 1980s, the growth of air travel made the Catskills less attractive, so many of the resorts eventually closed, although Jewish culture has remained present. A large percentage of the region comprises summer homes and bungalow colonies (including many of the historic colonies) for Orthodox Jewish families,[3] primarily from the New York metropolitan area, as well as year-round dwellers.

Resorts still are operating in the region, including Catskill Mountains Resort, Villa Roma, an Italian American resort, Soyuzivka and Xenia, Ukrainian cultural resorts, and the Skazka and Hotel Pine, Russian cultural resorts.[4][5][6] Additionally, motorsports enthusiasts are drawn to the area visiting the Monticello Motor Club.


The old main entrance of the Pines Resort in 1978

Borscht Belt hotels, bungalow colonies, summer camps, and קאָך-אַליינס kokh-aleyns (a Yiddish name for self-catered boarding houses, literally, "cook-alones") were frequented by families of middle and working class Jewish New Yorkers, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. Antisemitism, particularly in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, meant that they were often denied accommodation elsewhere.[7]

Some of the Catskill hotels were converted from farms that immigrant Jews had started in the early 1900s; as the area grew, it began to cater specifically to Jews, providing kosher food, synagogues, and other features of Jewish communities, including entertainment. The area became known as "The Jewish Alps", and the Sullivan County portion as "Solomon County".[8]

From the 1920s through the 1970s,[9] nearly all notable Jewish entertainers would hone their skills at resorts in the Sullivan County area. Fallsburg became the catalyst for American stand-up comedy.[10] Comedy legends, including Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Seinfeld, and Henny Youngman, performed there,[8] as did Sid Caesar, Billy Crystal, Buddy Hackett, Gabe Kaplan, Andy Kaufman, and Joan Rivers.[10] Jerry Lewis worked as a busboy while his parents did a vaudeville act, he would entertain customers while cleaning tables, giving him a chance to hone his skills while upping his tips.[11] Famed prize fighters Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston,[12] and Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks and Floyd Patterson[13] trained there. Millions of tourists, especially New Yorkers, came to swim in the lakes and oversized hotel pools, to ski or ice-skate[9] or take lessons in golf, tennis, and dancing. No fewer than 538 hotels sprang up in this area of Eastern New York.[9]

Well known resorts in the area included The Concord, Grossinger's, Brickman's, Brown's Hotel, Klein's Hillside, Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club, the Nevele, Friar Tuck Inn, Gibber's, Gilbert's, Granit, the Woodbine Hotel, the Heiden Hotel, Irvington, Lansman's, The Laurels Hotel and Country Club, The Pines Resort, Raleigh, Silverman's River View Hotel, Stevensville, Stiers, the Tamarack Lodge, the Olympic, and the Windsor Regency.

Brickman Hotel room 701 in 1977

Two of the larger hotels in High View (north of Bloomingburg) were Shawanga Lodge[14] and the Overlook. In 1959, the Shawanga hosted a conference that marked the beginning of serious research into lasers;[15] the hotel burned to the ground in 1973.[16] The Overlook had entertainment and summer lodging through the late 1960s and was operated by the Schrier family, it included a main building and about 50 other bungalows, plus a five-unit cottage just across the street. It remains in a different form, no longer functioning as it was in its heyday.

The New York, Ontario & Western Railway carried passengers to the resorts from Weehawken, New Jersey, until 1948; the railroad was abandoned in 1957. Despite the improvement of roads such as the original New York State Route 17, the area is no longer a major travel destination.

The decline of the Catskills resorts was apparent as early as 1965. Entertainment in America was changing as the country ushered in the jet age;[9] as ethnic barriers in the U.S. began to fall and travel to distant resorts became easier and cheaper, fewer Jewish American families in New York City went to the Catskills. By the early 1960s, between a quarter and a third of Grossinger's annual visitors were non-Jewish.[17] Even the universalization of air-conditioned hotels across America drew customers away from the aging resorts primarily built before this innovation became common.[12] In the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, traditional resort vacations lost their appeal for many younger adults.[17]

Stevensville Hotel and pool in 1977

Smaller, more modest hotels such as Youngs Gap and the Ambassador found themselves in a niche with a vanishing clientele and closed by the end of the 1960s.[citation needed] By the mid-1990s, nearly 300 hotels and motels had gone out of business in Sullivan County.[12]

The 1970s took a toll on more lavish establishments such as the Flagler and The Laurels.[18] In 1986 Grossinger's closed for renovations, and the property was abandoned by new owners midway through work. Grossinger's largest historic rival (and the largest of all the Borscht Belt resorts), the Concord, benefitted only temporarily, filing for bankruptcy in 1997 and closing a year later.

In 1987, New York's mayor Ed Koch proposed buying the Gibber Hotel in Kiamesha Lake to house the homeless; the idea was opposed by local officials.[19] The hotel instead became a religious school, like many old hotels in the Catskills.[20]


Plans are now in place by those who purchased the former Borscht Belt resorts Concord Resort Hotel and Grossinger's to work with Native Americans in an attempt to bring gambling to the region; because the Borscht Belt's prime has long passed and many of the resorts are abandoned, developers believe this is the only way to revitalize the region to the popularity it once had by attracting guests to world-class casinos and resorts such as those in New Jersey and Connecticut.[citation needed] However, large-scale casino plans have not come to fruition, mainly because there are no Indian reservations near the area (the Mohawk tribe's effort to build a Catskills casino was rejected for this reason). Instead, the state government proposed legalizing off-reservation gambling, which required a positive referendum, passed in November 2013.

The Stevensville Hotel in Swan Lake, which was owned by the family of David G. Friehling, who pleaded guilty as an accomplice of Bernard Madoff's, has reopened as the Swan Lake Resort Hotel.[21][22]

The former Homowack Lodge in Spring Glen, New York, was converted into a summer camp for Hasidic girls. Officials of the state Department of Health ordered the property evacuated in July 2009, citing health and safety violations;[23] the Granit later began operating as the Hudson Valley Resort.[24]

The Heiden Hotel in South Fallsburg was destroyed by fire in May 2008;[25] the Tamarack Lodge caught fire in 2012, and 30 buildings were partially or completely destroyed.[26]

The films Dirty Dancing (1987)[27] and A Walk on the Moon (1999), as well as the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,[28] reflect on this bygone era.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Catskills Institute: Jewish scholars study history, cultural significance of the Borscht Belt" (Press release). Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University. November 29, 1995. Archived from the original on August 20, 2017. Retrieved August 21, 2017.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Frankfurter, Yitzchok (Sep 15, 2013). "Ruins of the Borscht Belt". Ami. No. 136. p. 172. Retrieved Nov 2, 2016.
  4. ^ "Skazka Resort". Retrieved 2011-08-25.
  5. ^ "Xenia Resort". Retrieved 2011-08-25.
  6. ^ "Hotel Pine". Retrieved 2011-08-25.
  7. ^ E. Raab and G.J. Selznick: Major Social Problems. Joanna Cotler Books, 1974 (3rd edition). ISBN 0060452994.
  8. ^ a b Levine, David (August 8, 2014). "History of Borscht Belt Hotels and Bungalow Colonies in the Catskills". Hudson Valley. Today Media. Archived from the original on 2016-09-18. Retrieved May 26, 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d Marisa Scheinfeld (June 15, 2012). "The Ruins of the Borscht Belt". Tablet Magazine. Archived from the original on June 12, 2017. Retrieved March 2, 2013.
  10. ^ a b Laskow, Caroline; Rosenberg, Ian (January 6, 2012). "Last Resort: 'Dirty Dancing' and the Catskills Legacy". New York City: MetroFocus (WNET). Archived from the original on July 6, 2017. Retrieved March 2, 2013.
  11. ^ "Jerry Lewis On His Borscht Belt Childhood And The Lonely Work Of Comedy".
  12. ^ a b c Matthews, Joe (July 23, 1997). "Unbuckling of the Borscht Belt". The Baltimore Sun. Maryland. Archived from the original on January 17, 2017. Retrieved March 2, 2013.
  13. ^ Klein, Binnie (September 15, 2010). "Fighting for the Borscht Belt". The Forward; the Forward Association. Archived from the original on December 21, 2016. Retrieved March 2, 2013.
  14. ^ Dan, Abby (n.d.). "History". (fan site). Archived from the original on May 21, 2017. Retrieved November 11, 2016. Collection of photographs and memorabilia.
  15. ^ Hecht, Jeff (2005). Beam: the race to make the laser. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-19-514210-5.
  16. ^ Roosa, Monoka A. (2007). Mamakating. publocation: Arcadia Publishing. p. 29.
  17. ^ a b Jones, Abigail (September 27, 2013). "Beautiful ruins: The Catskills may be dying, but the memories live on". The Forward; the Forward Association. Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved October 27, 2013.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Purnick, Joyce (April 4, 1987). "Catskills Hotel Suggested For Homeless". The New York Times. Retrieved April 26, 2010.
  20. ^ [1] Archived February 28, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ Steve Israel. "Madoff mess has local link". Times Herald-Record. Middletown, New York: GateHouse Media. Archived from the original on 2017-08-21. Retrieved June 9, 2010. Additional WebCitation archive August 21, 2017.
  22. ^ Newman, Rich (n.d.). "Reinventing the Catskills". The Catskills Institute (Brown University). Archived from the original on February 27, 2009.
  23. ^ Whitman, Victor (July 16, 2009). "New York wants sect to leave old resort". Times Herald-Record. Middletown, New York.
  24. ^ "Hudson Valley Resort".
  25. ^ "Overnight fire destroys Heiden Hotel of Sweet Lorraine fame". Times Herald-Record. Middletown, New York: Dow Jones Local Media Group, Inc. May 18, 2008. Archived from the original on February 1, 2013. Retrieved June 9, 2010.
  26. ^ "Massive fire at Tamarack Lodge visible for miles". Retrieved 2012-04-08.
  27. ^ "Overnight fire destroys Heiden Hotel of Sweet Lorraine fame". Times Herald-Record. Middletown, New York: Dow Jones Local Media Group, Inc. May 18, 2008. Archived from the original on February 1, 2013. Retrieved June 9, 2010.
  28. ^

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