What Happened to the Borscht Belt?
Food, fun, dancing, celebrities, comedians. Grossinger’s and the Concord. Bring back any memories?
The mostly defunct summer resorts of New York’s Catskill Mountains were popular vacation spots for Jews from the 1920s up to the 1960s. Anyone longing for the good old days knows the historical importance of these lost times—summer romances, doing the mambo, menus with seven kinds of herring, and comedians who would go on to become world famous.
Dubbed the “Borscht Belt,” these Catskills resorts are mostly gone now, but the traditions and memories remain.
What drew Jews to the Catskills? According to Myrna Katz Frommer, author with her husband Harvey Frommer of the book “It Happened in the Catskills,” a Jewish ethos was complemented by a push “to become Americanized.”
“Thus, golf, tennis [and] other pursuits and styles seen as ‘American’ became, in the post-war period, the direction more people were following,” Myrna told JointMedia News Service.
The Borscht Belt—an area described in the Frommers’ book as “about 250 square miles, approximately an hour-and-a-half drive northwest of New York City”—attracted tourists since the post-Civil War years, drawing its appeal from its scenic vistas and accessibility from New York City via two railroad lines, the authors noted. Jewish immigrants came up to the Catskills for more than a visit—they looked to settle, to farm, to escape the unhealthy environment of tenement life.
Eventually, they did more than escape; they defined the word vacation. Simply put, they knew how to have fun. Jackie Horner, a dance instructor and a consultant on the movie “Dirty Dancing” that starred the late Patrick Swayze, came to Grossinger’s in its heyday to teach dances like the mambo. That’s where she met her husband, the late Lou Goldstein.
Goldstein was a “tummler” at Grossinger’s Hotel, and ran most of the resort’s daytime activities from 1948 until the facility’s closure in 1986. “Tummler” is Yiddish for someone who stirs up tumult or excitement. He passed away on April 2, 2012, at the age of 90.
“He’d hold absurd exercise classes,” Joseph Berger wrote in Goldstein’s New York Times obituary. “He’d have a circle of grown men don silly hats and maneuver them onto one another’s heads with one hand and without letting the hats tumble to the ground. He’d tell jokes during pauses in a diving exhibition, or tell stories on tours of the Grossinger’s grounds and kitchens (one for meat and one for dairy).”
Well known for leading groups in Simon Says, Goldstein got to know many celebrities including Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, and Rocky Marciano. One of the reasons Grossinger’s became so well known was this—Milton Blackstone, Grossinger’s public relations man, brought in these celebrities, the who’s who of any given era, to mingle with guests.
Many unknowns who later became famous worked at the resorts, including Mel Brooks, Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar and Red Buttons (who put in summers as tummlers). Wilt Chamberlain, of NBA basketball fame, was a bellhop at Kutsher’s in the 1950s.
A few hotels remain open, such as Kutsher’s, but the Catskills heyday is long gone.
“The 40s flourished [in the Borscht Belt], the money was there, and a lot came with their families,” Horner told JointMedia News Service. “That went on until the late 70s. In the 80s there were more conventions to fill the hotels during the week but a lot of the family business started falling off in the 90s because the children didn’t want to come up anymore. The children always said there was too much food.”
Horner said the kids now take cruises, and go to Europe or Cancun. “Grandma and grandpa passed away, so it didn’t have the same family feeling anymore,” she said.
Phil Brown knows the Catskills and fondly remembers Horner’s visit to speak at the Catskills Institute. He worked in the resorts as a young man and now is a professor at Brown University as well as director of the Catskills Institute, an organization that promotes research and education on the significance of the Catskills for American Jewish life. His books include Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat’s Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area and In the Catskills: A Century of the Jewish Experience in The Mountains.
Even though the push was to become Americanized, the phenomenon that was the Catskills helped Americans learn about Judaism.
“It was a way to keep traditions while still adapting, not assimilating, but adapting,” Brown told JointMedia News Service. “People did want to keep their Jewish culture alive and this was a way to do it. Certainly for the earlier times there were many people who went to the hotels who spoke primarily Yiddish, they only ate kosher, they confronted a world with a lot of anti-Semitism and they couldn’t even go to resorts. It was like having an American vacation but with all the Jewish trimmings.”
Brown said the people running the Catskills resorts came up with the idea of the all-inclusive vacation that cruise ships later copied.
“For a lot of people, especially in the early years at the smaller hotels, it was just a place to get a way to, to be in the country,” Brown said.
Brown explained that in the 1960s, a Jewish migration to Miami and Los Angeles helped bring about the end of the Borscht Belt’s heyday.
“Jews were moving around and becoming much more geographically mobile,” he said. “Family structures changed and people were not so tied to their extended families anymore. At the same time the divorce rate changed. By the 1980s and 1990s you also had a lot of intermarriages, so it didn’t make so much sense to go to this intensely Jewish community. ”
At the end of the day, what did the Borscht Belt give to the world?
“The essence of the Jewish ethos in all its myriad forms,” Myrna Katz Frommer said. “Faith, humor in all its irony and pathos, ambition, romance. Lenny Bruce used to say ‘If you live in New York, you’re Jewish, even if you aren’t.’ That applied to the Borscht Belt. In a way, it says it all.”