"The Borscht Belt was the preeminent destination for tens of thousands of predominantly east coast American Jews from the 1920s through the mid-1960s. Located ninety miles northwest of New York City, it was known internationally as a summer retreat for entertainment and leisure, though the tourism industry operated year round. For more than forty-five years, the Borscht Belt reigned supreme in the American Jewish experience, exerted a strong influence on the cultural and economic landscape of New York State at large, and shaped popular American culture and imagination. First and second generation Jewish immigrants held on to many of their Old World European and Russian traditions in the Borscht Belt while simultaneously dedicating themselves to the pursuit of new American practices. Those who visited the hotels and bungalow colonies year after year forged social connections and cultural bonds, many of which have lasted to the present day. Those employed by the vacation industry were able to pay their bills and finance a greater life for themselves and their children, assured as they made their life plans that the seasonal guests would return, year after year. Those who lived year-round in the region welcomed the economic and cultural boom, and they embraced the lively activity that brought a touch of the cosmopolitan to the country.
The transformation of the Catskills countryside into a resource and then a resort for city people began in the nineteenth century. The early industrial development of the region was based on lumber, tanning, and agriculture. When Sullivan County was split off from Ulster County in 1809, it was a mountainous and rugged terrain abundant with timber and coal—resources at the time in high demand. After the building of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, these raw materials were easily transported to the New York metropolitan area. The mid-1830s saw the decline of the lumber industry and subsequent rise of the tanning industry. Tanning, a process for treating animal hides that uses the bark from trees, was a necessary part of the production of boots and a whole host of leather goods. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Catskills, rich in hemlock trees and their bark, produced more tanned leather than any region in the United States. But by the late 1880s, its surplus of trees was depleted. The physical landscape of the region was wholly altered by the time the tanneries closed—mountain slopes were denuded and villages depopulated—and the local economy crashed.
The cleared landscape, however, lent itself to a new economy—less centralized but also less intensive—based on dairy and chicken farms. Farms employed and lodged individuals for work, and most farms and rural hamlets had some capacity to board those passing through for a harvest season or just for a day. The marginal nature of farming on such depleted land gave rise to a hybrid economy that turned to sporadic tourism and steady business travel as a source of income. Very quickly, regional farmers realized the lucrative opportunity for supplemental income. Several agrarians became entrepreneurs and began to make boarding visitors and guests their primary enterprise. In turn, many of the original farm and boarding houses expanded to become bungalow colonies or small hotels. The rudiments of a tourist economy had been put in place.
With new railroads and better-paved highways traversing the region, by the late nineteenth century Sullivan and Ulster Counties were well linked to New York City. Local residents and outside investors put their money first into expanding accommodations for travelers and then into advertising that would entice them to come up to the mountains. Fishing enthusiasts and nature lovers were followed by writers and painters who had heard of the region’s natural beauty. (American Jews were certainly among these early visitors, but they did not play an important role in this first iteration of Catskills tourism.) Entrepreneurs in the early twentieth century looked to turn the healthful character of the country into a medical resource. Pockets of the Catskills region, acclaimed for its fresh air and clear streams, were transformed into sanatoriums for the treatment of tuberculosis. This new field of business, however, dampened the enthusiasm of the average tourist and local alike. The businessmen had clearly overreached and by 1915 many of the once magnificent hotels had closed, along with the sanatoriums. Criticism from the proprietors of the established resorts, as well as from the local residents, whose livelihoods depended upon the young resort industry, proved of little avail. Tourism fell off sharply and the local economy faltered again.
Around this time, another transition occurred that would lead to an expansion in Jewish tourism and to the rise of the region’s third economic epoch, the tourist and entertainment business that was emblematic of the Borscht Belt. Recognizing a growing Jewish immigrant population that wanted to experience an American lifestyle but whose members often found themselves locked out of hotels, Jewish investors began to purchase properties in the area. The anti-Semitism that flared nationally in the 1920s was the push that helped create the resorts and colonies of the Catskills. The pull was to be found in the social, cultural, and religious connections that inclined American Jews to vacation among themselves. Major businessmen like Asher Selig Grossinger bought or expanded properties to create the first resorts that welcomed Jewish families from the New York City region and provided the right mix of extravagance and comfort. Twin forces of forced and voluntary segregation permitted traditional daily habits to remain intact even while they made space for adapting to American life. Early financial success like that seen at Grossinger’s led others to follow suit, and the established tourism industry in the Catskills quickly remade itself to offer a haven for American Jews looking for a summertime getaway. Sullivan and Ulster Counties rapidly became prime resort locales as well as work destinations for many Jews hailing from New York City and its surrounding areas. A total of 538 hotels and more than 50,000 bungalows were built in Sullivan and Ulster Counties—a tremendous amount of construction in a short period and within the footprint of a modestly sized region.
In the post–World War II era, Jews from working-, middle-, and upper-middle-class neighborhoods all along the east coast flocked to the Borscht Belt. They enjoyed relaxation, entertainment, and a sense of social and economic recognition in a place where they were welcomed and accepted. Other Jews, and non-Jews, made their way to Sullivan and Ulster Counties to work in the resorts as waitresses, musicians, busboys, and comedians. For working and vacationing Jews, the area created a feeling of belonging in a world where historically they had experienced much prejudice. The small society fashioned in the Catskills region embraced Jewish history and tradition while adopting a modern desire for acculturation into the wider culture and participation in a middle-class standard of living. These events helped to mold the identity of post-war Jewish-American life, which in turn influenced contemporary American culture, particularly in the realm of entertainment.
Entertainers put the Catskills on the social and cultural map for the part of America that did not have regional, ethnic, or religious affiliations to the Borscht Belt. Numerous nationally recognized entertainers, singers, and comedians got their start on the stages of the resorts. These performers created and then popularized the quintessential Catskills mix of banter and self-deprecation distilled in catch phrases such as Henny Youngman’s “Take my wife . . . please” and Woody Allen’s “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Youngman and Allen, representatives of two different generations of entertainers, were joined by a cohort of future stars—including Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Lenny Bruce, and Joan Rivers—who drew crowds from around the United States and who were featured on television broadcasts beamed to all fifty states. For a time, the Borscht Belt could rival New York and Los Angeles as a site of headline entertainment that pleased audiences and at the same time pushed the boundaries of what was considered funny or even acceptable.
This period, identified by historians as the Golden Age of the Borscht Belt, lasted until 1965. Many factors played a role in the decline of the Catskills resorts. Newly affordable airfares to Europe and the Caribbean began to steal away crowds of tourists. Railways decreased service to the Catskills, the post-war economic boom waned, tastes in entertainment shifted away from the burlesque-style that typified the offerings on the Catskills stages, and the younger generation of American Jews chose to explore new destinations. The pull of the Catskills had lessened and measurably so. The push from American society had also changed. Many Jews became more Americanized and felt less of a need to be in segregated locales. Most Jewish entertainers did not need to start in Jewish-only establishments and were rapidly making their way onto mainstream television shows and theater stages.
By the mid-1960s, and into the 1970s, many resorts and bungalow colonies were in a general state of deterioration as their popularity declined. As the 1980s progressed, deterioration led to a series of key collapses. In 1988, the Brown’s Hotel filed for bankruptcy, and in 1990 even Grossinger’s Hotel and Country Club filed its Chapter 7 paperwork. As had happened in the past when the principal industry in the Catskills failed, the regional economy faltered. By the early 1990s only a handful of the larger hotels remained open. Their cultural influence was virtually nonexistent and their economic impact negligible as the larger regional tourist economy had declined with the principal resorts.
Today the region known as the Borscht Belt is witnessing a renaissance with small towns all over the area springing up with new businesses, restaurants and activities -- the famed Catskill region is once again drawing visitors and locals alike. While the era known as the Borscht Belt can never be reproduced, recreated or remade, it is still widely celebrated and its legacy with regard to Jewish-American history, Catskill history, New York state history, and across the realms of entertainment and comedy will forever endure."
_ Excerpt from THE BORSCHT BELT by Marisa Scheinfeld