The Borscht Belt. For those of us of a certain age, just the name, itself, conjures up images and memories – summer vacation with the parents (fine when you were young, but, perhaps, not so much as you got older), escaping the brutal heat and humidity of the city in those pre-air conditioning days for the relatively cool, dry mountain air, endless food (quantity over quality), top quality entertainment, etc. Those of you that were too young to have participated in those Catskill Resort vacations will have to learn about them from your parents or from period piece movies, such as Dirty Dancing.
The very name, Borscht Belt, was symbolic of the Eastern European Jews who vacationed there. As some of you know, borscht is a soup popular among people primarily from Rumania and certain parts of Russia. The Jews of those areas did not invent it, but they adopted it. There are many different ways to make it – with beets, beef, cabbage, or rye. Sometimes, sour cream is added. In my opinion, I am not sure which is worse, its looks, its smell, or its taste. Nevertheless, Jews of my grandmother’s generation loved it and expected it to be served to them even on vacation, along with other ethnic foods. These Catskills hotels were happy to provide it; hence the nickname Borscht Belt.
I vacationed in the BB several times, but my first time will illustrate the pros and cons of such an experience. In 1951, when I was six, I “graduated” from Kindergarten. I remember actually receiving a certificate commemorating that momentous event and informing me that I was “hereby promoted to first grade.” My parents rewarded me by taking me on a special vacation to “The Mountains,” just the three of us. (Maybe, they thought that would end up being the pinnacle of my educational achievement.) It was my first vacation with my parents, and I was very excited. Unfortunately, the positives ended there. I remember three things from that trip:
- I accidentally broke a window while having a “catch” with my father.
- I fell out of bed during the nght.
- The return trip on Sunday was absolutely horrendous, the proverbial “trip from hell.” In those pre-NY Thruway days, everyone took Route 9A, which, of course, was a virtual parking lot on summer Sundays. Furthermore, I remember it was HOT, and, of course, our car did not have any air conditioning. Supposedly, I behaved like a typical bored six year old – whiney, pesky, and annoying.
That vacation was the first and last one with my parents until I was 18. Thereafter, I spent my summers in sleepaway camp. So much for the BB.
The heyday of the BB was from the 1920s through 1970s. In the early part of the 20th Century, beginning in the years before WWI, there was a steady influx of Jews emigrating into the US from eastern Europe for various reasons. Many settled in NY. By the 1920s these Jewish immigrants had established themselves sufficiently that were seeking places to vacation during the hot summer months. For the most part, due to anti-Semitism they were not welcome at many of the traditional vacation spots in the US. Also, these places did not cater to their needs. For example, they were not kosher, and they did not serve many traditional Jewish foods.
Around this time Jews began to gravitate to the Catskill Mountains. First, locals, many of whom were Jewish themselves, rented out spare rooms; then, came boarding houses, bungalow colonies, and, later, resort hotels. The Catskill area met all the desirable prerequisites: it was close to NYC geographically; the weather was relatively cool and dry; it provided the opportunity to enjoy water sports and other leisure activities; the food was kosher; and Yiddish was spoken. These Jews, like most people, preferred to associate with others who shared their own customs, and language. According to the Catskills Institute by the 1950s in excess of one million people were flocking to the hundreds of resort hotels, bungalow colonies and summer camps in the area.
Probably, the most well-known of the hotels were the Concord, Grossingers, Kutchers, and the Nevele. These hotels, and others like them, were the first to offer an all-inclusive, one price vacation, the “Club Meds” of their day, so to speak. They provided much more than just a room. There was food, and lots of it, entertainment, sports facilities, even baby sitting. Jews felt comfortable there, and many returned year after year.
The entertainment was top shelf, comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield, singers such as Dean Martin and Barbra Streisand, musicians such as Duke Ellington. Performing in “The Mountains” became a rite of passage for any up-and-coming performer. Often, they would perform three shows a night at three different venues.
Furthermore, vendors would make the rounds of the bungalow colonies to sell their goods. For example, there was the “Knishman from Mountaindale,” who would offer roasted chickens, brisket, soup and, of course, knishes. There was “Shimmy the Pickle King,” whose specialty was, you guessed it, pickles of every variety, and “Chow-Chow Cup,” which provided delicacies such as chicken chow mein, egg rolls, and,….. wait for it, …. Chinese hot dogs. The wife could feed her entire family without leaving the premises. Jews would feel right at home.
The Concord was the largest of the resort hotels with in excess of 1,500 guest rooms and a dining hall that could seat over 3,000. It boasted an 18-hole golf course, nicknamed “the monster,” which was rated as one of the top 100 by Golf Digest.
Grossingers started as a single family house. The owners would rent out rooms during the summer. Over the years, it grew to a full service resort that serviced some 150,000 guests annually. It encompassed 1,200 acres, with 0ver 30 buildings, its own airstrip and post office. Moreover, it became the first resort in the world to utilize artificial snow for skiing.
Kutchers began as a farm house in 1907. At its peak it had 400 guest rooms, condos, two summer camps and a golf course spread out over 1,500 acres. It became a sports mecca. It hosted a charity basketball event annually for the benefit of Maurice Stokes, a former NBA player whose career and life were cut short tragically by encephalitis. Dozens of current and former NBA stars, such as Wilt Chamberlain (who had worked there as a bellhop while still in high school), Dolph Schayes, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Jack Twyman to name a few, would play in this game. I saw a couple of the games. It was a real treat, particularly since after the game the players would be accessible to fans. Boxers, such as Muhammed Ali, Floyd Patterson and Leon Spinks trained there prior to championship bouts.
The Nevele, which opened in 1903 and closed in 2009, was another well-known full service resort. The name is derived from “eleven” spelled backwards. What is the significance of the number “eleven?” There are multiple stories, but the one that seems most credible to me is that in the late 19th Century a group of eleven teachers discovered a famous waterfall on the property on which the hotel became situated. Seems like a “stretch,” but I have not heard of a better reason.
They say “all good things must come to an end.” Most of the resort hotels are long gone. I believe their demise was primarily attributable to the following:
- They, and the Catskill area, itself, were severely damaged by the steep recession of the 1970s, and they never recovered.
- There was talk of establishing gambling casinos in the area, and the resorts would have been an ideal location for many reasons. Unfortunately, it never panned out.
- Perhaps, the biggest reason, however, was simply the decline of general anti-Semitism in the US. By the 1970s Jews were able to vacation elsewhere, and the newer generation was eager to seek alternatives, such as Florida, Arizona, Caribbean cruises, and Europe.
Now, the BB is merely a cherished memory for nostalgia buffs, part of the lore of a time that has passed.