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Borscht Belt, or Jewish Alps, is a colloquial term for the mostly defunct summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains in parts of Sullivan, Orange and Ulster counties in upstate New York that were a popular vacation spot for New York City Jews from the 1920s up to the 1970s.
The name comes from borscht (also transliterated as 'borshch' or 'borsch'), a beet-based soup from Ukraine that was brought by Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to the United States, where it remains a popular dish.
It is a play-on-words of the term "Bible Belt".
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 middle and working class Jewish New Yorkers, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants and their children and grandchildren, particularly in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Because of this, the area was also nicknamed the Jewish Alps and "Solomon County" (a modification of Sullivan County), by many people who visited there. Well-known resorts of the area included Brickman's, Brown's Hotel, The Concord, Friar Tuck Inn, Gibber's, Gilbert's, Grossinger's, Granit, the Woodbine Hotel, the Heiden Hotel, Irvington, Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club, Lansman's, the Nevele, The Laurels Hotel and Country Club, The Pines Resort, Raleigh, Silverman's River View Hotel, Stevensville, Stiers, the Tamarack Lodge, and the Windsor.
Two of the larger hotels in High View (just north of Bloomingburg) were Shawanga Lodge and the Overlook. One of the high points of Shawanga Lodge's existence came in 1959, when it was the site of a conference of scientists researching laser beams. The conference marked the start of serious research into lasers. The hotel burned to the ground in 1973.
The Overlook still remains in a different form, no longer functioning as it was in its heyday. The Overlook had entertainment and summer lodging for many years 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.
Some of these hotels originated from farms that were established by immigrant Jews in the early part of the 20th century.
Until 1948, the New York, Ontario and Western Railway served the area with passenger service from Weehawken, New Jersey, opposite Manhattan. Despite the improvement of old travel routes such as the original New York State Route 17 (superseded by an express highway of the same name, now in the midst of an upgrade to Interstate 86), the area is no longer a major travel destination. What remains is a veritable museum of abandoned or decaying travel-related establishments from the Borscht Belt's heyday.
As early as 1965, declines at many Catskills resorts were apparent. As ethnic barriers in the US declined and air travel to distant resort locations became more convenient and affordable, Jewish American families in New York City reduced their patronage of Catskills resorts; by the early 1960s, between a quarter and a third of Grossinger's annual visitors were non-Jewish guests. In the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, traditional resort vacations lost their appeal for many younger adults. 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. The 1970s took a toll on more lavish establishments such as the Flagler and The Laurels. In 1986 Grossinger's closed, and the property (except the golf course, still open) was abruptly abandoned by new owners midway through a demolition and rebuilding of the old resort. Any benefit gained by Grossinger's largest historic rival (and the largest of all the Borscht Belt resorts), the Concord, was ephemeral, as the latter filed for bankruptcy in 1997 and closed 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. The hotel instead became a religious school, like many old hotels in the Catskills.
Today, a large percentage of the region is a summer home for Orthodox Jewish families, primarily from the New York metropolitan area. It has many summer homes and bungalow colonies (including many of the historic colonies), as well as year-round dwellers. It has its own year-round branch of the Orthodox Jewish volunteer emergency medical service, Hatzolah. A few resorts remain in the region, though not many associated with the Borscht Belt prime (including Kutsher's Hotel, Villa Roma, Soyuzivka, a Ukrainian cultural resort, and the Skazka, Xenia, and Hotel Pine resorts, which are Russian cultural resorts.)
Plans are now in place by those who purchased former Borscht Belt resorts Concord Resort Hotel and Grossinger's, for example, to work with American Indians 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 feel that 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 the ones in New Jersey and Connecticut. However, large-scale casino plans have not come to fruition, mainly because there are no Indian reservations anywhere near the area (the Mohawk tribe's effort to build a Catskills casino was rejected for this very reason). Instead, the state government has proposed legalizing off-reservation gambling, which will require a positive referendum; the referendum passed in November 2013.
The former Homowack Lodge in Spring Glen, New York was converted into a summer camp for Hassidic girls. Officials of the state Department of Health ordered the property evacuated in July 2009, citing health and safety violations.
Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club hosted the United States edition of the music festival All Tomorrow's Parties in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In November 2013 it was sold to Veria Lifestyle, which plans to demolish the old resort and build a $90 million Nature Cure Lifestyle Management Center.
The Granite currently operates as the Hudson Valley Resort.
The Tamarack Lodge caught fire in 2012. 30 buildings were partially or completely destroyed.
The area has started to go through a revival as a destination for motorsports enthusiasts visiting the Monticello Motor Club, located at the location of the former Monticello Airport. In 2012, the Monticello Motor Club announced expansion plans to attract professional racing, such as American Le Mans, Grand-Am and IndyCar, to the area.
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The tradition of Borscht Belt entertainment started in the early 20th 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.
Comedians who got their start or regularly performed in Borscht Belt resorts include the following:
Borscht Belt humor refers to the rapid-fire, often self-deprecating style common to many of these performers and writers. Typical themes include
Also seen regularly at these Catskills resorts were a large number of singers, dancers, musicians, and other variety acts, including the following:
The early 20th-century Jewish experience of vacationing in the Catskills was recounted in the graphic short story "Cookalein" by Will Eisner. The story appears in Eisner's collection A Contract with God.
The novel Marjorie Morningstar was about the same era and locale, but the corresponding film was actually made in the Adirondacks, rather than the Catskills.
In The Sopranos episode "Unidentified Black Males," Tony Soprano lies to protect his cousin Tony Blundetto from a murderously irate Johnny Sack, by claiming that Tony B. could not have murdered Sacks's friend Joey "Peeps" because the two Tonys were upstate, in Monticello, searching for Tony B.'s missing daughter.