Photo: Concord Hotel, Kiamesha Lake, New York – Wikipedia

The Borscht Belt: A History of the Jewish Vacationland

What Is the Borscht Belt?

Granit Hotel Country Club Kerhonkson New York Wikipedia

The Borscht Belt was a region in the Catskill Mountains where many Jewish immigrants settled and started businesses due to its religious tolerance and lack of anti-Semitism. The Catskill hotels served as a place for people to go on their vacations during the summertime and would often serve food that was like what they had at home: such as bagels, pickles, lox, matzo ball soup, blintzes etc.

(Photo: Granit Hotel & Country Club, Kerhonkson, NY-Wikipedia)

The Borscht Belt became very popular in the late 1920s with resorts such as Grossinger’s attracting celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx.* The Borscht Belt was eventually abandoned after many Jews moved away from cities looking for new opportunities.

While it is commonly thought that there are no longer any hotels left in the Catskill Mountain region, there are ruins of one resort still standing: Grossinger’s Resort Hotel, which opened on July 4th, 1925 and closed down on November 30th, 2010 after being sold to new owners.

History of The Borscht Belt

The Borscht Belt began in the late 1800s and peaked in popularity during the 1920s. In recent years, many hotel owners have had to close their doors due to competition from new hotels and new technology. The disappearance of the Borscht Belt can be attributed to a variety of different factors: changing tastes, competition from eCommerce companies like Amazon, improved travel options such as Uber/Lyft/Rideshares, etc.

The Borscht Belt was primarily a place for Jews from Eastern Europe, who came to be entertained and find their own type of leisure there. Tourists came to the Borscht Belt for work, as well as entertainment and leisure.

Grossingers ping pong Liberty New York Wikipedia

The Borscht Belt was a rural area in the United States, which became popular among Jewish farmers and their socialist communities. The “back-to-the-earth communes” as well as political discussions and readings were common activities at some Borscht Belt settlements.

The popularity of the Borscht Belt declined through the 1980s and 1990s, but has seen a resurgence in recent years.

(Photo: Grossinger’s Ping Pong, Liberty, New York – Wikipedia)

The Borscht Belt in Popular Culture

Jews were initially denied access to many resorts due to anti-Semitism before farmers started offering their places as Jewish boarding houses and hotels serving kosher food. The Workmen’s Circle and unions opened resorts in the Catskills to provide respite for workers who were excluded from other areas due to anti-Semitism. The Borscht Belt became a destination of choice by the 1950s thanks to increased economic growth during and after World War II. The development of the entertainment industry allowed for an increase in revenue, allowing it to grow even further throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

While not everyone remembers the specifics of what happened in the Catskills during the height of its popularity, many people know it was once a hugely popular resort area for Jewish people thanks in part to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld who have made references to it over the years. On an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry and George try to come up with a list of new jokes for their stand-up act. One of the jokes they develop is about how there are no more Jewish resorts because “the Borscht Belt dried up.”

The Borscht Belt in Comedy

Nevele lobby Ellenville New York Wikipedia

The humor of the region is known for being rapid-fire and self-deprecating. Typical themes include bad luck and puns. Physical ailments relating to bowels and cramping are also common topics of jokes. The Catskills became a mecca for Jewish comedians and resorts, who found humor in their own culture and lifestyle.

(Photo: Nevele Lobby, Ellenville, New York-Wikipedia)

One of the most famous comedians from the Borscht Belt is Rodney Dangerfield. He got his start at resorts in upstate New York and eventually became one of America’s most beloved comics. His signature line “I don’t get no respect” is still quoted today. His book “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs” pays tribute to this era of comedy.

Why Did the Borscht Belt Decline?

The area’s popularity began to decline in the 1950s due to a decrease in rail service, an increase in air travel, the rise of new leisure destinations and the increasing affordability of hotels. Additionally, anti-Semitism decreased after World War II, so Jews could go to different places for vacationing purposes. Today, many of these resorts have been abandoned and are now home to ghosts and various other paranormal activities.

* Notable Performers (From Wikipedia)

Happy Trails,

SIG DoraKSaparow 1

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