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 through the 1960s.
The word comes from Borscht, a soup of Ukrainian origin, made with beetroot as the main ingredient giving it a deep reddish-purple color, that is popular in many Central and Eastern European countries and which was brought by Ashkenazi Jewish and Slavic immigrants to the United States from these regions, and it remains a popular dish in these communities as well.
Borscht Belt hotels, bungalow colonies, summer camps, and kuchaleyns (a Yiddish name for self-catered boarding houses) were frequented by middle and working class Jewish New Yorkers, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe and their children and grandchildren, particularly in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Because of this, this 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, The Concord, Grossinger's, Granit, the Heiden Hotel, Irvington, Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club, the Nevele, Friar Tuck Inn, The Laurels Hotel and Country Club, The Pines Resort, Raleigh, the Overlook, the Tamarack Lodge, Stevensville 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.
Despite the upgrade of old travel routes such as old New York State Route 17 (superseded by an express highway of the same name, now in the midst of an upgrade to Interstate 86), the area declined as a travel destination. What was left was a veritable museum of abandoned or decaying travel-related businesses from the Borscht Belt's heyday. The post-World War II decline of the area coincided with the increase of air travel. When families could go to more far-off destinations such as the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Europe for the same cost as going to the Catskills, the new destinations began to win out.
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 the region is a summer home for many 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 even 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, Friar Tuck, and Soyuzivka, a Ukrainian cultural resort).
Plans are now in place by those who purchased former Borscht Belt resorts Concord Resort Hotel and Grossinger's, for example, to work with Native Americans 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.
The former Homowack Lodge in Phillipsport 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.
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
- Joey Adams
- Woody Allen
- Morey Amsterdam
- Benny Bell
- Milton Berle
- Shelley Berman
- Al Bernie
- Mel Brooks
- Lenny Bruce
- George Burns
- Red Buttons
- Sid Caesar
- Jean Carroll
- Jack Carter
- Myron Cohen
- Bill Dana
- Rodney Dangerfield
- Phyllis Diller
- Totie Fields
- Betty Garrett
- Estelle Getty
- George Gobel
- Shecky Greene
- Buddy Hackett
- Mickey Katz
- Danny Kaye
- Alan King
- Robert Klein
- Jack E. Leonard
- Pesach Burstein
- Mal Z. Lawrence
- Sam Levenson
- Jerry Lewis
- Jackie Mason
- Lou Menchell
- Jan Murray
- Carl Reiner
- Don Rickles
- Joan Rivers
- Freddie Roman
- Allan Sherman
- Jackie Vernon
- Jackie Wakefield
- Jonathan Winters
- Henny Youngman
Borscht Belt humor refers to the rapid-fire, often self-deprecating style common to many of these performers and writers. Typical themes include
- Bad luck: "When I was a kid, I was breast-fed by my father." (Dangerfield)
- Puns: "Sire, the peasants are revolting!" "You said it. They stink on ice." (Harvey Korman as Count de Money (Monet) and Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI, in History of the World Part I)
- Physical complaints and ailments (often relating to bowels and cramping): "My doctor said I was in terrible shape. I told him, 'I want a second opinion.' He said, 'All right, you're ugly too!'" "I told my doctor, 'This morning when I got up and saw myself in the mirror, I looked awful! What's wrong with me?' He replied, 'I don't know, but your eyesight is perfect!'" (Dangerfield)
- Aggravating relatives and nagging wives: "My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met." (Dangerfield). "Take my wife—please!" (Henny Youngman); "My wife drowned in the pool because she was wearing so much jewelry." (Rickles); "My wife ain't too bright. One day our car got stolen. I said to her, 'Did you get a look at the guy?' She said, 'No, but I got the license number.'" (Dangerfield) "This morning the doorbell rang. I said 'Who is it?' He said 'It's the Boston strangler.' I said 'It's for you dear!'" (Youngman)
In the film Sleepers, a poster for Sonny Liston is seen on the wall of Robert De Niro's apartment and shows the Pines Resort as the location of the fight. The scene is when they are talking about the defense of the trial and De Niro's talk to Jason Patric and Minnie Driver
In the online game Mobsters, A Borscht Belt Comedian is a henchmen needed for a mission involving taking over a Catskill Resort.
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.
Several episodes of Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are set in the Catskills, and depict Catskill resort living in detail.
- Jewish scholars study history, cultural significance of the Borscht Belt
- Sydney Schultze. Culture and customs of Russia. Greenwood Pub Group(2008) pp. 65-66
- Hecht, Jeff (2005). Beam: the race to make the laser. Oxford University Press. p. 101. ISBN 9780195142105.
- "Mamakating" by Monika A. Roosa, Arcadia Publishing, 2007, p. 29
- Purnick, Joyce (1987-04-04). "Catskills Hotel Suggested For Homeless". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-26.
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- "Overnight fire destroys Heiden Hotel of 'Sweet Lorraine' fame". recordonline.com. Retrieved 2010-06-09.
- Steve Israel. "Madoff mess has local link". recordonline.com. Retrieved 2010-06-09.
- Whitman, Victor (2009-07-16). "New York wants sect to leave old resort". Times Herald Record. Retrieved 2009-07-17.
- Online Guide to the Catskill Mountains
- Borscht Belt on the St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture.
- The Catskills Institute, Brown University
- Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt (documentary about the Borscht Belt)
- Documentary about a bungalow colony of Holocaust survivors in the Catskills
- Photos of the Heiden Hotel in 2007