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Museum Musings

7.24.17: Summers Come and Gone in the Borscht Belt

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By Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern

Borscht Belt 1b


With the taste of summer in the air, I explored a part of the NMAJH core exhibit that displays artifacts from what has become an iconic, though largely bygone, phenomenon of American Jewish leisure: summers in the “Borscht Belt.” The assortment of trophies, keys, menus, and cards in this second floor case provide a glimpse of the summer experience for many middle and working class New York Jewish families throughout the twentieth century.

This piece of history was made in Sullivan and Ulster Counties in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, more colloquially known as the “Borscht Belt” or “Jewish Alps”. The area was a hub of large resort hotels and bungalow colonies to where Jewish families would escape the sweltering New York City summers, some for weekends, some for weeks on end.

How did a secluded region in Upstate New York come to be referred to by the Jewish daily newspaper, The Forward, as a “continuation of Hester Street?”

Borscht Belt 2The area was driving distance from New York City and already home to other resorts and vacation communities that were not open to Jewish patrons. In response, Jews began to buy properties and open their own hotels, serving kosher food and catering almost exclusively to Jews. Many of these locales had been around since the early 1900s (the first synagogue in the Catskills, in Spring Glen, NY, was built in 1917), though the heyday of the Borscht Belt was primarily post World War II.

Many of the artifacts in the NMAJH display come from Grossinger’s, one of the largest Borscht Belt resorts, which was founded by Asher Selig Grossinger in 1919. Other famous names included the Concord, the Nevele, and Kutsher’s.

For years, the Borscht Belt thrived as a place that allowed Jews to escape from the city summer and feel at home in a familiar social setting. Families enjoyed outdoor activities such as swimming and boating, and in the evenings saw comedy shows and musical performances. Women, most of whom were stay at home mothers, and their children would often spend much of the summer in the country, and their husbands would come up on weekends. The Grossinger’s dining room fit 1,000 people and was home to a vibrant social scene, with women playing mah-jongg with friends and young men and women hoping to find matches.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Borscht Belt began to face decline. As the accessibility of air travel increased and vacationing in the Catskills became less appealing to the next generation, many of whom had moved out of the city, the resorts lost business, and nearly all of them have closed. The abandoned structures, strikingly captured by photographer Marisa Scheinfeld in her 2016 book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland (available in the NMAJH Museum Store), are devoid of life but eerily depict the decades of joyous summers families spent in the Borscht Belt.
Borscht Belt 3




Sources
brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/1995-96/95-062i.html
articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-07-23/news/1997204072_1_concord-catskills-fallsburg
slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/05/30/no_memorial_day_shouldn_t_be_about_the_confederacy.html
forward.com/schmooze/311210/catskills-kutshers-set-to-be-reincarnated-as-yoga-retreat/
newrepublic.com/article/123506/magic-mountains
myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-vacations-the-catskills/

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