Borscht Belt, or Jewish Alps, is a nickname for the (now mostly defunct) summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains in parts of Sullivan, Orange and Ulster counties in New York. Borscht, a soup associated with immigrants from eastern Europe, was a colloquialism for "Jewish". These resorts were a popular vacation spot for New York City Jews between the 1920s and the 1970s. Most Borscht Belt resorts hosted traveling Jewish comedians and musicians, and many who later became famous began their careers there. The 1987 films Dirty Dancing and Sweet Lorraine reflect on the bygone era.
Beginning in the 1980s the growth of air travel made the Catskills less attractive. Many of the resorts eventually closed, though Jewish culture has remained present. 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.
Resorts still are operating in the region, including Kutsher's Hotel, Villa Roma, Soyuzivka, a Ukrainian cultural resort, and the Skazka, Xenia, and Hotel Pine resorts, which are Russian cultural resorts. Motorsports enthusiasts are drawn to the area visiting the Monticello Motor Club.
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 families of middle and working class Jewish New Yorkers, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. Antisemitism, particularly in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, meant that they were often denied accommodation elsewhere.
Some of the Catskill hotels were converted from farms that immigrant Jews had started in the early 1900's. As the area grew, it began to cater specifically to Jews, providing kosher food, synagogues, and other features of Jewish communities, including entertainment. The area became known as "The Jewish Alps", and the Sullivan County portion as "Solomon County".
From the 1920s through the 1970s, nearly all notable Jewish entertainers would hone their skills at resorts in the Sullivan County area. Fallsburg became the catalyst for American stand-up comedy. Comedy legends including Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Seinfeld and Henny Youngman performed there, as did Sid Caesar, Billy Crystal, Buddy Hackett, Gabe Kaplan, Andy Kaufman, and Joan Rivers. Famed prize fighters like Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston, and Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks and Floyd Patterson trained there. Millions of tourists, especially New Yorkers, came to swim in the lakes and oversized hotel pools, to ski or ice-skate or take lessons in golf, tennis, and dancing. No fewer than 538 hotels sprang up in this area of Eastern New York.
Well known resorts in the area included The Concord, Grossinger's, Brickman's, Brown's Hotel, Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club, the Nevele, Friar Tuck Inn, Gibber's, Gilbert's, Granit, the Woodbine Hotel, the Heiden Hotel, Irvington, Lansman's, The Laurels Hotel and Country Club, The Pines Resort, Raleigh, Silverman's River View Hotel, Stevensville, Stiers, the Tamarack Lodge, the Olympic, and the Windsor Regency.
Two of the larger hotels in High View (north of Bloomingburg) were Shawanga Lodge and the Overlook. In 1959, the Shawanga hosted a conference that marked the beginning of serious research into lasers. The hotel burned to the ground in 1973. The Overlook had entertainment and summer lodging 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. It remains in a different form, no longer functioning as it was in its heyday.
The New York, Ontario & Western Railway carried passengers to the resorts from Weehawken, New Jersey, until 1948. The railroad was abandoned in 1957. Despite the improvement of roads such as the original New York State Route 17, the area is no longer a major travel destination.
The decline of the Catskills resorts was apparent as early as 1965. Entertainment in America was changing as the country ushered in the jet age. As ethnic barriers in the U.S. began to fall and travel to distant resorts became easier and cheaper, fewer Jewish American families in New York City went to the Catskills. By the early 1960s, between a quarter and a third of Grossinger's annual visitors were non-Jewish. Even the universalization of air-conditioned hotels across America drew customers away from the aging resorts primarily built before this innovation became popular. 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. By the mid-1990s, nearly 300 hotels and motels had gone out of business in Sullivan County.
The 1970s took a toll on more lavish establishments such as the Flagler and The Laurels. In 1986 Grossinger's closed for renovations, and the property was abandoned by new owners midway through work. Grossinger's largest historic rival (and the largest of all the Borscht Belt resorts), the Concord, benefitted only temporarily, filing for bankruptcy in 1997 and closing 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.
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Plans are now in place by those who purchased former Borscht Belt resorts Concord Resort Hotel and Grossinger's 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, 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.
The Granit currently operates as the Hudson Valley Resort.
The Tamarack Lodge caught fire in 2012. Thirty buildings were partially or completely destroyed.
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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.
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)
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