Borscht Belt Redux Recaptures a Glittering Slice of 20th-century Jewish Life

Grossingers 1977; photo by John Margolies via Library of Congress

By Tzach Yoked

( Think about a resort spread out over dozens of kilometers, filled with hundreds of luxury hotels and guest houses – 532 if you want to know the exact number. About tens of thousands of tourists paddling in Olympic-sized swimming pools every day in summer, and tens of thousands skiing on the slopes of the nearby snow-covered mountains every day in winter.

Think about dozens of filled-to-capacity, 5-star hotels with glittering lobbies and more rooms than the largest hotels you’ve seen in Las Vegas. About wild parties with loud music and thousands of party-goers dancing into the wee hours of the night. About modern fitness rooms with boxing arenas where giants like Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano used to train. About gleaming basketball courts for the convenience of legends like Wilt Chamberlain (the man and his 100-point game) and Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerback, one of the greatest basketball coaches in U.S. history, with nine NBA championships to his credit.

Think about concerts and musicals staged in the theaters at the hotels, and about Barbra Streisand and Paul Newman who stay there on a regular basis. About comedians like Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld who show up to entertain vacationers – and if you’re lucky you will probably also find Elizabeth Taylor there quite often, relaxing in the lobby of the luxurious Grossinger’s hotel.

Now imagine hundreds of restaurants frequented by guests, and trendy menus. Probably the last thing that will come to mind is gefilte fish, tzimmes, calf’s foot jelly, kugel or cholent on Shabbat. And Romanian sorrel soup, aka borscht, probably won’t be the first thing you think of either.

Welcome to the Borscht Belt in the Catskill Mountains in southern New York State, an hour-and-a-half northwest of Manhattan, and one of the most successful and popular resorts in the world. The place where for almost 50 years, beginning in the 1930s, there were few Jewish families from New York that didn’t go there regularly on vacation. The lifeline of millions of members of the local Jewish community, the embodiment of the American Dream, and the place that no successful businessman or famous entertainer, whether Jewish or not, could allow himself to skip.

“New Yorkers hungry for mountain air, good food and the American way of leisure came to the mountains by the thousands … and inhabited the ‘summer world’ of bungalow colonies, summer camps and small hotels,” according to the Catskills Center website, which documents the Jewish history of the area. “These institutions shaped American Jewish culture, enabling Jews to become more American while at the same time introducing the American public to immigrant Jewish culture.”

More than any other hotel in the area, Grossinger’s symbolized the vacation revolution and the American Jewish community’s fulfillment of the American dream, and was once synonymous with unparalleled magnificence and eye-popping luxury. But last week work crews began to demolish the hotel, which has stood abandoned for almost 40 years. Like a dress that has gone out of fashion, Grossinger’s morphed from being a magnet for 150,000 guests a year to a white elephant of historic proportions that embodied, perhaps more than any other local hotel, the rise and fall of the Borscht Belt.

To a great extent this is the story of an entire Jewish community that saw its status constantly improving, left the sectoral confines that had been forced upon it and became exposed to new lifestyles, far from New York’s city limits.

Grossinger’s boasted a capaciousness and amenities that were unfamiliar even to members of America’s top decile: no fewer than 35 buildings over an area of 5,000 dunams (1,235 acres), which were marketed to the general public as the Kingdom of Outdoor Happiness. The place simply lacked for nothing: two Olympic-sized pools, one indoors and one outdoors; an ice-skating rink; a private ski slope (the first in the United States with artificial snow); a dining room that could hold 3,000 people; luxurious fitness facilities; tennis courts; a private landing strip – and, most important, an in-house matchmaker.

Woody Allen used to perform for guests there, as did comedians Jerry Lewis and Jerry Seinfeld. The famous Jewish entertainer Eddie Fisher spent his honeymoon there with his wife, Academy Award-winning actor Debbie Reynolds, and after they divorced he came there with his second wife, Elizabeth Taylor.

Photographic tributes

Today, parallel to the start of the demolition of Grossinger’s, there is a renewed interest in the United States in the famous Jewish resort area. A new exhibition based on the book of photographs by Marisa Scheinfeld, “The Borscht Belt – Revising the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland,” is scheduled to open soon in a museum in Albany, New York. In addition, in September there will be a special show in Las Vegas called “Night in the Catskills: A Borscht Belt Variety Show,” based on the stand-up comedy and music performed nightly in the Borscht Belt hotels.

“I was born in Brooklyn in 1980 and in 1986 my dad got a job offer in the Catskills and in Connecticut. He decided to move us to the Catskills because he had gone there as a kid, and his parents met in the Borscht Belt,” photographer Scheinfeld told Haaretz. “There was a lot of family history and it’s probably the story of many Jewish American families, who immigrated [to America] and ended up in New York. If you had the money and wanted to get out of the city, the Borscht was about two hours away – a place where Jews could go relax and have that American dream of having an American life and all the things that come with that.”

Added Scheinfeld, “My grandma used to go there with her grandmother, and one summer my grandmother met my grandfather, probably in the 1940s. Then they had my dad and would go there, and then when my dad had a family he decided to move there because of all the good memories he had as a kid. It was the coolest to be but just like any hot restaurant or hot club, people stop going, for many reasons. Things changed. It was the birthplace of stand-up comedy as we know it.”

She describes the resort as a combination of luxury hotels and guest houses “reminiscent of kibbutzim in Israel,” and explains that, “in the ’90s I worked as a life guard at the Concord Resort Hotel, and later the hotel closed. After that you saw that the area became very economically and culturally depressed because the community was gone.”

Scheinfeld’s new book focuses on the abandoned hotels that were not bought up or converted into something else: Some became spas, rehab centers or casinos, she says. Others were turned into yoga centers, and one even became a yeshiva for Vizhnitz Hasidim.

By contemporary standards, the Borscht Belt can be considered an impressive success story of Jewish entrepreneurship, demonstrations of mutual responsibility, and quite a bit of money that exchanged hands between wealthy property owners and successful businessmen all sharing the same faith. Except that the pictures of the joyful vacationers, crowded swimming pools and packed performance halls concealed a gloomy reality, which is almost inconceivable today. A situation of systematic, systemic anti-Semitism, in a country now considered to be Israel’s best friend on Earth. A story of institutional discrimination against Jews in New York – the city that is today considered to be a shining example of Jewish integration, with its plethora of synagogues and kosher restaurants.

“I know who caused the war: German-Jewish bankers,” industrialist Henry Ford said in 1915. Ten years later, he said, “What I oppose most is the international Jewish money power that is met in every war. That is what I oppose – a power that has no country and that can order the young men of all countries out to death.”

In Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, he published an article in 1920 called “Jewish Power and America’s Money Famine,” which asked the question: “Where is the American gold supply? … It may be in the United States but it does not belong to the United States,” and drew the conclusion that Jews controlled that supply and hence, America’s money.

If such statements would destroy Ford’s career today, in the 1920s and ’30s, apparently few Americans seemed to be overly upset by them.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 only worsened the situation of America’s Jews, who were portrayed as exploiters of the economy and became a convenient target of blame for all the problems plaguing the country. Ten years later, a Roper poll found that only 39 percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that “Jews are different and should be restricted.”

The rise of the Borscht Belt, with its myriad luxury hotels and halls and sports facilities, constitutes clear evidence of the fact that anti-Semitism imposed restrictions on U.S. Jews during the first half of the 20th century. That situation was reflected, for example, in the refusal to hire them for jobs, on quotas that restricted their numbers in the world of academia – and in the fact that they were not permitted to stay at many hotels and resorts. These limitations forced members of the Jewish community to adopt a lifestyle that was primarily evident in the public domain in synagogues, which also became community and social centers, at kosher eateries – and at the glittering resort hotels in the Catskills.

“Once Jews started to go [there] in large numbers, they had their own built-in community,” says Dr. Phil Brown, a professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University and director of the Catskills Institute. “Farms, businesses, professionals, day schools, yeshivas. Yiddish was spoken, 95 percent were kosher. And they also liked being around their own people.”

The big resorts – like Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s, the Concord, and the Nevele – “were pioneers of the all-inclusive vacation,” Brown adds, “offering three meals a day, snacks, entertainment, child care, sports facilities, everything you can get now at Club Med – plus a knish to die for.”

Parting shots

Some years ago, while living in California and working on projects that “always had a Jewish theme going through [them],” photographer Scheinfeld tells Haaretz, “I didn’t know what my next project should be and my mentor gave me this advice: ‘When you don’t know what to do you shoot what you know’ – go back to your roots, to your history. So I decided to go back … to my home in this place that once had 532 hotels and so much history. As I was driving around I noticed all these abandoned hotels, and that’s how the project began.”

People told her there was no point in documenting the place, she continues, “but I thought: There are so many stories in the photographs, of Jews in America – a story about assimilation, about Jews abandoning the Borscht Belt. Many American Jews love to cry about the death of the Borscht Belt; we [ourselves] went there but didn’t go back. I look at the book as the swan song for these hotels; many have been knocked down since it came out. It’s a record of what once was, of a world that’s vanished. Even though my photos are sad, this is a record of Jewish history, a celebration of how great it was that American Jews had this wonderful place for so many years.”

Thus began Scheinfeld’s five-year undertaking, wandering among empty swimming pools, peeling corridors, decrepit dining rooms, and abandoned synagogues with prayer books thrown on the floor and graffiti on the walls.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, this is simply a story of assimilation? About Jews who broke through boundaries and scattered in all directions – about those who, after the anti-Semitism in the early 20th century, began to lead a comfortable life that enabled them to abandon the traditional lifestyle, to eat at non-kosher eateries, to cancel their memberships in synagogues, to raise the children without any connection to religion – and to exchange Catskills hotels for the beaches of the Bahamas?

“I think that it’s not just a story of assimilation,” says Scheinfeld. “You can say Jews came to New York, they married non-Jews, they decided to go to non-Jewish hotels, they stopped eating kosher, they assimilated. But I think there are other reasons [for their situation]. It’s an American epidemic. As Americans what do we do? We suck up the hottest thing, we love it, we love it, we love it – and than we’re done with it and we throw it away.”