The area of the New York Catskills called the Borscht Belt came into being at the turn of the twentieth century and grew in popularity through the 1970s. During summers and holidays, Jews—primarily of Eastern European descent, from working to upper-middle class, and frequently first generation Americans—flocked to the Borscht Belt, where they enjoyed mainstream American leisure activities and entertainment in a place where they knew they'd be welcomed as Jews. Many people also came to the Borscht Belt to work—as waiters, owners, chefs, musicians, comics, and busboys. Not only did many students earn money for college by working summers in the Borscht Belt resorts, but many nationally known entertainers, especially comedians, got their start there. The Jewish culture that flourished in the Borscht Belt gradually overflowed into the mainstream, where it significantly influenced American popular culture.
The Borscht Belt was about 100 miles northwest of New York City in Sullivan and Ulster counties in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Sometimes known as the "Jewish Alps," it covered an area of about 250 square miles. Jewish farmers, encouraged by the Jewish Agricultural Society, started settling this rural area beginning in the 1820s. Prefiguring the "back-to-the-earth communes" of the 1960s, some Jewish settlers founded socialist agricultural communities, and some of the bungalow colonies fomented much left-wing activity. In the Mirth Bungalow Colony, for example, "entertainment" included political discussions and poetry readings.
As early as the 1870s, middle-and upper-class Jews began to spend summers in this region, but as their numbers increased they were excluded from many resorts due to anti-Semitism. By the late 1890s and early 1900s, farmers started to offer their places as Jewish boarding houses and hotels that served kosher food. One of the largest resorts, The Nevele, continued to be a working farm until 1938. Eventually, most of the farmers realized it was more profitable to rent to visitors than to farm and they completely gave up farming. In the early 1900s, the Workmen's Circle, a left-leaning Jewish group, opened a sanitarium in the Catskills, providing "fresh air" for Jewish tuberculosis patients excluded from other sanitariums because of anti-Semitism. Unions such as the ILGWU opened up resorts where workers could recuperate. And perhaps most significantly, Yiddish actor Boris Thomaschevsky opened a resort with large indoor and outdoor theaters, thus beginning the Borscht Belt's influential entertainment tradition.
The postwar boom of the 1950s greatly helped the growth of the Borscht Belt. Not only did more people have disposable income, but also many owned cars, and the government built more highways on which to drive them. By 1952, there were 509 hotels and boarding houses in Sullivan County. During this period of popularity, more than a million people came to the Borscht Belt in the summers. The general trend was for "stay-at home" mothers, grandparents, and children to live in these rustic to resort dwellings all summer, while "working" fathers came for weekends. The larger resorts became known for their grand (kosher) all-you-can-eat feasts and higher caliber entertainers. However, whether small or large, all the establishments tried to feed the "American Dream" of leisure time and excess: advertising exaggerated the caliber of entertainers, the quality of food, and the size of basketball courts and other recreational facilities. Conversely, Jewish guests who were trying to assimilate into mainstream American culture sensationalized, to themselves and others, what was really available to them.
Despite exaggeration, the Borscht Belt birthed innumerable nationally known figures, especially in the entertainment world. Many Jewish entertainers started in the Borscht Belt because of anti-Semitism that excluded them from working in other venues. Additionally, their work included Jewish cultural references, not understood outside the Jewish world. However, as these entertainers became nationally popular, the Jewish content of their work became more familiar and understood in the mainstream and their work became more mainstream—with less specific Jewish content. Jewish life became known and integrated into American life and vice versa, often because of Borscht Belt entertainers.
A plethora of well-known comedians got their start in the Borscht Belt, including Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Danny Kaye, Buddy Hackett, Lenny Bruce, and Sid Ceasar. Five-year-old Jerry Lewis debuted at a Borscht Belt hotel singing "Brother Can You Spare A Dime." Others started out as comedians but moved to other areas of the entertainment world, especially TV. Jack Barry, for instance, was a standup comedian who met and teamed up with Dan Enright in Borscht Belt clubs. They started Winky Dink and You, a children's show known for the special transparent covers children had to put over the TV screen so they could draw the "hidden pictures" during Winky's adventures. Barry and Enright were also instrumental in producing and hosting early game shows, such as Concentration and Tic Tac Dough.
Cultural changes beginning in the late 1970s brought on the downfall of the Borscht Belt. As airplane transportation became more affordable, it was both easier and more enticing to travel to places further than the Catskills. Women, especially middle-class women, again entered the work force en masse, which prevented them from spending entire summers in the resorts. Many Jews became more assimilated and felt less of a need to be in separate establishments. Anti-Semitism lessened and many Jewish entertainers did not need to start in Jewish-only establishments.
By the 1980s and 1990s, only a few of the large hotels remained, and their cultural influence was virtually non-existent. Some smaller establishments were burned for insurance and some were sold as meditation centers, ashrams, or drug rehabilitation centers. Bungalow colonies were bought and occupied by Orthodox and Hassidic Jews, whose lifestyle necessitated separate communities. Some Yiddish culture, however, periodically still came alive in the Catskills through the 1990s. For example, Klezkamp is a weeklong annual event held in the Catskills at the end of December. Although primarily billed for Klezmer musicians, Klezkamp is attended by many families of all ages who go to Yiddish classes, lectures, cooking classes, dances, concerts and more, to experience and preserve rich Yiddish culture.
While some are critical of the term Borscht Belt—believing it to be pejorative—whatever the name, clearly the specific Jewish culture born there affected popular culture for many decades.
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