New projects aim to keep Borscht Belt memory alive with historical markers, museum
This summer in the Catskills, programs will place plaques in town centers, open pop-up exhibits, hold a festival and comedy show to commemorate and celebrate Jewish heyday
NEW YORK — The Nevele Grand Hotel is crumbling in a lonely corner of the Catskills. The entrance to the tower housing its hundreds of rooms is littered with debris, and tattered insulation hangs from fissures in the ceiling. Vandals have smashed out most of the room windows and graffiti mars the building’s white facade. The 10-story structure looms over a pool complex overtaken by vegetation, including a jacuzzi, a cafe and a golf pro shop, its floor covered in dirt, moss and shattered glass.
During its midcentury heyday, the Nevele was one of the more prominent of the resorts hosting throngs of Jewish vacationers in the Catskill Mountains in an iconic and formative cultural moment for American Jews that has had a lasting impact on US society.
The stream of visitors dried up decades ago, though, and nearly all of the other resorts, hotels and bungalows have also fallen into disrepair or been destroyed, as the memory of the so-called Borscht Belt fades in the region.
Grassroots groups are working to preserve that memory, though, with projects to set up historical markers, open a museum, hold cultural events, develop educational curricula and photograph the remnants of the resorts. In addition to memorializing the bygone milieu, they hope the initiatives will boost the area’s lagging economy, connect more Jews with their history and combat antisemitism.
The efforts come amid renewed interest in the historical chapter due to social trends, its nostalgic aesthetic and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the hit Amazon series set during the era.
“The story of the Borscht Belt, it’s unique,” said Jerry Klinger, the head of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, who is involved in the historical marker project. “It’s a far bigger, far richer story than many people appreciate.”
“This is part of American culture and history,” he said.
‘A particular summer home’
Jewish immigrants flooded into the US in the late 1800s to escape violent antisemitism in Europe. Many of the Yiddish-speaking arrivals built a foothold in the New World while coping with widespread antisemitism and living in tenements in New York. The crowded living quarters were sweltering in the summer; air conditioning hadn’t been invented and some residents would sleep at night on outdoor fire escapes to get away from the heat.
Around the turn of the century, New York Jews began traveling upstate to the Catskills for a break during the summer. The mountainous region is located around 90 miles north of New York City and known for its forests, fresh air and small towns. Some Jews also settled in the area, establishing farms and renting out rooms to boarders during the summer for extra income. Many hotels in the US barred Jews, with ads from the era warning “no Hebrews or consumptives accepted,” “Gentiles only,” or “Christian clientele only.” Other facilities did not offer kosher services.
A mostly-Yiddish publication called the Jewish Farm Almanac began publishing a “Jewish Vacation Guide” in the 1910s to inform readers about businesses that were safe and welcomed Jews. Many of the advertisements were for “farm houses” for boarders in the Catskills that publicized their kosher services, fresh food grown on the property and amenities such as hot water, telephones and electric lights.
“A particular summer home for particular Jewish-American folks. Strictly kosher Hungarian cuisine. Music and dancing every evening,” said an ad for a place called the Bell House.
The early boarding houses laid the groundwork for a Jewish vacation hotspot. Some of them abandoned farming to focus on hosting, or built out their properties to accommodate more visitors. Grossinger’s, an inspiration for the film “Dirty Dancing,” started as a farm in the 1910s.
The lodgings soon grew into a network of hundreds of hotels, bungalow colonies and resorts, some with thousands of rooms and perks including pools, nightclubs, theaters and restaurants.
The crowds picked up around the 1920s, and by the peak in the 1950s, a half-million people each year were enjoying the getaways during the summer, according to Northeastern University’s Catskills Institute. The scene became known as the Jewish Alps, the Mountains, or the Borscht Belt, referring to the beet soup that was popular with the European emigres.
The lodgings were more than just a place to sleep, though. They became their own summer world, giving the visitors an American leisure experience within the comfort and safety of their own immigrant Jewish groups. Some of the facilities were associated with specific neighborhoods in the city, allowing community members to congregate together during their vacations. Often the women and children would stay upstate during the week while the husbands went back to the city to work, returning on the weekends by train, bus or car. Young people found summer work in the resorts to help fund their education, or sought out romance.
The resorts focused on providing visitors with an abundance of food and entertainment, like modern-day cruise ships. The Nevele had a golf course, a country club, a lake with motorboats, lavish decor and an indoor pool.
The area also became a stomping ground and staging point for comedians, musicians and other performers. Entertainers could start at smaller hotels, hone their acts in front of tough crowds in nightly shows, watch their peers perform and work their way up to the bigger resorts. There were also high-level theater performances and some resorts had their own sports teams.
As an entertainment center, the Borscht Belt became a draw for both Jewish and non-Jewish performers, like Broadway or Las Vegas. Many of those involved went on to work in television and other venues outside the Catskills, exporting the Borscht Belt back out to the rest of America.
Stand-up comedy was a linchpin of the scene, featuring comedians including Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield and Lenny Bruce. The Borscht Belt’s stand-up ethos reverberates until today in US entertainment and New York City’s renowned comedy scene.
Other minorities also found refuge in the region, including Black, Irish, Italian and LGBTQ Americans. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in professional baseball in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a frequent guest at Grossinger’s and befriended the Grossinger family. A bungalow called Casa Susanna provided a safe space for the gender non-conforming.
Memory and decay
The Borscht Belt was in decline by the 1970s as antisemitism waned, Jewish Americans became more integrated, many moved out of the city, new generations replaced the old, and air travel became more affordable. Most of the resorts were out of business by the 1980s.
Today, the buildings are dilapidated, destroyed, or have been repurposed, and those who frequented the Borscht Belt have died or grown old. The bungalow colonies are overgrown with weeds, sagging on the roadside. Grossinger’s was partially destroyed in a fire last year. Brown’s, another leading resort, burned down in 2012. The Concord shut its doors in 1998 and Kutsher’s closed in 2013. Its building was demolished and the property transformed into a wellness resort. The region’s economy also deteriorated as tourism dried up.
Visitors to the Nevele today need to sneak in through a hole in a fence and walk over a stream on a rusted beam to access the derelict property. A sign on the road offers its 550 acres for sale, the resort in the distance barely visible through the trees.
Several new grassroots projects aim to keep the memories alive, though.
Photographer Marisa Scheinfeld was raised in the Catskills and in 2016 published an acclaimed book documenting the resorts called “The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland.” The images depict the decay, solitude and lasting character of the properties.
She later connected with Klinger of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, which sets up historical markers in public spaces around the US to inform passersby about local Jewish history. There are historical plaques in public areas around New York State, but none dedicated to the Jewish history of the Catskills.
Scheinfeld and Klinger launched the Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project last year to highlight and celebrate that history, in a permanent way.
“The Borscht Belt, we’re moving so far away from it that the people who lived it, like my grandparents, are dead and gone, and it’s becoming less and less part of the memory, and even the physical places are disappearing,” Scheinfeld said. “Having historical markers seems really appropriate right now.”
“It needs to be set in stone somewhere because really, at this point, you don’t see anything but ruins,” said Isaac Jeffreys, the project’s visual coordinator.
The project will place 15 to 20 markers around the Catskills, mostly in town centers. The colorful, weighty, handmade metal plaques will each measure 40 x 32 inches (102 x 81 centimeters), much larger than the public historical markers seen around New York State. They will be etched with a general explanation of the Borscht Belt on one side, and specifics about each location on the other side, along with relevant imagery and a QR code linking to more information online. The markers are meant to appeal to both the older generation and young people who are less familiar with the history.
“My way of looking at things is that we can do a movie on it, six people will watch it, then they’ll forget about it. Maybe write a book, they end up in the back shelf on a dusty corner,” Klinger said. “These markers become a visible type of thing that communities become proud of and it’ll help attract cultural tourism.”
The markers will be dedicated in each location in events with free public programming aimed at celebrating the area’s history. The first dedication will take place on May 25 in Monticello, followed by a screening of the documentary “Welcome to Kutsher’s” and a talk by the film’s directors.
Two more marker dedications will take place in August in Mountain Dale and Swan Lake, and the events will continue through the fall and next year. Some of the visual materials created by the organizers will also be exhibited in a gallery in Mountain Dale over the summer.
The initiative collaborated with a Catskills county historian to verify the accuracy of the information on the markers, and area officials supported and “loved the project,” Scheinfeld said. The area’s economy has struggled in recent decades, but some of the towns are on the upswing with an increase in tourism and city-dwellers buying second homes, and the project will be an added boost for visitors and local interest.
Once the markers are all in place, the organizers plan to link them with a map and audio tour, encouraging travelers to visit different towns in the region. Klinger also plans to put up a second network of smaller historical plaques at Jewish sites in the Catskills, such as former synagogues.
The project also plans to develop an educational curriculum for students and school groups and will translate it to Hebrew or Yiddish for the large number of Orthodox visitors to parts of the region, some of whom have adopted old Borscht Belt facilities.
Klinger said the markers also serve to “promote the Jewish story.” He cited a visit he once made to Deadwood, South Dakota, which has a Jewish history dating back to its early days during the 19th-century gold rush. While on a tour, he asked one of the locals about a menorah he had seen there. The man, not knowing Klinger was Jewish, grumbled about the Jews who “showed up after we did.”
“It’s my way of fighting antisemitism, our denial of historic presence and legitimacy,” he said of the markers. “This is the fabric of the American experience. We’ve had dozens of stories like this that nobody knows. We impacted the development of modern American culture and the Borscht Belt was central.”
“Jews, non-Jews, all of us together are part of the story.”
Appreciation for the past
Jeffreys, the project’s visual coordinator, has visited and studied the resorts over the past six years. He photographs the buildings at night, using lighting to produce imaginative, “escapist” images of the broken structures.
“I don’t really get that same feeling that you would get in an abandoned building that would creep you out,” he said, likening the resorts’ present state to that in Chernobyl, the Soviet city frozen in time by the 1986 nuclear disaster.
“There’s this sort of hidden, lost oasis, like a ghost town, flowers growing out of castle-looking hotels in the forest, gigantic theaters that were named after Hollywood stars, just sitting there,” Jeffreys said of the resorts. “I look around, look at the architecture, try to think of what it once looked like.”
On a similar track to the markers project, another group is set to open the Borscht Belt Museum in the town of Ellenville.
The museum will be set in a stately, 1920s-era bank building at the entrance to the town and plans to open in 2025. The former Home National Bank had been one of the few that was willing to lend to early Jewish hoteliers.
The museum will present artifacts, archival media, lectures, films, educational materials, and high-tech interactive exhibits meant to appeal to the young. Organizers collaborated with the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research and the Catskills Institute at Northeastern University.
“This museum can be educational and also fun. You can learn about comedy and how we got to where we are, but also learn about the underlying forces and the bigotry,” said Andrew Jacobs, the co-president of the museum’s board.
“It’s a happy kind of museum. A lot of Jewish museums are very sad — it’s the Holocaust, pogroms, persecution,” he said. The new museum is “a way of showcasing the contributions of the Jews.”
“Jews are part of the American experiment and they are a really big part of the story.”
In addition to material on Jews, the museum will highlight the region’s history as a refuge for other marginalized groups, and will lean into Borscht Belt comedy and its legacy, Jacobs said.
The groundwork for the museum’s collection came from Allen Frishman, a local plumber and building inspector. He had to condemn some of the Borscht Belt buildings in the area but rescued many artifacts before the bulldozers came through, storing his trove in sheds behind his home. The museum’s collection will include a phone booth, postcards, menus, kitchenware, and a large, yellow neon sign from Kutsher’s. A 1970s-era hotel room, complete with “garish decor,” will be recreated inside the bank’s vault, Jacobs said.
He believes Borscht Belt activities are picking up due to interest in the era’s aesthetic among young people and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“I think also there’s this new attention to marginalized groups and the rise in antisemitism. There’s this kind of moment,” he said. “It seems like there’s a lot happening with the Borscht Belt.”
The museum held a groundbreaking ceremony last week and will open a pop-up show to preview the collection in July. Most of its funding has come from Jewish donors and philanthropies, Jacobs said.
The museum’s organizers are also holding the first Borscht Belt Fest in Ellenville on July 29. The festival will celebrate the scene’s humor, culture and cuisine, featuring stand-up comics, live music, movies and educational programming. The festival partnered with New York City’s famed Comedy Cellar and will host a show by the venue.
On the menu will be traditional Jewish deli fare — knishes, pastrami, and of course, borscht.
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