Oy, Gevalt! It's the Borscht Belt!

By Lavine, Eileen | Moment, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Oy, Gevalt! It's the Borscht Belt!


Lavine, Eileen, Moment


Long before American Idol and YouTube, the road to stardom led through a constellation of Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains called the Borscht Belt. A pantheon of entertainment icons cut their comedy teeth there, among them Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Phil Silvers and Henny Youngman.

About 100 miles northwest of New York City, the Borscht Belt was a convenient escape from the city's sweltering summers. Jewish farmers who settled there in the 1820s soon found it profitable to rent out rooms to other Jews. Ads appeared in the Forward as early as 1902, according to author Stephen Birmingham. In The Rest of Us, he describes early lodgings as primitive affairs, "cheaply converted farmhouses ... divided up into tiny, cell like rooms," serving kosher meals in the clean, cool mountain air.

Unwelcome at hotels in many popular vacation spots like Saratoga and Coney Island, Jews began to establish their own. In the 1880s, Charles Fleischmann, a wealthy manufacturer, built Fleischmanns, an elaborate establishment in the town of Catskill that originally catered to Hungarian Jews. In the early 20th century, Boris Thoma shefsky, the famous Yiddish actor, opened Paradise Gardens near Woodstock, complete with indoor and outdoor theaters.

In the following decades, there were two distinct classes of Catskills accommodations. Those of modest means stayed in bungalow colonies or took a room in a boarding house with cooking facilities called kochalayn [cook alones]. Well-to-do families were drawn to increasingly regal Jewish resorts like the Concord, Grossingers and Kutsher's, which offered sumptuous kosher meals.

One of the staples served was borscht, the beet soup that Jews brought to America from Eastern Europe. Although it is unclear who invented it, the term Borscht Belt became ubiquitous shorthand for the Catskills Jewish hotels. It first appears in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary) in Pennsylvania's July 18, 1940, Gettysburg Times. The article reported that "the Broadway borscht belt will sprout a dude ranch ... A guy who owns a couple of hotels is soon to open a rootin'-tootin' place for the cowhands from Lindy's."

A highlight of a stay in the Borscht Belt was the nightly entertainment. Some of the talent worked as waiters and busboys in the hopes of a chance to show their stuff on stage. Others were struggling actors for whom the Borscht Belt was a lifesaver in the summer months. The star was the tummler, the social director, entertainer and resident matchmaker. In his 1968 The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten describes him as "a noise-maker, a fun-generator, a hilarity-organizer and overall buffoon ... His mission is to force every paying customer to 'have a ball. …

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Oy, Gevalt! It's the Borscht Belt!
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