The board of the Borscht Belt Museum at the groundbreaking, this past April. Elliott Auerbach, Allen Frishman, and Andrew Jacobs appears second, third, and fourth from the left, respectively

Courtesy Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project

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Back to the Borscht Belt

A string of new projects pay homage to the Jewish history in the Catskills—and the area’s Jewish revival

Jamie Betesh Carter
July 20, 2023
The board of the Borscht Belt Museum at the groundbreaking, this past April. Elliott Auerbach, Allen Frishman, and Andrew Jacobs appears second, third, and fourth from the left, respectively

Courtesy Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project

This summer in the Catskills, everything that’s old is new again—and some things are just plain new. It’s not quite a revival of the old Borscht Belt, where hundreds of thousands of Jews used to spend their summers decades ago. But it’s a step toward a new Jewish culture in the mountains of New York State, which builds on and commemorates what came before.

The area’s iconic hotels from bygone days—Grossinger’s, The Pines—may be gone, but new historical markers are being placed throughout Sullivan and Ulster Counties to mark where they stood; these days, visitors can stay at newer boutique hotels like Kenoza Hall and Scribner’s Catskills Lodge that pay homage to what once was. Comic legends like Jerry Seinfeld and Mel Brooks may not be performing at the Nevele anymore, but this month’s Borscht Belt Fest will bring new comedians, musical performers, and food purveyors to Ellenville, New York, during a weekend festival that pays tribute to the old days while focusing on a new generation of entertainment. And while the physical institutions that once housed all of these memories and memorabilia have been dismantled, The Borscht Belt Museum will host exhibits that bring us right back in time to the golden age of the Catskills.

It’s been more than 30 years since even the last of the Catskills’ resorts was a popular destination. They’ve been talked about and represented in movies and stories for years, but why are people only now putting a stake in the ground to remember and reflect on what once was? “Many of the people who lived in this golden age of the Catskills are growing old,” said Andrew Jacobs, president of the Borscht Belt Museum’s board of trustees. “And at this moment, there’s a zeitgeist thing I feel happening with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and younger people really fascinated by mid-century modern nostalgia.”

And while many members of younger generations may have gotten a glimpse of the golden age of the Catskills from Dirty Dancing, never before has there been such an established effort from so many organizations and individuals to truly, physically honor the history of the Borscht Belt.

“While the topic is abundant, it doesn’t really have that much existence in the region,” said Marisa Scheinfeld, founder and director of The Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project. “I do believe people want to look back at the past now because they see remnants of it. So while we hope the markers teach about history, we also hope they encourage tourism throughout all the counties.”

Momentum has been building for the past few years.

“The renaissance started happening up here around 2018,” said Scheinfeld. “And then, 2020 really brought an influx of people who left the city, which created a new need for more restaurants and stores to accommodate all of the people moving further and further away from the pandemic. Every summer, the Catskills just seem busier and busier.”

The area is definitely experiencing a rejuvenation. It may look completely different, but the area is still a retreat for visitors to relax, indulge, connect with nature, and just take a break from life.

“I look at it like it’s a smorgasbord,” said Scheinfeld. “There is the Orthodox Jewish group going up there, creating their own Jewish vacation land, and you have people that go up there for the yoga and meditation retreats, some of which are old hotels. And you have the Brooklyn hipsters, people going up for the breweries. I find that it’s the same reasons why people have always gone.”

The Catskills—or “the Mountains” or “the Jewish Alps,” as some visitors called it—were originally created as a refuge for American Jews looking to escape the heat of urban summers (before air-conditioning) who weren’t allowed at other resorts, due to antisemitism. At the area’s height in the 1950s, there were over 500 hotels, and 50,000 bungalow colonies in Sullivan and Ulster Counties, a few hours outside New York City by car or train. The range was vast: Fancier hotels hosted guests like Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand. Other accommodations were known as kuch-aleyns, more rustic and affordable summer family bungalows or cabins with shared kitchens.

The Borscht Belt—this Jewish world in the Catskills—had its heyday from the 1920s through the ’60s, though some institutions tried to remain relevant into the ’90s. Among the most popular hotels were the Nevele, Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s, and The Pines. Some say this was where Jewish comedy originated and where many now-famous comedians and musicians got their start, from Joan Rivers to Jackie Mason and the Four Tops to Buddy Hackett.

Non-Jews vacationed in the Catskills, too, but the Jewish scene had its own distinct infrastructure and culture. These destinations became institutions that had long-term impacts on Jewish culture today. “These enormous hotels with all of these leisure activities helped teach several generations of Jews what to actually do with leisure time,” said Deborah Dash Moore, an author and the former director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. “This was a new thing for Jews in America. If you were on slack season in the garment industry, you weren’t just out of work, but you could actually have vacation time.” The larger Catskills hotels marketed just that: appetizing food, fabulous entertainment, all-season sports activities and, most important, a feeling of belonging among those returning year after year. The bungalow colonies and kuch-aleyns, while not as fancy, allowed for a different type of leisure: a reprieve for those simply looking to escape the city’s heat.

Then it all seemed to vanish.

“How did an area that was so focused and successful in a matter of a very short period just completely disappear?” said Sims Foster, co-founder—with his wife, Kirsten Harlow Foster—of Foster Supply Hospitality, which operates numerous hotels and restaurants in Sullivan County, from Nine River Road in Callicoon to The Arnold House in Livingston Manor.

Due to a confluence of factors—the decline of antisemitism and wider acceptance of Jews, the increase in air and auto travel and air-conditioning becoming more widespread—most of the once sought-after destinations in the Catskills were forced to close. While some were abandoned, dilapidated, or burned down, some have been converted into camps for Hasidic children or yoga retreat centers, and some have even been reinvented as modern-day bungalow resorts.

While the infamous Borscht Belt era was long gone by the time Sims Foster was growing up in Livingston Manor, he heard whisperings of what once was from his family. “The demise actually laid a new foundation for where we are now,” said Foster. “This is not the Borscht Belt anymore. But those vestiges of what was allowed us to build on this incredible heritage of tourism and hospitality. We got to reinterpret the area in a way that made sense for our generation.”

Looking back at the old Jewish Catskills, the Borscht Belt Museum will be housed in the former Home National Bank in Ellenville. Slated to open fully in 2025 after the building is completely remodeled, the museum will both bring visitors back in time to the Borscht Belt’s prime and open their eyes to the impact the Catskills has had on today’s culture. Organizers plan to include film, audio, visual, and immersive experiences.

“It’s not going to be a museum with only glass cases full of old postcards,” said Jacobs. “It’s going to be much more of an interpretive, experiential museum.” Jacobs is a long-time New York Times reporter who divides his time between Manhattan and the Catskills hamlet of Napanoch. In 2009, he directed Four Seasons Lodge, a documentary about a community of Holocaust survivors who shared a bungalow colony in Ellenville.

Elliott Auerbach, former mayor of Ellenville, grew up in the town, working for many years in the Borscht Belt hotels: He mucked stalls at the Nevele, worked as a busboy at The Fallsview Hotel, and taught skiing at The Pines. “As a kid, I used to go into the back of the hotel nightclubs when the entertainment was on,” he said. “I probably saw every comedian, every singer, from that genre, and it was just amazing.” Now he’s on the museum’s board of trustees. “When people ask me about the museum, I say it’s where Mrs. Maisel meets Dirty Dancing,” he said. “That’s probably the best way to describe that era.”

The museum launched a pop-up exhibit in the space this month called “Vacationland! Catskills Resort Culture 1900-1980,” which features a glimpse into what the full museum will offer. Much of the memorabilia will be borrowed from the private collection of Allen Frishman, an author, preservationist, and Catskills local. As the former building inspector for the town of Fallsburg, New York, Frishman rescued and collected tons of objects from hotels and bungalow colonies after they closed for good—such as a phone booth from The Aladdin Hotel in Woodbourne, New York, the sign from The Eldorado Hotel in Fallsburg, and the only remaining seat from The Lyceum Theatre in Woodbridge, New York, as well as smaller items like bungalow keychains. His home in Mountain Dale, New York, could be a museum itself. “The stuff that’s going in the pop-up museum is only a taste of what I have,” said Frishman. “It’s way too much stuff that I’ve been collecting. It’s in drawers, it’s in cabinets. I’ve got two sheds.”

Frishman has been inspecting the sites of former hotels and bungalow colonies in the Catskills since the late 1980s. “I just knew these places were historic, and it was going to disappear if I didn’t save it,” said Frishman. “Everything has a story, and I’m so happy that there’s finally going to be a place to display them all.” He hopes his years of collecting literally tons of Catskills memorabilia will draw old and young visitors to the museum and the festival. “It’s going to bring back the memories, but it’s also going to teach younger people this is the way we lived. It was a certain time in history that people had to make their own fun.”

A tour of Frishman’s home collection of old Catskills memorabilia will be part of the lineup of Borscht Belt Fest, organized by the people behind the museum, taking place July 29 and 30. (Disclaimer: Tablet is a media sponsor of the Borscht Belt Fest, and Tablet’s Executive Editor Wayne Hoffman is on the advisory board.) Combining comedy, live music, film, food, and art, organizers hope to give guests a taste of what visitors would get from the original Borscht Belt back in the day. Through all of this, Jacobs hopes to help people realize the impact the Borscht Belt has had on our society today. “I think our role is to help preserve, perpetuate, and celebrate this very seminal moment in history,” he said. “Stand-up comedy was really incubated up here. And so, in a way, the essence of American humor is really Jewish humor, and Borscht Belt humor.”

Comedy writer and performer Bill Scheft performed at hotels like The Pines, and will be taking the stage again at this summer’s festival. “The Catskills is where you would go to see the huge shows,” said Scheft. “You’d go to the Concord and see Sammy Davis Jr., or to the Nevele and see Shecky Greene. They were huge, huge shows.”

While the festival will honor the past with events like “Stars of the Borscht Belt: The Entertainment Legacy of the Catskills,” “If You’re Having a Good Time, Tell Your Face!: Writing and Performing Stand-up in the Catskills,” and of course a viewing of Dirty Dancing, it will also bring new voices and faces of music, comedy, art, and food into the mix—not all of them Jewish. “Lucie Pohl’s Immigrant Jam” will feature first-generation comics celebrating the beauty of diversity, and a comedy show titled “New Faces in Stand-up,” curated by Ellenville native and stand-up comic Alejandro Morales, will feature up-and-coming comedians, many of them not directly connected to the Borscht Belt.

“The traditional style of stand-up comedy really evolved because of the Borscht Belt,” said Morales. “It used to be unheard of for one person to just go out and talk to people. But those classic Borscht Belt comedians, and that art form, grew into what became modern stand-up comedy, which is what I’m in love with doing. So even though I did miss the heyday of Borscht Belt comedy, I feel very plugged into that tradition.”

The larger-than-life theme of the Borscht Belt didn’t just apply to the entertainment activities; the food at the Catskills resorts was abundant as well. Visitors developed many hobbies like skiing, skating, and swimming at the resorts, and eating became a hobby in and of itself. Known for offering a wide variety of traditional Jewish foods, these resorts actually created the all-inclusive model, forcing some to loosen their belts after meals. Some hotels tried keeping up with the times by diversifying their menus and offering more contemporary cuisine. Much to their surprise, they failed—visitors just wanted the Jewish foods they knew and either loved to eat or loved to complain about. “Eating was a way of performing the everyday Jewish culture,” said Jeffrey Yoskowitz, food entrepreneur and Borscht Belt Museum advisory board member. “The Catskills was really a container for Jewish culinary tradition.” Yoskowitz will be speaking at a panel titled “From Pushcarts to Poolside: An Immigrant History of Food,” as well as judging a babka-eating contest.

“A lot of the Catskills stories being told don’t speak to the catering and all of the work in the food ecosystem to make it all happen,” said Yoskowitz. “The festival will honor the food history of the Catskills. If we can learn the origins of these food traditions, it allows for new stories to be written that can have even more meaning.”

While the museum and the festival are celebrating the unique history of the Catskills, organizers and historians also see this as a celebration of Jewish tradition and culture. “I like to say that this is the happy Jewish museum,” said Jacobs. “As opposed to most Jewish museums that have a larger section about persecution, this is happy because it shines a light on the triumphs of Jews in America and the successes and the achievements. There isn’t enough celebration of Judaism as a positive force in the American experience.”

Once connected to the museum and festival and now operating as a separate project, The Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project will place plaques at places of interest around the region. “The markers project will hopefully achieve something that doesn’t exist, which is the historic declaration that all of this history happened here,” said Scheinfeld. While the museum will live in one place, aggregating many stories, memories, and artifacts, the marker project will be more like a traveling exhibit that honors the locations where these institutions once lived. “The physical spaces of where the Borscht Belt really transpired are truly coming to an end,” said Scheinfeld. “The marker project is even more timely than ever because you can drive by where The Palms hotel was—and where we’re going to put a marker nearby. That used to be an unbelievable, huge, futuristic, mid-century modern hotel where great acts played, and if you drive by there now, you would never know.”

Scheinfeld considers herself a local, having grown up in the Catskills. As a documentary photographer by trade, she was always interested in capturing the beauty of her ever-changing surroundings. And while she’s published a book about the area, she’s excited to help create a project that will help others explore the history of the Catskills.

The first marker was unveiled on May 25, 2023, outside the Ethelbert B. Crawford Library in Monticello, New York. It gives an overview of the Borscht Belt, explaining the historical significance of the area, and goes into detail about what once existed in Monticello: about 65 hotels and 133 bungalow colonies in the town alone. “Kutsher’s Country Club was known for its sports and entertainment scene,” the marker reads. “Wilt Chamberlain worked as a bellhop while playing on the hotel’s basketball team before rising to NBA fame.”

More than 100 people attended the first marker celebration, including locals to the area, historians, family members of hoteliers, and people who used to frequent the hotels and bungalow colonies being honored. “The Borscht Belt—either you love it or you hate it,” said John Conway, Sullivan County historian. “For decades, hotel owners tried to escape from that nickname, and yet today it survives. Over the last six months, my phone and emails have lit up by inquiries from around the world wanting to know about the Borscht Belt.”

With funding from The Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, a total of 20 markers are slated to go up in the next few years. Being designed in a cohesive system, the markers will go from one end of Sullivan County all the way into Ulster County. The next marker to be unveiled is slated for Aug. 13, in Mountain Dale, where hotels such as The Evergreen Hotel and Rashkin’s Little Falls Hotel once stood. Other markers will debut in Swan Lake, South Fallsburg, Woodridge, and more.

“The way we’re approaching it is really experiencing the Borscht Belt,” said Scheinfeld. “You’re really going to drive through every town where documented hotels and bungalows existed. It’s going to be something that you can listen to with friends or family.” Each marker that’s put up will be accompanied by public programming.

These resorts that mainly catered to Jewish New Yorkers were truly a sign of the times. Many flocked to the mountains because they simply weren’t welcome elsewhere due to the fact that they were Jewish. “Even though it was born of bigotry, it ended up producing this cultural flourishing that had a real impact on American culture,” said Jacobs. “We hope to document that, celebrate that, and help younger generations understand that.”

Dash Moore said there’s “nothing like it” today: “It makes you feel old, which is part of what you want history to do. You don’t want it to feel like ‘I know this because I’m living it.’ You want it to feel like you’re not living it and you’re going to discover it.”

These days, air-conditioning is widespread, and air and automobile travel are more available. There is no doubt that the culture of the Borscht Belt has influenced what we watch, how we laugh, what we eat, and how we spend our leisure time today. And even though the peak of the Castkills seems to have passed eons ago, visitors keep coming back. “What made the region so special back in the day when it was a premier resort destination is what makes it so attractive again now,” said Keith Rubenstein, founder of Somerset Partners, the firm that has purchased the once-famous Nevele Hotel. “It’s beautiful, it’s proximate, but at the same time, it’s far enough to make you feel like you’re really away.” For Rubenstein, purchasing the hotel isn’t just a real-estate transaction. He feels close ties to the area, having visited the Nevele every year for more than 15 years as a child. His plans are to create a new destination that speaks to today’s generation while honoring the nostalgia of the hotel. “It’s exciting to see that there’s going to be a place where people can appreciate the history and the memories that were made here in the olden days and look forward to what’s going to happen now.”

How do you truly celebrate nostalgia while creating something new? How do you expose a new generation of people to their history while encouraging them to make their own new memories? “I don’t think anyone’s trying to re-create the Borscht Belt,” said Scheinfeld. “I think we’re just trying to sprinkle some of the history and nostalgia back in so that while people are moving forward and celebrating the future, they can also take a nod to the past and understand the magnitude of what happened here.”

What happened here was uniquely American.

“I think the big takeaway of these efforts is a recognition by American Jews that they actually have an American Jewish history, and that Jewish history is not only located in Europe,” said Dash Moore. “And therefore, it’s worth trying to understand that history and physically going to places and marking them.”

That Jewish culture isn’t just a part of the Catskills’ history—it is coming alive again.

“The symbolism to me is that there was a raging fire that got put out when the big hotels went under, but the embers remained and just needed oxygen,” said Foster. “And I think what we’ve really seen in the last five years is that there’s a nice fire to cook on again.”

Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.