Borscht Belt is a colloquial term used to describe a show business circuit based around a number of predominantly Jewish resort hotels in the Catskill Mountains. Coined during the early twentieth century, the name comes from the popularity of borscht in the cuisine of the hotel restaurants. The region is world famous as the birthplace of Jewish-American Vaudeville humor.

Known by many names, including "Borscht Circuit", the "Sour Cream Sierras", the "Jewish Alps" and "Bagel Aristocracy", it was regarded not only for the considerable quantity of kosher food served there, but for the many Jewish entertainers and comedians who got their start performing in the resorts. Artists such as Al Jolson, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and Buddy Hackett (to name but a very few) made names for themselves playing to the crowds of vacationers.

From the turn of the century through the 1970s, working class Jews went to the New York Catskills for fresh air and relaxation, escaping the heat and "workers' disease" of the city to lodge at the famous boarding houses for the summer months. Saving their money all year, an entire family could leave their small flat in Brooklyn or the Bronx and rent a bedroom in a large house with cooking and food storage privileges for about US$60 a season. Grossinger's, the most famous of the resorts, began with accommodations for nine boarders in a seven-room house set amidst a hundred acres of rocky land, and eventually attracted thousands to its kosher kitchen with all-you-can-eat matzoh balls, gefilte fish and lox. The modest boarding houses eventually grew into sprawling hotels surrounded by golf courses, swimming pools and night clubs.

After the end of World War II when the Jews began to move out of the Lower East Side, the Borscht Belt became a playground for the affluent. Small villages of summer cottages known as "Bungalow Colonies" began to grow around the resort areas, and produced a new economy of little butcher shops, produce markets, candy stores and concession stands. But by the late 1950s, the popularity of the region had peaked, and economical alternatives such as cheap air fares to Florida and elsewhere spelled the end of the Borscht Belt's crowds of holiday makers. The burlesque entertainment that had drawn millions to the region was being gradually replaced by an emerging mass medium: television.

Today, the Borscht Belt is but a shadow of its glorious past. Though far fewer in number, many of the fabulous resorts remain as meccas of nostalgia for a bygone era. Scenes from the movie Dirty Dancing were filmed there, and the circuit continues to draw popular entertainers as well as tourists and conventioneers. Organizations such as The Catskills Institute are working to preserve the history of the Borscht Belt and to promote it as a living landmark of Jewish-American culture.


Source information: pbs.org • columbia.edu • prairie.org • riverrun

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