Borscht Belt or Jewish Alps in Upstate New York

Monday, 4 April 2022 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, Hotels
Reading Time:  9 minutes

Brickman's pool area in 1977 © Library of Congress - John Margolie

Brickman’s pool area in 1977 © Library of Congress – John Margolie

Borscht Belt, or Jewish Alps, is a colloquial term for the mostly defunct summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains in parts of Sullivan, Orange and Ulster counties in Upstate New York, United States. A source interviewed by Time magazine stated that the visits to the area by Jewish families was already underway “as early as the 1890s … Tannersville … was ‘a great resort of our Israelite brethren’…from the 1920s on [there were] hundreds of hotels”. A 2019 review of the history is more specific: “in its heyday, as many as 500 resorts catered to guests of various incomes”. These resorts, but also the bungalow colonies, were a popular vacation spot for New York City Jews from the 1920s through the 1960s. By the late 1950s, many began closing, with most gone by the 1970s, but some major resorts continued to operate, a few into the 1990s. Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel closed in 1986 and the Concord Resort Hotel struggled to stay open until 1998.

The word comes from borscht, a soup of Ukrainian origin, made with beetroot as the main ingredient giving it a deep reddish-purple color, that is popular in many Central and Eastern European countries and brought by Ashkenazi Jewish and Slavic immigrants to the United States. The name is a play on existing colloquial names for other American regions (e.g. the Bible Belt, the Rust Belt, etc.).

In the 1920s and into the 1930s, some hotels and resorts’ advertisements refused to accept Jews and indicated “No Hebrews or Consumptives” in their ads. This issue led to a need for alternatives that would readily accept Jewish families as guests. One report states that the larger hotels provided “Friday night and holiday services as well as kosher cooking”. At the hotels, “food was of primary importance … there was a sense that ‘too much was not enough'”, according to one source. “To understand the emphasis on food,” writes Johnathan Sarna, “one has to understand hunger. Immigrants had memories of hunger, and in the Catskills, the food seemed limitless”. The singles scene was also important; many hotels hired young male college students to attract the single girls of a similar age. One book about the era said that the Catskills “became one great marriage broker”. Borscht Belt hotels, bungalow colonies, summer camps, and kuchaleyns (a Yiddish name for self-catered boarding houses) flourished. The bungalows usually included “a kitchen/living room/dinette, one bedroom, and a screened porch” with entertainment being simple: bingo or a movie. The kuchaleyns were also visited often by middle and working-class Jewish New Yorkers. Because of the many Jewish guests, this area was nicknamed the Jewish Alps and “Solomon County” (a modification of Sullivan County) by many people who visited there. Resorts of the area included Brickman’s, Brown’s, The Concord, Grossinger’s, Granit, the Heiden Hotel, Irvington, Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club, the Nevele, Friar Tuck Inn, the Laurels Hotel and Country Club, the Pines Resort, Raleigh Hotel, the Overlook, the Tamarack Lodge, Shady Nook Hotel and Country Club, Stevensville, Stier’s Hotel, and the Windsor. Some of these hotels originated from farms that were established by immigrant Jews in the early part of the 20th century. Two of the larger hotels in High View (just north of Bloomingburg) were Shawanga Lodge and the Overlook. One of the high points of Shawanga Lodge’s existence came in 1959 when it was the site of a conference of scientists researching laser beams. The conference marked the start of serious research into lasers. The hotel burned to the ground in 1973. The Overlook, which offered entertainment and rooms, as well as bungalows, was operated by the Schrier family. The Granit Hotel and Country Club, located in Kerhonkson, boasted many amenities, including a golf course. It closed in 2015, and was renovated and turned into the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa, which closed in 2018. The property was sold in May 2019 to Hudson Valley Holding Co. LLC. The company did not announce its plans for the hotel.

Kutsher's in 1977 © Library of Congress - John Margolie The Concord Hotel dining room in 1978 © Library of Congress - John Margolie The Granit Resort © Acroterion/cc-by-sa-3.0 The Nevele hotel lobby in 1978 © Library of Congress - John Margolie Brickman's pool area in 1977 © Library of Congress - John Margolie Brown's hotel in 1977 © Library of Congress - John Margolie
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The Concord Hotel dining room in 1978 © Library of Congress - John Margolie
According to Time, “the Borscht Belt resorts reached their peak in the 1950s and 60s, accommodating up to 150,000 guests a year” but the start of a decline was apparent by the late 1960s. “Railways began cutting service to the area, the popularity of air travel increased, and a younger generation of Jewish-Americans chose other leisure destinations.” Another source mentions a secondary factor: “anti-Semitism declined, so Jews could go other places”. Access to the area improved with the opening of the George Washington Bridge and upgrade of old travel routes such as old New York State Route 17. On the other hand, passenger train access ended with the September 10, 1953 termination of passenger trains on the Ontario and Western Railway mainline from Roscoe at the northern edge of Sullivan County, through the Borscht Belt, to Weehawken, New Jersey. A 1940 vacation travel guide published by the railroad listed hundreds of establishments that were situated at or near the railway’s stations. The following year the New York Central ceased running passenger trains on its Catskill Mountain Branch. The area suffered as a travel destination in the late 1950s and especially by the 1960s. Another source also confirms that “cheap air travel suddenly allowed a new generation to visit more exotic and warmer destinations”. More women remained in the workforce after marriage and could not take off for the entire summer to relocate to the Catskillls. According to a recent source, by the early 1960s, some 25 to 30 percent of Grossinger’s visitors were not Jewish. A Times of Israel article specifies that “the bungalow colonies were the first to go under, followed by the smaller hotels. The glitziest ones hung on the longest” with some continuing to operate in the 1980s and even in the 1990s. The Concord, which outlasted most other resorts, went bankrupt in 1997 but survived until 1998. In 1987, New York’s mayor Ed Koch proposed buying the Gibber Hotel in Kiamesha Lake to house the homeless. The idea was opposed by local officials. The hotel instead became the religious school Yeshiva Viznitz.

The Heiden Hotel in South Fallsburg, which was the location of the movie Sweet Lorraine starring Maureen Stapleton, was destroyed by fire in May 2008. The Stevensville Hotel in Swan Lake, owned by the family of accused Bernard Madoff accomplice David G. Friehling, reopened as the Swan Lake Resort Hotel. The former Homowack Lodge in Phillipsport was converted into a summer camp for Hasidic girls. Officials of the state Department of Health ordered the property evacuated in July 2009, citing health and safety violations. Many Buddhist and Hindu retreat centers have been constructed on the land or in the restored buildings of former camps or resorts to serve adherents in New York City, the establishment of which has then drawn even more temples and centers to the area. This led to the coining of the nickname ‘Buddha Belt’, ‘Bhajan Belt’, or ‘Buddhist Belt’ to refer to the areas revival. Between 2016 and 2018 the decaying state of the abandoned resorts was captured by several ruins photographers

Read more on businessinsider, 5 July 2018: 23 eerie photos that show the crumbling beauty of New York’s abandoned ‘Borscht Belt’ resorts, Jewish Chronicle, 27 July 2023: Back to the Borscht Belt! Celebrating the golden era of Jewish vacationland in the Catskills, List of belt regions of the United States and Wikipedia Borscht Belt (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.






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