The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt
March 26, 2015 9:47 AM   Subscribe

As the term borscht implies, the people who worked and stayed in the hotels and bungalow colonies were almost all Jews. The “fall” in the title of Davis’s film refers to the tourist industry collapsing after Jews became wealthier and more assimilated. After moving from the garment industry cutting rooms to accounting firms, they could now afford vacations in Puerto Rico and no longer felt the need to be in a hotel that served kosher food.
The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt, a 1986 documentary by Peter Davis on the famous Jewish-American holiday resorts of the Catskills, has been put online by Louis Proyect.
posted by MartinWisse (13 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Buddy Hackett (né Leonard Hacker) on Carson telling a great divorce joke *full* of yiddishkeit that he got from Borscht Belt comedian Larry Best.

I also encourage you all to try the veal.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:05 AM on March 26, 2015

Lots of videos of these grand behemoths in a state of disrepair. I spent a bunch of time at the Concord as part of the NYSSMA All-State festivals - it was mind-bogglingly huge.
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:23 AM on March 26, 2015

Nobody puts Baby in the corner!
posted by briank at 10:34 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I see that the Raleigh has returned! (well, kind of)

Interesting article, but I think the rise of cheap and efficient travel had as much to do with the decline of regional resorts like the Catskills as did any rise in income among the patrons.
posted by caddis at 10:44 AM on March 26, 2015

I went to these resorts when I was a kid with my grandfather, who spent his summer in the Catskills. We went to see a comedian -- a well-known one, who I had seen on Carson. He was telling jokes that were just killing everyone and were incomprehensible to me, because the punchline was always a Yiddish idiom. There would be a long setup, and then he would shout "Oyfen a fremder bord is gut zich tsu learnen shorn!" and everyone would erupt into hysterics.

What did he say, I would ask my grandfather.

On a friend's beard it is good to learn how to shave, my grandfather would answer, wiping his eyes.

I miss these places. I miss there being someplace where a punchline could be a Yiddish idiom. I miss my grandfather.

And, you know what? On a friend's beard it is good to learn how to shave.
posted by maxsparber at 10:55 AM on March 26, 2015 [19 favorites]

"As the term borscht implies"? Say what? Isn't borscht a Russian food? What does it have to do with Jews?
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:24 AM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's an Eastern European food that Jews ate. It's a play on the term Bible Belt. I suppose Bagel Belt might have worked equally well.
posted by maxsparber at 11:28 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Neato. I haven't gotten to watch it yet, but I always assumed that the decline of most of the Upstate NY resorts in the Catskills was due to the availability of air conditioning in the city, combined with cheap air travel.

I mean, the reason most people went there for the summer was because New York, pre-A/C, was so pestilential during the summer. So if you could afford it, you got the hell out for whatever time you could afford. Rich people had their homes out on the Island, but for the middle class you got on a train up the Hudson, and the Catskills are sort of the easiest place to get to that's cool-ish all summer long and where you could practically and inexpensively vacation, yet still get back into the city easily.

Most big cities had similar places—mountains, less than a day away, accessible by rail—which experienced similar declines at about the same time. (Boston had some up in the NH mountains and in Maine, although never on the scale or concentration that NYC did upstate; DC had places in the WV mountains, of which only the Greenbrier is left, etc.) But when residential air conditioning started to become the norm, suddenly people started choosing shorter vacations to further-away places rather than the idea of spending the whole or most of the summer in a vacation cottage closer to home.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:29 AM on March 26, 2015

On a friend's beard it is good to learn how to shave, my grandfather would answer, wiping his eyes.

That's the thing about Yiddish -- to Jews born in a certain era, anything in Yiddish became funny, no matter what it actually said.

When I was a kid, it was always the same pattern: my grandparents would be sitting around talking with their friends and someone would say something like "Es ist drei Uhr!"* and everyone except my brother and me would crack up. Then someone would always turn to us and say, "Do you know what that means?" And we'd say no, and they'd say "It's three o'clock!!!" And my brother and I would look at each other like what the hell. (Of course, my brother and I got so we could crack each other up by saying, "Es ist drei Uhr!")

*not really Yiddish, because I don't speak it
posted by holborne at 12:47 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Boston had some up in the NH mountains and in Maine,

I can remember as a kid in the 1970s going to the White Mountains in NH with my family and seeing tour buses of Orthodox Jews (maybe even Hasidim? Hard to recall for sure now) at the various tourist attractions.
posted by briank at 1:27 PM on March 26, 2015

My favorite piece of writing by Mordechai Richler is an essay on the Borscht Belt written in 1965, when it was still active.
It's called The Catskills, Land of Milk and Money. It's in a compilation called Hunting Tigers Under Glass, sadly out of print. It makes a great counterpoint to this film.
posted by L E M M at 6:34 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Lemm, it appears to be reprinted in full here.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:46 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Worked at a Scout Camp in the Catskills in the 70's. Frequented Grossingers several times.
posted by judson at 10:21 AM on March 27, 2015

« Older CBC podcast connects with indelible 70s child star...   |   Scenes From the Death of a College Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments