Woodstock & the Borscht Belt
What is the Borscht Belt?
Heading upstate New York you may hear the term “the Borscht Belt," referring to a specific area within The Catskills that hosted many Jewish families at luxury summer resorts from the 1920s through the 1960s. The heat in New York was blistering with no relief from modern conveniences (like air conditioning), so families would escape to the cooler air of upstate New York. The areas that made up the Borscht Belt included parts of the Sullivan, Orange, and Ulster Counties. The surrounding areas of the officially designated ‘belt’ played an important role in the rise in popularity to the area, who’s initial actions of anti-semitism contributed to the foundation of these incredible resorts as a safe space for Jewish families. The term ‘Borscht Belt” can be accredited to the editor of Variety Magazine Abel Green, who commented on the enormous amounts of foods being served at the famous Grossinger's, with Borscht soup being served up in elegant glasses.
In the early 1920s there was a growing need for a place where Jewish families could spend their summer vacations, away from growing anti-semitism rising within the city. What began as a few smaller hotels in the Catskills surged into a huge resort industry, filled year after year with Jewish families for two to three months out of the summer. Most of these hotels and resorts were about 90 miles north of New York City, roughly a two to three hour drive. This distance expanded into the ’untouched wilderness’, allowing families to get in touch with nature, while also providing a reasonable commute for those who were still working throughout the week in the city. Many properties like Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s, The Concord, and the Nevele, were ‘all inclusive’, providing three meals a day, child-care, swimming, dance lessons, hiking, singing activities, sports, and popular games like pinochle and mahjong. The 1950s reached the height of these resorts, with more than a million people planning their summers around the ‘Jewish Catskills’.
These resorts provided a safe space for Jewish families to thrive, while holding space for Jews to become more “American” by introducing the American public to Jewish culture. The legendary “Dirty Dancing” popularized the Catskills in the public eye, leaving a romantic air to a certain time within history. Truthfully, romance was an incredibly large part of these summer vacations. Matchmaking and courting within the Jewish community played a large part for the eligible singles that would return every summer. The television show Marvelous Mrs. Maisel touches on this aspect in season two, where the family tries to pair Midge off with ‘the doctor’.
While the “Jewish Catskills” shaped American culture through books and movies, the most influential element that came from the Borscht Belt is its impact on comedy and national entertainment. It was quickly known that the entertainment in the Catskills was first rate, an area for the elite to perform on the stage along with up and coming artists. It was known as a place where a young creative could catch a break, and was a venue for more popular comedians to test out new material. Recognizable comedians included Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld. A few of the notable musicians that performed in the venues included Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Dean Martin.
Entertainment in the Jewish Catskills
Grossinger’s Resort aka ‘Dirty Dancing’
One of the most famous all inclusive resorts was Grossinger’s. Abel Green of Variety Magazine stayed here when he wrote about his experience, coining the term “Borscht Belt”. Grossingers made a huge impact on the comedic scene in postwar America, hosting world class acts, including entertainers like Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason, even a young Jerry Lewis. Grossinger’s made a name for itself in history by being the filming location for the 80s classic movie ‘Dirty Dancing’, inviting people nation wide to fall in love with upstate New York and the Catskills. The resort closed in 1986, and was demolished in 2018 after 36 years of being abandoned.
Scott’s Oquage Lake House Resort aka “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Recognizable as ‘The Steiner Resort’ from the second season of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is Scott's Oquage Lake House Resort. This location is one of the last standing properties from the heyday of the Borscht Belt era, and after being family run for six generations has been put up for sale as of 2020. The listing is held by Katie DuBois and Jill Gorton of Woodland Creek Real Estate.
Woodstock’s Overlook Mountain House
Twin Gables of Woodstock is our property within the designated areas of what once was the Borscht Belt. Early on, this area was popular among famous people like Washington Irving, Hames Fenimore Cooper, and Thomas Cole, who made art and stories of the untouched beauty of the Catskills. While there are no active resorts from this era still around Woodstock, you can visit the remains of the Overlook Mountain House. What still stands of the grand estate is a reminder of the glory of the heyday that was the Borscht Belt. This grand property had a few contributing factors to it's eventual decline, right from the beginning. Among these factors were a lack of easy public transportation to Woodstock via train service and faulty foundation planning. After burning down two times throughout the next quarter century, the hotel was sold to Morris Newgold in 1917. Newgold incorporated the element that would give the building it’s afterlife, flameproof concrete wall structures. With the never-ending construction this facility underwent, consistent guests were rare to come by. In 1940 the property was sold to New York State, enduring yet another fire in 1970. The concrete installed by Newgold withstood the fire and stands to this day, as a monument to the golden era of Catskill travel. The ruins are now a popular hiking destination, a chance to stand in what once was one of the grandest hotels of the area.
The Decline of the Golden Era & A New Resurgence:
A few factors contributed to the gradual decline of the resorts in the Catskills. As the 50s came around, air travel became popular and increasingly accessible for the average American to afford. The peak of the summers upstate slowly dwindled as the world opened up and became safe for travel. The younger generations of Jewish Americans had the travel bug and wanted to explore abroad to more exotic destinations. By the 1970s, most resorts had closed or had been abandoned, with only a handful able to survive. Today there are only a couple remaining resorts in active operation, but they’re rare to come by. The era of grand resorts and extravagant summer getaways made an impact in history, and it’s said that the feeling of excitement for the golden era of entertainment never truly went away.
As of 2020, the Catskills experienced a resurgence of popularity, as the pandemic created a need for people to escape to the fresh mountain air. Many old properties have been purchased and lovingly renovated to keep up with the area's growing demands, bringing about a new renaissance of Catskill tourism. Experience living history on your next trip upstate by staying at a historical property in the area, like our very own Twin Gables of Woodstock! We look forward to hosting you.
We hope you've enjoyed this dive into the past. Thanks for reading,
The Twin Gables Team