The Borscht Belt

My grandparents lived in New York City when I was growing up. We often made the pilgrimage from Binghamton to the Big Apple along the old Route 17 that wound through the Catskill Mountains in eastern New York State. It was a road with switchbacks and hairpin turns that was downright treacherous in the winter. To this day, I have an image in my head of an accident on this route with an overturned car on the side of the road. It was a dark and stormy (wintry) night.NY-17

Good ol’ Ike, President Eisenhower, straightened out that road when he decided that the United States needed an Interstate Highway System to move troops around just in case the Russkies landed. Route 17 has been replaced by I-86 which is still twisty, but safer.1 As always happens when an Interstate is built, the little towns along the way shrivel up. Some die.

That region of the Catskills along Route 17 was known as the Borscht Belt. It had an abundance of summer resorts that catered to the New York Jewish population. Since they were mostly from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi clan), and since that part of Europe was known for cabbage soup, or borscht, the resort area became known as the Borscht Belt.

The Borscht Belt was also where all the “schtick” comedians worked. I’m talking about the greats here, people like Mel Brooks, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Billy Crystal, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, Jerry Stiller (the father), Rodney Dangerfield, Henny “Take My Wife, Please” Youngman and so many more.2

Grossinger's
Grossinger’s photo by Brule Laker, some rights reserved CC

The Borscht Belt is dead now. The hotels are closed, burnt or converted to something else. I don’t blame this passing on President Ike, though. Hell, that faster road should have helped them. No, it passed because all their customers died off.

Borscht Belt Hotel. Some rights reserved by Boston Public Library
Borscht Belt Hotel. Some rights reserved by Boston Public Library

The subsequent generation of Jews had other priorities, became secular, intermarried or generally preferred television and film over live comedy. It’s the same reason I couldn’t find a decent bagel in Tamarac, Florida recently. When the last old Jew in the neighborhood died off, the authentic bagel shop, having lost its last customer, went out of business.

In the new millennium, we only have the ersatz bagel of the big chains.3 The ersatz bagel is an ode to the retail homogeneity of the United States. We’ve left behind the unique proprietor cafes, bakeries and boutiques, and filled the countryside with strip malls of chains that make every town look like every other town.

Leaving Binghamton, Deena and I took that old Route 17 through the former Borscht Belt. Along the way we couchsurfed in Livingston Manor.

4 thoughts on “The Borscht Belt”

  1. You’ve forgotten your upbringing: we never ever had cabbage borscht – always beets. And your memory of an accident on the side of route 17 is real – on on trip back from NY we ran across a pretty bad one – a few covered bodies, etc (I have no idea how old I was at the time but do remember it well).

  2. I remember the ride up from Long Island to visit you and all the Saltz’s… One tall hotel in town, the interior looked like an office building. I think there was one Italian restaurant with horrible Pizza…… but we had fun, so that was all that counted back then.
    My mother Ruth Saltz, the creative soul that she was, would make my father pull over on the NY Turnpike with the car packed with all of us, and of course he would pull over…… and she got us out of the car (my sister and me that is) and said, ” I want you to enjoy the beauty, and learn that here is always beauty around you, look at the rock formations” The rock formations were the exposed rock the turnpike was cut through…… loving all your blogging, love to you both.

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