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 Route 17 has been replaced by I-86 which is still twisty, but safer.1 As always happens when an Interstate is built, the little towns along the way shrivel up.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.

Ride a Wild Horse Into the Sky

In an age of mass-produced plastic everything, I’m often moved by lost-art craftsmanship. When I was a child, carousels had hand-carved, hand-painted horses that went up and down on very visible mechanics to the raucous Calliope song.

There are probably only 150 antique carousels in North America. The Binghamton area has six of those. That’s pretty incredible considering that Binghamton has a population of about .01% of North America.

Binghamton Antique Carousel

The entire Binghamton area grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s with paternalistic companies like IBM and Endicott-Johnson shoes. Endicott-Johnson was famous for training immigrants. No one ever got laid off from IBM. IBM even had a country club for their employees and as an IBM child, I swam in that pool and sledded on their golf course in the winter.

George F. Johnson, an Endicott-Johnson founder, actually grew up in a very poor household. As a successful entrepreneur, he bought six carousels and donated them to area parks on the condition that children never pay to ride them. When there was talk of removing or replacing these old relics, apparently one or more of my childhood classmates put up a fight. They won.

These six hand-made carousels are still running every summer and they’re still free to ride. Restoration of the paint has also been undertaken. I took this picture twenty years ago before they were restored.

Extra points if you know the poem from which the title of this blog is taken.

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