Tag Archives: Borscht Belt

Couchsurfing in the Borscht Belt

The act of hosting a foreign traveler in your home is right on so many levels. The Judeo-Moslem-Christian tradition of hospitality emanates from Abraham, the father of all three religions.

In the book of Genesis, Abraham welcomes three travelers. He goes out to greet them since they are respectfully hesitant to intrude. He washes their feet, as was the Semitic custom, invites them into his shade to rest and feeds them. That the three travelers turn out to be Angels is irrelevant to the fact that Abraham’s hospitality is a role model for the generations that follow him.

Livingston Manors 1916
A 1916 hotel catering to the visitors of Livingston Manor

I remember that my earliest couchsurfing was in college and the experience was rich. My introduction to fried ice cream was a delicious, homemade version on a farm in upstate New York where I had dinner and spent the night while traveling home from college. The circumstances of how I came to be there escapes me after all these years, but not the warmth and generosity of the family. Nor does the taste of the fried ice cream, to which I’ve never found an equal in some forty odd years since.

Covered Bridge in Livingston Manors NY
A few of Livingston Manor’s covered bridges, though reinforced, are still used.

While living in Wilton Manors, Florida, I hosted couchsurfers many times, including with Deena after we started living together. The most remarkable aspect of hosting or traveling is much more than free lodging. It’s a chance to participate in personal dialogue with fascinating people from all over the world. It’s a hands-on cultural experience that has no equal. Like Abraham, we discovered the angel in all the travelers we hosted.

On the way south from Toronto to New Jersey, we checked the website BeWelcome.org just to see if there were any hosts on the way. Surprisingly, we found a hosting member in the tiny village of Livingston Manor which is nestled in the Borscht Belt. It was on the way since we were heading toward New Jersey from Binghamton.

The online profile revealed an IT guru about the same age as I, living with an JewInjun poetess. It doesn’t get much more compatible than that we figured. We wrote them a note and they invited us to stay for a couple of days.

Livingston Manors
Late fall in Livingston Manor, NY, USA

John and Susan were terrific hosts. John, who had been on a low-calorie diet (and looked pretty slim by now), was overjoyed to have an excuse to cook selections from the heart-attack menu for us. It was delicious. Even if we feel a little guilty about keeping Susan from her writing, the conversations were intelligent, meaningful and a joy. Besides, how many guest interruptions could one possibly have in Livingston Manor in winter? She’ll have the rest of the season to catch up.

I wondered how Livingston Manor could survive, now that the Route 17 traffic was re-routed to an Interstate. It manages with visitors who come for the hunting and fishing. The area and environs has some of the best fly fishing in the eastern U.S. The trails, rivers and woods in the area are beautiful, even with the naked trees of winter.

We had a fantastic meal in an unassuming restaurant in a tiny town. We had an amazing hike in snow flurries. We had wonderful conversation and company. We had delicious home-cooked comfort food. Abraham would have been proud.

Lake, Livingston Manors, NY, USA
Light dusting of snow at the lake.

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. 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.

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. 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.