Borsht Belt

Two weeks in the country
Two weeks in the country

The Catskill Mountains first appeared on European maps in the early years of the 17 century as maritime nations aggressively sought mercantile bases in the Western hemisphere. The merchants of Amsterdam, in 1602, were granted a charter for a transnational organization called the Dutch West India Company. The charter gave these entrepreneurs a monopoly over trade with the islands of the West Indies (Caribbean) but also rights to seek a northwest passage to Asia – and to exercise regional control of the slave traffic.

One such exploratory voyage in 1609, led by Hendrick Hudson, ventured north into what is now New York Harbor. He sailed his vessel, The Half Moon, on a navigable waterway that he named Montaigne River (Verrazano, who had previously navigated these waters in 1524 had named it the North River. The Native American villagers, living along its shores, however, recognized that much of the river was a tidal estuary; accordingly they named it, as translated, the coming-and-going river.)

Over the next three centuries, vast numbers of immigrants from many nations populated the southern stretches of the Hudson Valley and its environs, transforming the area into a melting pot of diverse ethnicities. The great majority of immigrant Jews arriving in America between 1870 and 1910 sought work in the large cities; a small number from Ukraine, with prior experience as farmers, traveled north and found arable land in Sullivan, Orange and Ulster counties west of the upper Hudson River. And from such modest – and largely unheralded – beginnings arose a major component of Jewish life in these United States.

The region, variously called The Catskills or the Borscht Belt, took on a somewhat Semitic flavor in the 1920s when a few Jewish farmers of the region confronted some grim realities – that their land was suboptimal for effective farming and that the majority of New York City’s adult Jews were still employees dependent upon the largesse of their employers for such benefits as a paid vacation. In the urban shops making women’s garments, early unionization had led to a newly established annual benefit then called: “52 weeks of sweat: 50 in the workplace, and two in the Catskills sun.” It was the beginning of a new era where leisure was the mother of both needed diversion and a quirky kind of ethnic humor.

Jewish farms amid the Catskills slowly enlarged their porches for the weary visitors, adding rocking chairs and small cottages called kuch-aleyns (Yiddish for cook-alones, meaning that a kitchen alcove had been added to the small cottage). Beach chairs were placed on the lawns as well as outdoor tables for the pinochle players. Private bathrooms in the bungalows? Those came later.

Very few summer guests in the 1920s owned autos and, therefore, riverboats and the railroads were used to bring the tenement-dwelling Jewish families to their two weeks in Eden. By tradition, the newly arrived were greeted with cups of hot tea to be consumed slowly on the front porch. And then, after the luggage was stowed in the assigned bungalow and the children told not to wander afar, the couple found two beach chairs, quietly gazed in wonderment at the abundance of greenery, the distant mountains in varying shades of grey and blue, and murmured in Yiddish about their newly arisen sense of peace. Neither sunrises nor sunsets were visible in the inner cities and so they vowed to view that day’s sunset.

In the early years of the Catskill resorts, entertainment was self-generated and meals were assembled in the cottages. Gradually, by the 1930s, the farm houses had been replaced by small hotels with dining rooms providing all meals in what was then called “The American Plan,” thus finally giving the wives a vacation as well. Perennial visitors to the Catskills will tell you that there were two levels of accommodation: first class or with children.

The Catskills, called by the awed visitors “mountains,” were modest in stature, the highest mount being a mere 4,180 feet. And when compared with the neighboring ranges, such as the Adirondacks or the northern Appalachians, the Catskills and neighboring Poconos were little more than clusters of verdant hills. Yet, to a generation of working-class families, the Jewish Alps provided a needed interval of peace and maybe a bit of entertainment.

The entertainment? The Catskills were an incubator where a generation of hyperbolic, standup entertainers learned their hazardous trade. There was hardly a successful comic in the U.S. who did not do an apprenticeship in these resorts.

The big hotels of the Catskill region have now gone bankrupt, but this hallowed vacation territory has joined such iconic places as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Lower East Side as way-stations in the progress and assimilation of American Jewry.

STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D. (, a weekly contributor, is dean of medicine emeritus at Brown University.