Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, my family would frequently vacation in the foothills of the Catskills Mountains, an area commonly referred to as the Borscht Belt.
An hour’s ride from home, we would pile into our station wagon and hop on the highway to Route 17. Once we reached the iconic Red Apple Rest, we knew we were halfway to heaven.
My two sisters and I would call out all the roadside bulletin boards and count down the exits until we reached our destination, one of the iconic Borscht Belt hotels. The Concord, Grossingers, Nevele, Tamarack, Pines, Raleigh, Homowack and more.
With so many wonderful memories of our family vacations, I was lucky to continue my Catskills journey throughout my college years, working at the Homowack Lodge, in Wurtsboro. I made many friends there – people who, like me, were earning money for college. In our jobs, we learned about time management, living with and getting along with others, history and Jewish traditions.
We worked hard and we played hard. It was our very own Camelot. I would meet the man who would later become my husband at the Concord Resort Hotel, in Kiamesha Lake, and he would bring me to Rhode Island.
But many people don’t know that the Borscht Belt was born out of bigotry. Barred from many resorts, Jews created their own vacationland, which in its heyday included nearly 1,000 hotels, bungalow colonies and boarding houses.
Those formative years in the Borscht Belt would leave an indelible imprint on my life. I developed an insatiable thirst to learn more about this era.
In 2019, I was invited to join an effort to create a museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Borscht Belt era. This April 19, after several years of gestation, the Catskills Borscht Belt Museum acquired a building in Ellenville, New York. The museum will open to the public in 2025.
The museum is dedicated to the bygone world of Jewish summer culture, where, between the 1920s and early 1970s, more than a half-million Jews, mostly New Yorkers like me, vacationed in the mountains of upstate New York. We spent our summers in bungalow colonies, hotels and summer camps where the food was endless and there was nightly big-name entertainment.
The Borscht Belt is the birthplace of American stand-up comedy: Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld and Jackie Mason were among the many comedians who got their start there. The era would become a cultural phenomenon, forever changing the landscape of Jewish American history.
The museum’s home will be in the former Ellenville National Bank. The bank is on the National Register of Historic Places and was one of the first financial institutions to lend money to the region’s Jewish hoteliers and bungalow-colony owners.
At a time of rising white nationalism and antisemitism, the Catskills Borscht Belt Museum has an important role to play as a catalyst for tolerance, stronger communities and a deeper appreciation for diversity.
The museum will fill this role by showcasing the grit, perseverance and achievements of a community that overcame rampant prejudice and ended up widely influencing popular culture in America. Exhibits will be state-of-the-art and new exhibits will be showcased on a regular basis.
On July 29, the museum will launch Borscht Belt Fest, the first weekend-long arts and food festival in Ellenville. At the same time, a pop-up exhibit, developed in collaboration with Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, will give visitors a taste of what the permanent Catskills Borscht Belt Museum will offer when it opens in 2025.
For more information on the festival and the museum, or to donate, go to www.borschtbeltmuseum.org.
ROBIN KAUFFMAN is the vice president and secretary of the board of directors of the Catskills Borscht Belt Museum. Feel free to email her, at email@example.com, with questions or if you have memorabilia that might be appropriate for the museum.
The Catskills Borscht Belt Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Borscht Belt resort era, and celebrating its history as a refuge from bigotry, the cradle of stand-up comedy and a cultural catalyst that left deep imprints on America.