The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt (1987)

The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt (Directed by Peter Davis, 1987.) During the twentieth century, Jewish immigrants and their descendants created the so-called Borscht Belt – an agglomeration of cottages, hotels, and entertainment venues that catered to a Jewish clientele – in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt chronicles the history of this unique corner of American popular culture.

Davis contends that the Borscht Belt emerged from two impulses: the desire of Jews to become American, while at the same time to enjoy recreation sensitive to Jewish culture. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a handful of Jews left the crowded conditions of New York City and purchased farms in the Catskills. These lands were marginal and unprofitable, so the farmers began to host Jewish vacationers seeking escape from the city.

By the 1920s, the automobile and the improvement of highways made the Catskills a popular destination for urban Jews. Accommodations ranged from bungalow communities and boarding houses for the working class to hotels for the more affluent. It was common for men to send their families to the Catskills for weeks at a time, and come up from the city themselves on weekends. The Catskills also became known as a place to meet a potential mate. The Hotel Brickman, for example, had a portion of their facility known as the “College Campus,” where young lovers could stroll along “Flirtation Walk.”

The prosperous post-World War II years saw a building boom in the Catskills. Davis notes that Jews had become “successful and accepted Americans,” but were “still drawn to the mountains” and its familiar cultural environment. Various forms of entertainment grew up around the region, ranging “from burlesque to nightclub to Broadway,” all strongly influenced by Yiddish theater. Many notable entertainers got their start in the Catskills, including Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, and Jerry Lewis. Vacationers found other ways to entertain themselves, most notably “mock marriages” – raucous spoofs on the traditional Jewish wedding. In the postwar “baby boom” years, the Jewish dating scene in the Catskills was hotter than ever.

Beginning in the 1960s the Catskill resorts went into a steep and fatal decline. The assimilation and acceptance earlier generations of Jews craved had become a reality. American Jews, according to the film, could now “go anywhere” in the country, and “no longer felt tied to the Borscht Belt.” First the family-run hotels disappeared, then the larger resorts. “The Borscht Belt as a meeting place for young couples had for fifty years played a vital role in the preservation of their Jewishness,” states the film. “Now, this was finished.” Davis quotes one Catskill vacationer as claiming that “Hitler killed the Jews with a gun, and in America they became assimilated.” The Borscht Belt had essentially become a victim of its own success.

The film, despite its low budget,is a quality production produced with insight and heart. It traces the historical evolution of the Borscht Belt exceedingly well, though its decline could have been explored more thoroughly. The impact of television, cheap air fares, the “generation gap” of the 1960s, and competition from entertainment centers like Las Vegas need more discussion. Nevertheless, The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt is a fascinating film, and will be of considerable interest to a wide range of scholars, from ethnic studies to tourism.
Mark D. Van Ells Queensborough Community College, CUNY mvanells@qcc.cuny.edu

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