Glimpses into a Bygone World of Jewish Summer Culture
Beginning in the 1920s, New Yorkers sought escape from the summer heat in the mountains, with their promise of fresh air and leisure. They left the city in droves, driving or taking the train up north. By the 1950s, more than a million people were spending their summers in bungalow colonies, hotels, and summer camps in the Catskill Mountains and surrounding areas, which came to be known as the “Borscht Belt” or “Jewish Alps.” But just several decades later, those resorts had all but disappeared. The stories below offer glimpses into this bygone world of Jewish summer culture.
Early Jewish Migration to the Catskill Mountains
In the early twentieth century, before the summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains became a cultural phenomenon, attracting big-name entertainers performing for huge audiences, many Eastern European immigrants settled in the area. These included Yiddish-speaking Jews like Yvette (Chave) Marrin’s grandparents. As Chave discusses in this clip, her grandparents, who were originally from outside Minsk, settled on farmland in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. To supplement their income as farmers, they built a rooming house where Chave’s father, the Yiddish writer Aaron B. Rappaport, later established his own bungalow colony.
Memories of Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskills
One of the largest and most famous of the kosher hotels in the Catskills was Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, which served as the inspiration for the iconic film Dirty Dancing. At its height, Grossinger’s even had its own airstrip and post office. In this clip, comedian and actor Jackie Hoffman recalls the sights and sounds of Grossinger’s, where she vacationed with her family every summer.
The "Kukh-Aleyns" of Upstate New York
For those who couldn’t afford the pricier hotels and resorts in the Catskills, there were what were known as the “kukh-aleyns (cook-on-your-owns).” In this clip, writer and New York native Fay Webern describes these humble homes.
Entertainment in the Catskill Resorts
A big attraction of the summer life upstate was the top-notch entertainment. Performers could jumpstart their careers with shows in the Catskills, and Jewish summer resorts were also, famously, a place where artists blacklisted during the McCarthy era were still able to perform. Here, Shirley Schaechter Katz, who herself performed in Yiddish vaudeville shows as a child, describes what she remembers as a typical show in the Catskills.
The Lee-Ra Bungalow Colony
Yiddish writers were among those New Yorkers who escaped upstate each summer. One of the bungalow colonies that attracted a group of Yiddish writers was the Lee-Ra Bungalow Colony, named after the two writers who started it: the couple Malka Lee and Aaron B. Rappaport. In this short compilation video, Lee and Rappaport’s daughter and granddaughter, along with a family friend, share what they remember about spending time at the Lee-Ra Bungalow in Ulster County in upstate New York.
Another part of Jewish summer life in upstate New York was summer camps, many of which had family sections where adults would stay and enjoy their own cultural entertainment. This webpage features three short films based on oral history interviews about summer camps where Yiddish was a central value, including Camp Boiberik and Camp Hemshekh, which were located in upstate New York.
The Legacy of the Borscht Belt Comedians Today
Over time, factors such as generational shifts, assimilation, and the increasing accessibility of air travel for summer vacations led to the waning popularity of the Catskills resorts. But their legacy is still felt to this day. In this clip from our interview with Minna Barrett, psychology professor and granddaughter of Yiddish actor David Baratz, Minna reflects on how the humor of the Borscht Belt comedians she met as a child helped shape her own identity.
To explore the full collection of oral history interviews, visit the Wexler Oral History Project on our website.