Still, if anyone can draw in haute diners for Jewish specialties, it’s probably a member of the Kutsher Klan. For close to 100 years, Zach’s family owned and operated Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club, an opulent resort situated in the Catskill Mountains about 90 miles outside of Manhattan. On site was a beautiful restaurant where guests, whenever hunger struck, could obtain a heaping pile of knishes or a gooey plate of gefilte fish. “Gastronomic excess,” a New York Times reporter wrote on May 9, 1965, “has always been the hallmark.” This was typical of most Catskill hotels of the era, and just one of the features that made the Borscht Belt, for a 40-year stretch, the most successful and unique Jewish vacation destination in the world.
Like most Sullivan County entrepreneurs, Max Kutsher and his wife Lois did not have grand ambitions when they opened up their first boarding house in 1907. Indeed, the first Jews to set up shop in the Catskills were farmers struggling to cultivate profitable crops in the region’s rocky, arid soil. In need of additional income, those scrappy agriculturalists decided to rent out spare rooms to relatives and acquaintances from the city. In doing so, they inadvertently tapped into a massive new market of potential vacationers; between 1880 and 1924, 2.4 million Jewish immigrants reached America’s shores, and the bucolic and accessible mountain towns just northwest of the Big Apple offered an appealing respite from the pollution, heat, work, and discrimination they too often experienced in New York’s tenements. After the first wave of visitors took the trip, a collection of low-maintenance bungalows sprouted up virtually overnight. A tourist boom followed. In the summers, Jewish immigrants would make the Catskills their home away from home away from home.
Since the accommodations were generally sparse during the 1920s and 1930s, proprietors kept prices within reach of the working class; for around $60, an entire family could rent a two-bedroom semi-detached house, with cooking and food-storage privileges, for a full season. As competition and the purchasing power of second- and third-generation Jews increased, the upscale resorts -- The Concord (seen above), Grossinger's, The Pines -- expanded greatly. A June 7, 1959 article in the Times titled “The Catskills Revolution” describes how several major hotels spent $8 million in 1958 alone on improvements and new installations like indoor swimming pools and skiing facilities, “modernizing their establishments on a scale the like of which has never been seen in this teeming, summer-minded countryside.” These once-humble cottages became, in the words of one PBS correspondent, “playgrounds for the privileged.”
What did these wealthier travelers expect on a visit to the Catskills? The open land was ideal for golf, a sport the men -- former handball and baseball enthusiasts -- took up with vigor. Jewish food, as mentioned above, was served in mammoth portions, particularly the cold sour cream and beet soup that provided the region with its snappy moniker. For young people, the Catskills offered “a springboard to successful careers and marriages,” both for employees of the resorts who used tips to finance their education and connections to find full-time jobs* and the young Jews who met new lovers away from home. And of course, there was comedy.
Like their contemporaries in Las Vegas, Catskill resort operators made first-rate entertainment (and a blowout Saturday night variety show specifically) a major priority. Owners engaged in a theater arms race, building larger and larger show rooms for the headliners to play for their “eager, well-dressed, well-behaved audiences.” (One room at The Concord eventually accommodated 3,000 attendees.) Early stand-ups employed a machine-gun style, one that featured very few natural transitions or long-form stories, and often traded on Jewish clichés and stereotypes for content. Fickle crowds and demanding bosses meant comics were never really off the clock; as veteran Phil Foster told The New Yorker on June 11, 1966 “if a guest checked out, the boss would kill you, so you’d play Simon Says with the guests, or do a strip, or fall down the stairs thirty times, or shave with sour cream.” But the intense concentration of venues was appealing to city comics looking to build their brand while making a quick buck during the summer. Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Seinfeld all cut their teeth in the mountains.
One need only to watch Michael Showalter’s brilliant parody in “Wet Hot American Summer” for evidence that the Borscht Belt comedic sensibility, when not refined and deepened by geniuses like Allen and Larry David, feels downright dated today. A review of a 2001 “Catskills on Broadway” revival show described the aging comics as “speaking an ancient language understood by a dwindling few.” Similarly, the Catskills fell out of favor with families in the second-half of the century. There was just no way to compete with television, affordable home air-conditioning, and cheap air travel, the latter of which gave Jewish-Americans the opportunity to visit more desirable hotels from they were previously restricted. In the late 1950s, Sullivan County had accommodated 600,000 tourists per year. By the mid 1990s, most of the region’s buildings were totally abandoned.**
Every so often, developers make noise about reviving the Catskills vacation culture through gambling, though nothing has really come of it yet. Kutsher’s new owner Yossi Zablocki is working doggedly to “restore Kutsher’s lost sheen as a thriving retreat for kashrut-observant Jews,” but the jury is still out on that effort, too. It might just be the case that a well-run restaurant in TriBeCa is the most powerful and practical way to honor this rich leisure legacy.
*Wilt Chamberlein once worked as a bellhop at Kutsher’s.
**Photographer Heidi Warner put together a neat slide show for Time documenting their decay.