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SPIRITED | Comedy in the Catskills: Remembering the Borscht Belt

Milton Berle performing. (Photo courtesy of commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com.)

“A man is hit by a car while crossing a Beverly Hills street. A woman rushes to him and cradles his head in her lap, asking, “Are you comfortable?” The man answers, “I make a decent living.”

The joke is attributed to Milton Berle, though variations of it have been told over the years, along with similar humorous quips by decades of Jewish comedians. Big name comics like Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles and Henny Youngman were famous for a style of comedy that defined much of Jewish American culture of their time, with quick-witted, rapid-fire one liners that were often self-deprecating. Lines like, “Take my wife – please!” were part of the rhythm and the cultural feel, drawing on the theme of self-censure, and humorously celebrating hardship. This vernacular brought an entire group of Jewish people together, and in the early and mid-20th century, they clamored to perform in an area of upstate New York that came to be known as the "Borscht Belt," an analog to the "Bible Belt," and a nod to the cuisine of many Jews' Eastern European roots.

People are often brought together when they share common interests or a common culture, but few things bond more strongly than shared pain. The Catskills, also referred to as the "Jewish Alps," are where thousands of Jewish people, many of them immigrants, vacationed in summers for a scenic and comic respite from everyday life. The Borscht Belt stretches through several counties in the Catskill mountains, including Sullivan, Ulster and Orange. Bungalow colonies and grand resorts attracted Jewish families who were excluded from other destinations for many years, particularly during the 1930s. Often displaced, persecuted and excluded, the Catskills became a mecca not only for Jews in need of a holiday, but also for Jewish comedians looking to strike it big. Careers were made on the stages of legendary Catskills resorts like the Concord and Grossinger's, and nearly every Jewish comic of the time performed at one of the area's many hot spots. Talent like Sid Caesar, Mickey Freeman and Jackie Mason were all influenced by Borscht Belt humor, followed decades later by Jerry Seinfeld and comedians for whom the word "Catskills” conjures memories of casinos, dancing, stage lights and laughter.

A scene from The Golden Era of the Catskills. (Photo courtesy of Coolcota.com.)

During the golden years of the Borscht Belt era, which included the 1940s, 50s, 60s and part of the 70s, resorts boomed with lavish expansions like ballrooms, golf courses and Olympic-sized swimming pools. Guests danced the night away, live bands played music for the Mambo, and Yiddish was spoken frequently. In its prime during the 1960s, the legendary Concord Hotel sat 3,000 guests in its extravagant dining and entertainment hall. Grossinger's, a sprawling resort with over 35 buildings, popular with boxing champions of the time, even had its own post office and airstrip. By the mid-1960s, however, the glory days were winding down, and the Catskills began to lose their appeal. Younger Jewish vacationers found that they could meet each other more easily in New York City, and when the cost of air travel dipped, trips to locations like Florida and the Caribbean became more favorable destinations. One by one, resorts, hotels and bungalows closed their doors. By the end of the 70s, the entire region was a mere shell of what it had been. Grossinger's, which shuttered in 1986, still sits abandoned in the town of Liberty. Despite attempts by the Board of Tourism to revive the area, Grossinger's and several other hotels have been left to rot. Old lounge chairs decay inside moss covered, dilapidated walls, forgotten and abandoned like old toys.

The disintegration of Grossinger's. (Photo courtesy of AbandonedNYC.com.)

Today, Kutsher's Resort in Monticello is the only grand hotel remaining, though it has evolved over the years and doesn't draw the same crowd of its heyday. Kutscher's does continue to offer top-notch accommodations and lively entertainment centered around Jewish culture. The hotel offers year-round holiday packages that attract a predominantly Jewish clientele to enjoy entertainment such as musical performances in Yiddish. Still, after the slow exodus away from the Catskills, the slice of Jewish history that made up the Borscht Belt survives mostly in the comedy that prevails in other places. Off-Broadway theaters in New York City continue to host performances by Jewish Comedians whose stylistic influences are strongly rooted in the early days of Borscht Belt comedy. May of 2013 marked the world premiere of Old Jews Telling Jokes in Manhattan's West Side Theatre, where contemporary Jewish comedians performed to a sold out crowd. The show featured comic songs, one-liners and routines that paid tribute to the origin of Jewish comedy. It has since finished its run in New York, but with continued performances scheduled in Chicago.

Click the image to purchase "Welcome to Kutsher's" on Amazon

Some of the most legendary names in comedy, like Mel Brooks, originated their careers in the Catskills. Perhaps best known for his role in Blazing Saddles and his comedy album, The 2000 Year Old Man, Brooks got his start performing as a stand up act in the Borscht Belt nightclubs of his youth. He has kept the nostalgia of the period alive over the course of his career, and is known for quoting “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” But perhaps his most eloquent line is a summary of the core of Jewish humor, which transcends the Borscht Belt and the old hotels, and speaks to us all as humans, no matter what your race or religion, or what your troubles may be:  “Humor is just another defense against the universe.”

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