Crowds flocked to Ellenville, N.Y., for the Borsch Belt Fest to reminisce about the golden age of the Catskill Mountains as a Jewish summer getaway, July 29, 2023. Photo by Sonia Menken.
Crowds flocked to Ellenville, N.Y., for the Borsch Belt Fest to reminisce about the golden age of the Catskill Mountains as a Jewish summer getaway, July 29, 2023. Photo by Sonia Menken.
featureJewish & Israeli Culture

First-ever ‘Borscht Belt Fest’ brings bygone era back to life, if only for a day

The Catskill Mountains festival served as an appetizer for a planned museum to document the history of the Jewish vacation destination.

A deli chef prepares roast pork sandwiches as a museum official quotes from the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, often translated as “Ethics of the Fathers.” Saturday’s Borscht Belt Fest was decidedly not kosher, but there was a clear Jewish vibe to it as attendees flocked to Ellenville, N.Y., to reminisce about the golden age of the Catskill Mountains as a Jewish summer getaway.

The first-ever festival, held on July 29 in the searing summer heat, included a street fair, comedy shows, lectures, film screenings and a preview of the Borscht Belt Museum, scheduled to open in 2025.

As a klezmer band played a mix of traditional Ashkenazi music and a bit of Led Zeppelin to a dancing crowd in the town’s central square, Mark Kramer hawked his book, Borscht Belt Boy: Recollections of a Hotel Brat. There is clearly nostalgic interest in that bygone era, but Kramer told JNS that it remains decidedly in the past.

“Not the way it was. You’re not going to have hotels with six meals a day. The mountains are not going to be the same,” he said.

The freelance author cited cheap flights to vacation destinations as one reason the Borscht Belt won’t re-emerge Phoenix-like. “That part is dead,” he said. “We just have our memories.”

Some younger attendees could be spotted at the festival, but the vast majority appeared to be chasing the nostalgia of their yesteryears. Many pine for those summer months when New York-area Jews made their way out of the city to the mountain resorts. 

The festival was largely held on a single street. Near where it began, a couple posed enthusiastically behind a maître d’s stand from Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club, the longest-running Borscht Belt grand resort, which closed in 2013. Behind the couple, a red backdrop bore a sign, whose design drew from the 1950s, stating “The Borscht Belt Is Back.”

“If you were a part of spending any time either visiting with your family here in a hotel or one of the bungalow colonies or working in a hotel, you develop a special affinity or something that’s indelible, that just never leaves you,” Robin Cohen Kauffman, vice president of the forthcoming Borscht Belt Museum, told JNS. “I can’t explain it.”

Blast from the past: A photo souvenir reminiscent of Jewish summers of yore at the first-ever Borsch Belt Fest in Ellenville, N.Y., on July 29, 2023. Photo by Dan L.

She spoke with JNS inside a crowded, pop-up exhibition previewing the museum. Open all summer, the exhibit takes visitors on a tour of the history of the Borscht Belt from its early days until its ultimate decline. The show uses photos, historic signage, entertainment programs, artwork and captioned stories—everything from restaurant menus to swimwear to hotel keys.

“It was a truly different time. There was just so much looking at the frontier ahead, of all the good things that would come,” said Kauffman, who met her future husband, Michael Kauffman, at the Concord Resort Hotel in Kiamesha Lake. (That hotel shuttered in 1998.)

Monica Cohen is an Ellenville-based multimedia artist, whose paintings, coasters and magnets feature sketches of long-ago but not forgotten hotels and restaurants from the area. She moved to the area 35 years ago—after the hotels declined—and learned about the Borscht Belt from her husband, who worked at one of the hotels.

Some of those places Cohen’s art portrays are no longer still standing. She brings them back to life in her art through research, memory and imagination. “People tell me their stories. They tell me the stories about all of this. If not, I wouldn’t know,” she told JNS.

The first-ever Borsch Belt Fest took place in Ellenville, N.Y., on July 29, 2023 Photo by Sonia Menken.

Clean, green egg cream

A few feet away, Alex Gomberg, vice president of Brooklyn Seltzer Boys—the last remaining seltzer shop in New York City—takes carbonated water orders. The old-school drink is coming back, Gomberg told JNS, as he and family members dished out egg creams to a woman wearing a shirt that said: “Bubbe approved.” (The drink, which has neither egg nor cream, is essentially a chocolate soda made of seltzer, milk and, typically, Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup.)

Enjoying the first-ever Borsch Belt Fest in Ellenville, N.Y., on July 29, 2023. Photo by Dan L.

“We do have a lot of Jewish clients, but a lot of new customers are younger people who are just discovering us for the first time,” Gomberg told JNS. Many health-conscious people, who are avoiding sugary sodas, have been turning to seltzer, he said.

Brooklyn Seltzer Boys uses hand-blown bottles, made in Czechoslovakia in the early 1900s. That appeals to those who are environmentally conscious, Gomberg told JNS.

“It’s really the cleanest, greenest thing that you can do,” he said.

Gomberg’s company opened its own museum earlier this year as a tribute to the classic drink and the family’s legacy, which dates back to Gomberg’s grandfather, Moe Gomberg, who founded Gomberg Seltzer Works in 1953.

A cult following

The Borscht Belt Delicatessen is trying to keep old traditions alive, too.

Nick Liberato, the chef, brought his suburban Philadelphia-based, New York-style Jewish deli to the festival grounds. Offerings included classics, such as latkes, babka and Dr. Brown’s cream soda. There was also a Borscht Belt favorite: the RPG sandwich, which combines Chinese roast pork, duck sauce and Italian garlic bread.

The latter dish gained a cult following among many Jewish, and non-Jewish, New Yorkers in the Catskills heyday.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t know what the Borscht Belt is, but we’ve been introducing that through our food and the experience you get at the belt,” Liberato told JNS.

His menu is heavy on items named after Borscht Belt resorts, such as “The Grossinger’s” (nova lox on a bagel), and personalities, like the “Joan Rivers” (pastrami and chopped liver sandwich) the “Jerry Lewis” (triple-decker).

All kinds of traditional Jewish foods were on hand at the first-ever Borsch Belt Fest in Ellenville, N.Y., on July 29, 2023. Photo by Dan L.

Asked what his specialty is, Liberato cited something other than a food creation.

“We create experiences,” he said. “We sell delicious nostalgia, with all the great memories that were built through the original Borscht Belt, and have tried a little bit of a modern take on a Jewish deli with a lot of global influence in our menu.”

The “Don Rickles Roast” (horseradish aioli and jalapeno) might actually make one cry. Another Jewish comedian had the audience in tears on Saturday.

A wonderful culture 

Bob Greenberg led off a sold-out Borscht Belt Classic comedy show at an Ellenville theater, paying tribute to classic comedians with impressions of Jackie Gleason, Curly Howard and Lou Costello, while mixing Jewish humor in.

An entire industry of Jewish comedy—highlighted by self-deprecation and broad complaints—developed in the Borscht Belt, propelling those like Rivers, Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield to stardom.

Greenberg told the audience of a man, concerned his wife was trying to poison him, who contacted his rabbi. Seeking to allay the man’s concerns, the rabbi offered to talk to the wife. The rabbi called the man back after three hours on the phone with the wife. What did he tell the man? “Take the poison,” Greenberg deadpanned.

After his set, Greenberg told JNS that jokes lose something if one tries to avoid being too Jewish.

“You’re going to lose the Yiddish. You’re going to lose a whole history of culture, and it’s a wonderful culture,” he said. “It’s Seinfeld. It’s Mel Brooks. I don’t think you would have stand-up comedy if it wasn’t for the Jews.”

Greenberg landed joke after joke, about everything from his weight to one about a bumble bee wearing a yarmulke, so he wasn’t mistaken for a wasp.

“I think we’re a little concerned about what others think of us. In my act, I do fat jokes. I say the fat jokes before anybody else can. And I think that’s part of our humor,” he told JNS. “It’s a defense mechanism. But it’s also a way of ingratiating ourselves with others.”

Music entertained audiences at the first-ever Borsch Belt Fest in Ellenville, N.Y., on July 29, 2023. Photo by Robin Cohen Kauffman.

Shlock art

Morris Katz, the so-called “King of Schlock Art,” often held court in the Borscht Belt resorts and endeared himself through his frenetic painting style. The Poland native, born Moshe Katz in 1932, considered himself the fastest painter, often using toilet paper instead of brushes to construct his pictures. He died in 2010.

His paintings of dancing rabbis and performing clowns were on display at a temporary gallery during the festival.

Old-fashioned games were played at the first-ever Borsch Belt Fest in Ellenville, N.Y., on July 29, 2023. Photo by Robin Cohen Kauffman.

The Borscht Belt Fest seemed kitschy, quirky and most definitely from a bygone era. But Kauffman insists that the planned museum can hand down memories of that era to future generations.

“We want our children and their children to learn about it, and the only way to do it is to make it relevant to the time that they’re living,” she told JNS. “We’re planning to do that through lots of interactive exhibits that relate to them.”

The museum will entertain young people and teach them. “We want it to be more than just showing old pictures, ashtrays and menus because the time of that era really was more than that,” she said.

Kauffman added that it is important to try to give back to a community that lost much of its economy with the collapse of the Borscht Belt and to understand that while that era saw a triumph of Jewish culture, it came about due to antisemitism barring Jews from so many other vacation destinations.

“Why now? Because if not now, when?” said Kauffman, consciously quoting from Pirkei Avot.

“The timing is right. There truly is a renaissance that’s going on. Let’s face it. People my age who worked in the mountains and were vacationing here,” she said. “We’re closer to the other side.”

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