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Festival in the Catskills celebrates resort area once known as the Borscht Belt


For many Jewish New Yorkers, summer once meant fleeing city crowds and heading to the Catskill Mountains. Over the weekend, hundreds of people gathered in Ellenville for a festival celebrating the resort area once known as the Borscht Belt. Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Early every summer, the exodus started. Families loaded up their cars and headed north out of Brooklyn and Queens into the mountains. They stayed in small lakeside bungalows and in huge hotels.


ZARROLI: For city kids like Peter Chester (ph), summers in the Catskills were the highlight of the year.

PETER CHESTER: It was 24-hour-seven party time, fun time. You could run around barefoot and not burn your feet because there was really no concrete. You could swim and play ball. And it was all in front of you.

ZARROLI: This weekend, Chester acted as a kind of docent for an exhibit of Catskills memorabilia - old dinner menus, signed guest books and lots of pictures.


ZARROLI: Outside, there were contests and games. It was heavy on nostalgia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. Who's ready to hula hoop?


ZARROLI: And there was music. A group called the Shul Band played klezmer music. Very many of the families who came to the Catskills in its heyday were Jewish. In the '20s and '30s, they were often barred from staying in hotels, so they started their own. It was the world of "Dirty Dancing" - giant resorts with something for everyone in the family to do and as much food as you wanted. Sandy Strickler (ph) brought her kids here.

SANDY STRICKLER: Well, for me, it was a joy. I didn't have to cook a thing. There were three meals a day, then a fourth meal after the show in the coffee shop. It was food, food, food. Food ruled the roost.

ZARROLI: Mothers and kids stayed all week. Husbands usually came up after work on Friday. It made for some fraternizing.

STRICKLER: Oh, there are stories, and the best one was a story at the Gilbert's Hotel. Somebody sent a letter to the husbands that the wives were fooling around with some of the - think "Dirty Dancing." And so they engineered - the husbands, a few of them - a surprise Thursday night, came up Thursday night and, yeah, caught them.


ZARROLI: At night, you put on your best clothes and went to a show - singers such as the Barry Sisters, comedians like Milton Berle and Red Buttons. There was a distinctive Borscht Belt style of humor, the kind of rapid-fire one-liners Henny Youngman was famous for.


HENNY YOUNGMAN: You must compromise when you're married. She wanted a fur coat. I wanted an automobile. We compromised - bought her a fur coat we keep in the garage.

ZARROLI: Up-and-coming comedians like Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld would do two or three shows a night at different hotels. Again, Peter Chester.

CHESTER: It was a proving ground for young talent, the likes of which the world has never seen. There was nothing as complete and total as the Borscht Belt offered to aspiring entertainers.

ZARROLI: Even the fictional Mrs. Maisel from the Amazon TV show did a turn here.


RACHEL BROSNAHAN: (As Mrs. Maisel) Here we are in the Catskills, and I'm starving. Where can you get a decent meal around here?


ZARROLI: Today, people still come to the Catskills, but the old hotels are mostly gone, killed off by what's called the three A's - air conditioning, airplanes and assimilation. Younger generations are spending their vacations elsewhere. But there's a push on to start a museum dedicated to Catskills history. Organizers say the current craze for mid-century design, for the days of the Rat Pack and "Mad Men," suggests there's plenty of interest in the Borscht Belt era.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Zarroli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.