Holidaying with ghosts in Jackie’s old Catskills


Jackie Mason was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, but he was made in the Catskills. Everyone knows the legend. The Borscht Belt is part of the history of Jewish America, and a wellspring of the US entertainers that took over the world’s spare time.

In the Twenties, working-class Jews, deranged by the heat in New York City and excluded from the resorts of the Atlantic coast, escaped to the Hudson Valley and the woods and valleys of the Catskill Mountains. They came in such numbers that the wood cabins and boarding houses mushroomed into bungalow colonies and giant resorts.

In its Fifties’ heyday, the Borscht Belt had more than five hundred hotels, with a supporting network of synagogues, summer camps and stand-up comics. All the funny Jews worked there: not just Mason but also Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Sid Caesar and Billy Crystal.

In the Sixties, the hotels started to lose their clientele to assimilation, desegregation and the invention of Miami Beach. They started to close in the Seventies, when a young Jerry Seinfeld was learning his craft. The mills in the mill towns of the Hudson Valley started to close, too.

What happened to the Catskills next was no joke. When the economy of a British town dies, the people do their best to keep going. When the economy of an American town dies, they leave for something better, or at least different.

Ninety minutes north of Manhattan, America slides back into the primeval woods. Marisa Scheinfeld’s The Borscht Belt: The Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland (2016) is a kind of companion volume to those carefully photographed glossy books recording the ruined synagogues of Eastern Europe: a dismal catalogue of flooded, fire-blackened lobbies, and empty, moss-lined swimming pools.

We went for the weekend. It was the Catskills, after all: not going would be like living in London and never visiting Legoland at Windsor. In a small resort on a back road, deer wandered through the doorless, roofless cabins, nibbling at the trees which grew through the floors. Cars were abandoned at rakish angles in the ditches. A family emerged from their half-house, the other half already having collapsed back into the thick woods.

The older natives were prematurely wizened from drink and tobacco. The young had the pin-eyes of opioid addiction, or the toothless mouths of meth abuse in a land where dental insurance is optional. In America, democracy and market forces do the work that other societies achieve through civil wars and despotism.

But the market also giveth. The collapse in property prices on New York’s doorstep and the rise of prices inside the filthy and crowded city has brought newcomers. Hispanics escaping drug wars in Mexico and the Bronx. Orthodox Jews, squeezed out of Brooklyn by their birthrate. A plague of hipsters, also squeezed out from Brooklyn despite their unwillingness to reproduce. A patchy revival is underway.

We arrived late on Friday afternoon. In town, the Hispanics’ pickups were parked in rows as they stocked up on the taste of home at their markets. Shabbat was coming in, and groups of young Haredi men strolled along the dusty roads like extras from Yentl.

We had fallen among the hipsters in a resort that had been restored, mostly, it emerged, through the use of tape and cardboard. Our hostess greeted me with a flyer for a pig roast at the Church of the Little Green Man, a Christian place of worship which had been repurposed as an art space. The picture showed a naked, masked woman riding bareback on a horse led by a man wearing not much more than a deer’s head with a full set of antlers.

I thought we’d been invited to an orgy — I hadn’t shaved — and the ghost of Henny Youngman bellowed in my ear: “Take my wife — please!” But they were only conceptual artists. They’d kept their condo in Brooklyn and bought the resort for peanuts so they could pursue urban irony in the woods at the weekends.

We had to be there. But there was no “there” there anymore. Jackie Mason would have made some mordant remark about Gentiles destroying their own homes for fun, and Jews being the only people dumb enough to pay for a holiday in one.

But he, being smart, had long gone to Miami Beach.

Dominic Green is deputy editor of the Spectator’s World edition

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive