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Borscht Belt Museum – Telling the story of America’s Jewish Vacationland

November 2023

The Village of Ellenville, in the Catskills region of eastern New York State, is the home to a new museum, dedicated to showcasing the history of America’s Jewish Vacationland. The Borscht Belt Museum will commemorate and tell the story of the Borscht Belt, an era when millions of urban dwellers sought refuge in the mountains of upstate New York, including its importance in American Jewish history and its impact on things like architecture, music, comedy and sports.

While it’s not officially expected to open until 2025, a pop-up display of some of the museum’s exhibits was held over this past summer in the 95-year-old neo-Georgian former Home National Bank building in downtown Ellenville that will be the permanent home of the museum once renovations are complete. Titled “Vacationland! Catskills Resort Culture 1900-1980,” the pop-up exhibit features a small sample of Catskills artifacts including bungalow colony kitchen furnishings, an Adirondack chair, the still-functional giant neon sign from Kutsher’s main entrance, photographs and advertisements by other New York hotels declaring “Hebrews” were not welcome. 

The Borscht Belt, is the colloquial name of the Catskills area of eastern New York State, that was once populated with resorts and bungalow colonies that served as a summer refuge for Jewish clients from New York City, in an era when Jewish people still faced discrimination elsewhere.  Many prominent comedians of the day got their start performing at the Borscht Belt hotels and bungalow colonies, like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Totie Fields, George Burns, Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman and Joan Rivers.

By the late 1960s, cheap airfare, a decline in passenger rail service, more integration and a desire of the younger crowd to travel elsewhere are some of the factors that led to a decline in the popularity for the over 500 hotel resorts and thousands of bungalow colonies that once populated the area.

The Borscht Belt Museum states on their web site that the museum “…is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Borscht Belt resort era, and celebrating its history as a refuge from bigotry, the cradle of stand-up comedy and a cultural catalyst that left deep imprints on America.”

The building that housed the long-gone Home National Bank, located at 90 Canal Street in downtown Ellenville, will be the permanent home of the Borscht Belt Museum. In the 1950s, when few other financial institutions would give loans to Jewish businesses, Home National Bank president William Rose would provide the much needed financial assistance to the hoteliers and bungalow colony owners in the area.

The driving force behind the creation of the museum is author and archivist Allen J. Frishman, a lifelong resident of Sullivan County and Town of Fallsburg as Code Enforcement Officer for 24-years, where both his grandparents owned bungalow colonies. The artistic advisory board for the museum has a collection of notable Jewish celebrities, including Fran Drescher, Harvey Fierstein, Judd Hirsch and Neil Sedada.

Honourary co-chars are Elaine Grossinger Etess and Mark Kutsher.

The Catskills Borscht Belt Museum accepts donations of objects and archival materials that are historically significant. For more information about making a donation, visit their Donate page.

Sources: The Catskills Borscht Belt Museum Announces Proposed Future (hvmag.com), New museum celebrating the Borscht Belt to open in July – Westfair Communications (westfaironline.com), Borscht Belt Museum, The Borscht Belt Was a Haven for Generations of Jewish Americans | Travel| Smithsonian Magazine.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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