The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, From the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt

By Stefan Kanfer

Farrar Straus Giroux. 333 pp. $22.95

Borscht -- beet soup usually served cold with sour cream and the waiter's thumb -- is a metaphor for Jewishness along with pastrami, corned beef, brisket, chopped liver, kishke (stuffed derma), chicken soup, gefilte fish, smoked sturgeon, knishes, blintzes, potato latkes, rye bread, pumpernickel, matzos, bagels and lox, cheesecake, hot tea in a tumbler with a wedge of lemon and -- enough already -- a glass of seltzer.

Thus the Catskills, which catered almost exclusively to Jewish vacationers for two generations, might have been called Pastrami Paradise, Derma Road or the Bagel Circuit. But Abel Green, the editor of Variety, reputedly coined the term Borscht Belt -- and so it remains.

Or so it was. Developers are now demolishing the old hotels, where the guests could gorge themselves and watch entertainers destined for national fame. New resorts are being built for upscale young professionals. Menus will soon feature pasta primavera instead of lokshen, and Perrier will replace Dr. Brown's celery tonic.

Though Stefan Kanfer focuses on a slice of the Jewish experience, his marvelous book "A Summer World" is a social history that tells much about the evolution of America. Jews flocked to the Catskills because bigotry barred them from other spots, and there they carved out a summer community that, in some ways, extended its influence across the United States.

Now, if their purses permit, they can go to Newport or Southhampton. So, while the demise of the Borscht Belt marks the end of a colorful era, it also testifies to the decline of bigotry. The sting is gone from the old joke about the yenta who changes her name and nose, checks into a restricted resort, dives into the swimming pool and, chilled by the cold water, shouts: "Oy vay! -- whatever that means."

The 19th-century German writer Heinrich Heine, whose conversion from Judaism to Christianity left him with an incurable case of ambivalence, was prescient: "If Europe were to become a prison ... may the Jews take their harps down from the willows and sit close by the Hudson to sing their sweet songs of praise and chant the lays of Zion."

A Jew had owned land in the Catskills as early as the 18th century, and other Jews followed during the ensuing decades -- including an eccentric, Mordecai Noah, who in 1825 dreamed of establishing a Jewish state. Some wealthy Jews, like the financier Jay Gould, bought huge estates.

But the big Jewish influx into the area began during the decades before World War I, when more than a million Jews emigrated to America from the persecution and poverty of Eastern Europe. Most settled in New York, living in crowded tenements, laboring in sweatshops and suffering from disease. The Catskills were to be their escape.

Many Jews had preceded them as farmers, but found they could earn more by furnishing room and board for those fleeing New York in quest of fresh air and good food. Thus the resorts were born.

Among its pioneers were Selig and Malke Grossinger, immigrants from Galicia, a region of Poland and the Ukraine, who arrived as farmers in 1913. They began to take in guests and expanded the farm into a hotel. By the 1930s, managed by their daughter Jennie and her husband, it comprised nearly a thousand acres.

Rivals like the Flagler House and the Concord emerged, each trying to outdo the other. Learning that Grossinger's had an 18-hole golf course, the Concord's founder, a Russian immigrant named Arthur Winarick, insisted on constructing a 50-hole course -- until he was told the rules of the game.

"Abie, make sure that everybody eats," gasped Selig Grossinger to his headwaiter as he died, thus inventing the motto of the Catskills. Hotels served four meals a day and unlimited snacks, all kosher. Reminded of his favorite restaurant, the Broadway columnist Damon Runyon referred to Grossinger's as "Lindy's with trees."

A boast of the resort proprietors was "something doing every minute," which meant constant entertainment for the guests. This was the task of the tummlers, a Yiddish term for merrymakers -- literally, creators of tumult. They had to sing, crack jokes, stage theatricals, dance with the old ladies and ugly girls, and play pinochle with the men.

Kanfer points to the self-deprecating quality of Jewish humor, a staple of Borscht Belt comedy. Jackie Mason, the "ultimate tummler" and a former rabbi, was ejected from one hotel for outraging a convention of rabbis. But, back after becoming famous, he wowed similar audiences with his ethnic riff: "My best friend is a guy, half-Italian, half-Jewish. If he can't buy it wholesale, he steals it."

Moss Hart, Joan Rivers and other performers hated the Catskills, where they were overworked, underpaid and usually unappreciated. "You could never get a kind word out of the Jews," Mel Brooks once said, citing a response to one of his acts. "Well, what do you think, Mr. Yasowitz?" "Stunk."

But the tough apprenticeship forged talent. Among the alumni of the Borscht Belt were Aaron Chwatt, Jacob Pinkus Perelmuth, Joseph Levitch and Milton Berlinger -- later known as Red Buttons, Jan Peerce, Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle. David Daniel Kaminsky, or Danny Kaye, was the star graduate.

Local Jews were elated not long ago to hear that a new temple was being built in the area. But, they learned to their distress, it would be a retreat for the Zen Studies Society. Sic transit Gloria Moscowitz.

The reviewer, whose most recent book is "In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines," trained to become an author and journalist while working as a waiter in the Catskills in the late 1930s.