New York’s Catskill Mountains were once home to many famous Jewish vacation resorts. But lesser known were their bargain counterparts: the communal bungalow colonies that made summer leisure accessible to the urban Jewish working class.

Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York, 1978. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Nevele Grand Hotel was a weird place to be in 2001. Once numbering among the most iconic “Borscht Belt” resorts in the Catskills, it was about fifty or sixty years past its prime. But the garish ’60s-style carpeting, all-you-can eat buffets, and nightly stand-up performances remained. At eleven years old, I didn’t really care for the comedy. I’d tagged along to the resort with my best friend, whose family were frequent guests, and we kids mostly hung out at the arcade.

The Nevele had been on its last legs for a long time, outliving its summer resort peers by many years, in part by investing heavily in winter activities and amenities, like an enormous ice-skating rink built in 1970. In 2009, it finally declared bankruptcy and closed permanently.

The Borscht Belt’s heyday was the 1930s to the 1960s, when over five hundred hotels and tens of thousands of bungalow colonies dotted the landscape of Sullivan County, New York, in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Jews from New York City and across the Northeast patronized these places, often returning every summer with their families to the same place. The Borscht Belt Museum in Ellenville, New York, permanently opening next year, celebrates this “resort era, when millions of urban dwellers sought refuge in the mountains of upstate New York, leaving deep imprints on mainstream American culture, from stand-up comedy and comfort food to mid-century modern design and popular concepts of leisure.”

Resorts such as the Concord, Kutsher’s, Grossinger’s, and the Nevele did indeed showcase world-class entertainment — household names such as Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, and Jackie Mason got their starts on the resort circuit, as did such problematic favs as Woody Allen and later Jerry Seinfeld. Floyd Patterson, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali were among the legendary boxers who trained at Kutsher’s.

The resorts made their mark on the American concept of leisure. In addition to nightly shows, the most successful of the resorts featured eighteen-hole golf courses, Olympic-sized swimming pools, ice rinks, tennis courts, shuffleboard, archery, casinos, and of course, endless food. “You order everything on the menu, and every choice comes out on a separate plate,” remembers David Richter in the oral history It Happened in the Catskills: An Oral History in the Words of Busboys, Bellhops, Guests, Proprietors, Comedians, Agents, and Others Who Lived It by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer. “Whatever you wanted,” says another frequent resort guest, Marvin Welkowitz, “blintzes or fish or bagels, it kept coming.”

In popular memory, represented by movies and TV like Dirty Dancing and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, this handful of high-end resorts have come to stand in for the entirety of the Borscht Belt. But by conflating a fascinating and influential mid-century moment of American Jewish acculturation and distinctness with the particular summer lifestyles of the rich and upper-middle class, we risk overlooking some of the more interesting dimensions of the Borscht Belt period.

“[The hotels of Sullivan County] became the models for those in Miami Beach and, indeed, those built later in Last Vegas,” says Irwin Richman in his memoir, Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memoirs of Catskill Summers. But “there were also less celebrated aspects of the Jewish resort industry that, while they served more people, were less influential than were the hotels. These were the kuchalayns and bungalow colonies that dotted the countryside.”

Ovens and stoves and icebox space may have been fiercely fought over, but the arrangement allowed even poorer families to spend considerable time in the country.

Like many of the large resorts a bit later on, the bungalow colonies, of which there are said to have been over fifty thousand by the 1950s, grew out of the farming operations of the region. Early in the century, hundreds of Jewish-owned farms sat on cheaply obtained properties in Sullivan County, run by immigrants who had come from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. To make ends meet on fairly unfertile land, some began taking in boarders, mainly Jews from the city looking for kosher accommodations while on vacation. While a small number of these boardinghouses eventually evolved into sprawling resorts like Grossinger’s, many other farming families decided to build a number of small cabins in on their properties, which came to be known as “bungalows.”

The relatively inexpensive bungalows appealed to working-class families. While fathers may not be able to afford to take a week or two off work, let alone the rates at Kutsher’s, the summer slowdown in the garment industry and other common lines of work allowed for an arrangement in which mothers would take their children to “the mountains” for most of the summer, with the fathers schlepping up to visit on the weekends.

The most affordable of these long-term vacation rentals was the kuchalayn, or “cook-alone.” The kuchalayn was the opposite of what the name suggests — a bungalow with a common kitchen shared by several families. Ovens and stoves and icebox space may have been fiercely fought over, but the arrangement allowed even poorer families to spend considerable time in the country.

Obviously, this was not a traditional American resort vacation. Mothers were expected to perform their regular childcare duties, including cooking for the family, but with an under-provisioned kitchen and considerably less space in which to prepare meals. The weekend commute endured by working fathers was often hellish. Typical outdoor recreation activities like fishing, golf, or hiking were not a draw for most people; they were there primarily, at first, to escape their cramped, boiling-hot tenements in smoggy Lower East Side and Brooklyn. In the early days of the Borscht Belt era, health was the major driver of Jewish travel to Sullivan County, which had a reputation as a destination of convalescence and healing going back before the turn of the century. (“Doctors Say ‘Go to The Mountains,’” was the campaign slogan promoted by the Ontario and Western Railway starting in the 1890s. “A Region of Health at Moderate Cost.”)

But despite the absence of glamour, a genial attitude of common leisure flourished in the bungalows of the Borscht Belt. Socializing was a core part of the experience, albeit with far fewer planned activities and requisite costume changes than at the resorts. The latter years development of glassed-in walkways connecting buildings at some resorts underscores how disconnected they could be from the natural world relative to the bungalows. The bungalows had no eighteen-hole golf courses; instead, people simply got together and enjoyed being outside.

Even with their regular responsibilities, mothers spent plenty of time playing mah-jongg on bungalow porches. Children swam in the Neversink River and other ponds and streams. Richman remembers sneaking over with friends to the sandy beach areas owned by the hotels, the overwhelmed lifeguard struggling to keep the bungalow kids away. The bungalow kids, meanwhile, threatened to make a ruckus for the guests if authorities got too aggressive. “This,” he reflects, “was as close as we got to class warfare.”

“For an epoch of breadlines and soup kitchens, the kuchalayns . . . represented one of the country’s greatest bargains,” writes Stefan Kanfer in The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, from the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borsch. While the elite resorts were building state-of-the-art aquatic centers and ice-skating rinks and, at the Concord, an artificially snow-covered skill hill, the kuchalayns were slow to upgrade from iceboxes to refrigerators. “But the price was within reach of almost everyone.”

The bungalow kids, meanwhile, threatened to make a ruckus for the guests if authorities got too aggressive; ‘this was as close as we got to class warfare.’

Engaged in intense competition, the large resorts continued to expand through the ’40s and ’50s, adding more and more amenities and entertainment options. By the ’60s, they became what Sullivan County historian John Conway calls “fortress hotels” — worlds unto themselves, entirely cut off from the outside community. In previous eras, a stay at the small hotels that predated the all-inclusive resorts usually entailed a few trips into town, into villages like Woodridge or South Fallsburg and towns such as Liberty and Monticello. But as time went on, guests of the fortress hotels might not even have known where their car was parked if they wanted to leave.

The decline and fall of the Borscht Belt era is said to have been brought about by the “Three ‘A’s”: assimilation, airlines, and air conditioning. In the 1980 novel Woodridge, 1946, Phil, the owner of an area luncheonette, anticipates these developments:

Once the airlines got wise and brought the fares down, people would discover a whole new world out there. GIs returning home, like knights from the Crusades, would tell tales of the wondrous places they’d been to. And the offspring of the present vacationers were a new breed: children of post-Depression America, they were the first generation not worried about saving money. Restless, hard to please, quick to bore and certain never to return to what had satisfied the three generations before them. It was just a matter of time.

Today, many of the bungalow colonies have been bought by ultra-Orthodox Jews and turned into camps and summertime Torah study centers. Very few physical changes to these places have been made. “We’ve seen a lot of the Orthodox groups coming up and purchasing these bungalow colonies and they’ve kept them viable,” says Conway. “They’ve kept them alive, they’ve maintained them. They are, in many ways, inadvertent preservationists.” But while the buildings and grounds are intact, the collective bungalow network itself is no more.

Conway says that in a sliver of Sullivan County, local residents today — who frequently drive past the ruins of Kutsher’s, the Pines, the White Lake Mansion House, and dozens of others — can be as nostalgic for the Borscht Belt period as their urban counterparts. “There are memories of all of the good times, the booming economy, all the jobs.” Many living residents had their first jobs as teenagers at the resorts; serving as a golf caddy, bellhop, valet, waiter, or busboy could be highly lucrative.

But other locals are ambivalent or outright dismissive, Conway told me. The relationship between the bungalows and small hotels and the nearby local villages had been symbiotic — guests visited local movie houses, while hotels contracted out laundry services, repair work, and so on. But the relationship between the resorts and the surrounding areas grew strained over time as the resorts vertically integrated their operations and cut out the local economies. Guests had already pre-paid for the meal package and movies were shown on site, so why leave the grounds?

In the past few years, several of the dilapidated resort buildings dotting the landscape have burned down. This past spring, a fire took down the oldest building on the property of the old Nevele Grand Hotel, just down the road from the Borscht Belt Museum. The whole campus will eventually be demolished, and a housing development will go up. The Borscht Belt of wistful memory will not reestablish itself in the foothills of the Catskills, despite the hopes invested in the 2018 opening of the Vegas-style Resorts World Casino on the site of the former Concord Hotel.

But in the unsung history of the era’s bungalows and kuchalayns we find a conception of travel and leisure that looks beyond the pod of the hotel room, resort grounds, or Airbnb and toward an experience that is active, communal, and lo-fi. The resorts were built on the assumption that people wanted (and would pay top dollar) to be passively entertained and shielded from inconvenience. But the bungalows captured the true spirit of summer vacation, centered around health, nature, and continuous noshing.

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