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Museum Musings

7.24.17: Summers Come and Gone in the Borscht Belt

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By Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern

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With the taste of summer in the air, I explored a part of the NMAJH core exhibit that displays artifacts from what has become an iconic, though largely bygone, phenomenon of American Jewish leisure: summers in the “Borscht Belt.” The assortment of trophies, keys, menus, and cards in this second floor case provide a glimpse of the summer experience for many middle and working class New York Jewish families throughout the twentieth century.

This piece of history was made in Sullivan and Ulster Counties in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, more colloquially known as the “Borscht Belt” or “Jewish Alps”. The area was a hub of large resort hotels and bungalow colonies to where Jewish families would escape the sweltering New York City summers, some for weekends, some for weeks on end.

How did a secluded region in Upstate New York come to be referred to by the Jewish daily newspaper, The Forward, as a “continuation of Hester Street?”

Borscht Belt 2The area was driving distance from New York City and already home to other resorts and vacation communities that were not open to Jewish patrons. In response, Jews began to buy properties and open their own hotels, serving kosher food and catering almost exclusively to Jews. Many of these locales had been around since the early 1900s (the first synagogue in the Catskills, in Spring Glen, NY, was built in 1917), though the heyday of the Borscht Belt was primarily post World War II.

Many of the artifacts in the NMAJH display come from Grossinger’s, one of the largest Borscht Belt resorts, which was founded by Asher Selig Grossinger in 1919. Other famous names included the Concord, the Nevele, and Kutsher’s.

For years, the Borscht Belt thrived as a place that allowed Jews to escape from the city summer and feel at home in a familiar social setting. Families enjoyed outdoor activities such as swimming and boating, and in the evenings saw comedy shows and musical performances. Women, most of whom were stay at home mothers, and their children would often spend much of the summer in the country, and their husbands would come up on weekends. The Grossinger’s dining room fit 1,000 people and was home to a vibrant social scene, with women playing mah-jongg with friends and young men and women hoping to find matches.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Borscht Belt began to face decline. As the accessibility of air travel increased and vacationing in the Catskills became less appealing to the next generation, many of whom had moved out of the city, the resorts lost business, and nearly all of them have closed. The abandoned structures, strikingly captured by photographer Marisa Scheinfeld in her 2016 book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland (available in the NMAJH Museum Store), are devoid of life but eerily depict the decades of joyous summers families spent in the Borscht Belt.
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Sources
brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/1995-96/95-062i.html
articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-07-23/news/1997204072_1_concord-catskills-fallsburg
slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/05/30/no_memorial_day_shouldn_t_be_about_the_confederacy.html
forward.com/schmooze/311210/catskills-kutshers-set-to-be-reincarnated-as-yoga-retreat/
newrepublic.com/article/123506/magic-mountains
myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-vacations-the-catskills/

7.12.17: Engaging with History in ''1917''

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Does the United States have a responsibility to defend other nations? Is it patriotic to criticize the government? How would you respond to these questions?

One of the challenges faced by teachers, scholars, and cultural institutions today is how to present history in a way that audiences can identify with more broadly. NMAJH’s special exhibition, 1917: How One Year Changed the World, encourages visitors to make connections between the past and the present. The exhibition, which closes on July 16, features two interactive kiosks, each posing a question and inviting visitors to share their opinions on themes discussed in 1917.

So, how did visitors respond? Here’s a glimpse of a few of the 200+ reactions collected in the exhibit…

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Question1



This question was top of mind in 1917. Although President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected under the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” the United States officially entered World War I shortly after Wilson’s January 1917 inauguration. In October of that year, the United States intervened in Russian affairs after the February Revolution.

 

Visitor opinions highlight the relevance of this topic today:

“The United States is one of the most powerful countries in the world. Since they have the ability to do it, they should do it.” – David, 12

“A nation’s purpose is to defend the rights and prosperity of their citizens, and…helping other nations is a waste of valuable resources.” – Abraham, 13

“As the leader of the free world, we have a responsibility to protect freedom everywhere…if we do not speak up, who will?” – Robert, 59

“Isolation makes us vulnerable. We all need friends in a dangerous world.” – Natalie, 77

“While we are not the world’s police, there is a time and place where defensive action on behalf of others is good and necessary.” – Steve, 25

“I believe the US has the right to defend those who can’t defend themselves…also, if we ever encounter war, we must do it out of love for another country not our domination.” – Jake, 16

“I am a citizen of the world. Humanity knows no boundaries.” – Lois, 60

 

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Question2


To a “small, but vocal minority” in 1917, criticizing U.S. involvement in the war, especially in regards to the draft, was a manifestation of patriotism. While there may be agreement that criticism is healthy for democracy, the extent to which it was tolerated a century ago was very different from today. NMAJH’s exhibit features Emma Goldman, an activist who was arrested along with her partner, Alexander Berkman, for being an outspoken critic of the government.

Today, the idea of criticizing the government as a patriotic act is more widespread. Visitor respondents almost unanimously answered yes:

“Without dissent, there can be no discussion.” – Kelly, 37

“We have a responsibility to speak out when the government does something wrong. We can criticize a government’s actions while remaining loyal to the government itself.” –Robert, 59

“It is un-patriotic to sit back and let a government infringe upon your rights and those of your fellow cultures. Patriotism is the ability to criticize but still support your nation with love and respect.” – Sarah, 18

"To criticize is the only way to bring about change.” – Harrison, 15

“Criticism of the government by its citizenry is not only patriotic but necessary.” – Amanda, 40


“The ability to criticize a hallmark of American freedom and democracy. Respectful criticism is good.” – Marilyn, 71


The interactive element enriches the visitor experience in 1917: How One Year Changed the World. Be sure tovisit NMAJH before the exhibit closes on July 16 not only to learn, but to participate in the discourse. (Can’t visit? Share your responses to the above questions in the comment section below!)


Contributed by Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern