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6th Annual Conference:

"Scholars Seek Borscht Belt's Meaning"

MONTICELLO: At this weekend's History of the Catskills Conference, organizers work to preserve and understand a period of the Catskills that some would like to forget.

August 27, 2000
By Annemarie Schuetz
The Times Herald-Record

When the interest strikes, Phil Brown and Alan Barrish get in a car and drive around Sullivan County, looking for history.

It's everywhere here: weathered gateposts, ruins of hotels covered with overgrowth, a single stone wall surrounded by trees. Inside the former hotels, they sometimes find dishes, shreds of furniture, maybe a plastic bingo card.

Small but important things, Brown says, "relics of what was the most vibrant resort culture that ever lived." For Brown, a sociologist at Brown University, this is the archaeology of memory.He and Barrish, both former waiters in Catskills hotels, and a handful of other scholars have become preservers of the Borscht Belt through their Catskills Institute, which is holding its sixth-annual History of the Catskills Conference this weekend at Kutsher's Resort. The institute chronicles the impact of the Borscht Belt on American Jews and on American culture in general.

The hotels ruled Sullivan County for decades, bringing in hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jewish people from New York City, who sought shelter from blistering city summers in the shade of the Catskills. For the visitors, it was a time of bingo, famous entertainers, lounging and plenty of food. For the locals, it was jobs: waiting tables or baby-sitting. It's a past that some would like to forget.

"I hear about it pretty often," said Barrish, the director of the E.B. Crawford Library in Monticello. "Some people, including Jews, want to bury the Borscht Belt."

"There was some residue of anti-Semitism," Brown said. "And there were so many hundreds of resorts, they brought people up here, took over the local swimming holes. Some thought too much went to the hotels Now, they look around and see this place is full of ruins."

"People want to get away from that (hotel culture); it's too ethnic, they say," Barrish said. "But I tell them that this is what made this area unique. Take the Jews out of this area, and we're no different from any other rural area."

The focus is not so much on bringing the resort industry back, Barrish said; it's on looking at it from the perspective of history. "This is how the Jews assimilated, how they became American. We want to learn how it shaped our culture."

"It's nostalgia," said Ted Shuster, who came to the conference with his wife, Ruth, from their home on Long Island. Ruth Shuster grew up in Liberty. Her father, Rabbi Israel Lebendiger, conducted seders at Grossinger's Resort. "I have ties here," she said. "It's an important part of our past."