Simanaitis Says

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“THOSE WHO CANNOT remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This oft-cited and occasionally misattributed quote from philosopher George Santayana is particularly relevant today in discussing several cultural phenomena: the historical Chitlin and Borscht Circuits, and the recent spike in hate crimes.

In Part 1 today, we examine current trends of discrimination in the U.S. and a look at the Borscht Belt, an historical response to the “restricted” code against American Jews. Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll discuss the Chitlin Circuit, an African-American response, and we’ll also return to the words of Spanish-American philosopher and scholar George Santayana.

Hate Crimes These Days. CBS News, November 13, 2018, reported that between 2016 and 2017, there was “an overall 17-percent increase in hate crimes…. Hate crimes based on race, ethnicity or ancestry were the most common, making up about 60 percent of the total.”

“Religious-based hate crime,” the report continued, “comprised about 20 percent of the total. The FBI data show Jewish people and institutions were most frequently targeted, accounting for 58.1 percent of religious-based hate crime incidents.”

Earlier in the decade, there had been a decline in such crimes—until percentages rose in 2016 and again in 2017. So much for MAGA and political spouting about “the good old days.”

The 20th-Century Borscht Circuit. In those good old days, the word “restricted” was code for “no Jews allowed.” As a result, a Borscht Belt of hotels and summer resorts evolved in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Named for the beet-based soup popular among those of eastern European heritage, the Borscht Belt offered accommodations free of “restricted” code.

Brickman’s, the Concord, Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club, and many other establishments attracted a Jewish clientele, not to say others of progressive views, with offerings of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish culture and cuisine.

Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, Ferndale, New York, 1960s. Image from courtesy of Tania Grossinger.

At these venues, many Jewish entertainers perfected their talents on what became known as the Borscht Circuit. Among Borscht Circuit alumni, Wikipedia lists Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Billy Crystal, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, and Henny Youngman.

The Concord Resort Hotel, Kiamesha Lake, New York, was the largest resort in the region; it closed in 1998.

The Borscht Belt and Borscht Circuit thrived from the 1920s into the 1970s. As ethnic barriers fell, so did their distinctive appeal. By the 1960s, for example, between a quarter and a third of Grossinger’s visitors were goyim.

A Motorsports Tidbit. Today’s Monticello Motor Club, with a circuit of a completely different sort, is located in the region.

The Monticello Motor Club, Monticello, New York, 90 miles north-northwest of New York City, is not far from the Concord’s Kiamesha Lake and Grossinger’s Ferndale.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we examine yet another circuit, the Chitlin Circuit. This was an African-American analogue of the Borscht Circuit, countering even stronger discrimination than that experienced by “restricted” code. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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