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Classical 101

New recording tells the musical story of the Borscht Belt

Sam Sadigursky with clarinet and Nathan Koci with accordion.
Michael Bellar
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Sam Sadigursky and Nathan Koci.

Travel to the Catskill Mountains in southern New York and listen hard. Amid the rolling hills and abandoned hotel buildings, if the wind is just right, a peal of laughter or fleeting dance band tune might fly out of the pages of history and tickle your imagination.

That’s all that remains of the Borscht Belt, the once-thriving Jewish vacationland in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Between the late 1800s and the 1960s thousands of Jews fled there to relax and refresh from the heat and grit of New York City summers.

Composer and clarinetist Sam Sadigursky commemorates the golden age of the Borscht Belt in his recording The Solomon Diaries, a three-volume collection of musical works inspired by the area’s resort amenities and Jewish culture.

Sadigursky, who grew up on the West Coast, says he doesn’t have direct ties to the Borscht Belt region. He became interested in the area after moving to New York City some years ago.

“Over the course of living here, I’ve been up to the Catskills many times, and it’s always really fascinated me that there’s this region so close to the city,” Sadigursky said.

Those visits inspired The Solomon Diaries, as did documentary photographer Marisa Scheinfeld’s book The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, full of haunting images of once-glorious Borscht Belt resorts now in ruins.

“I think there was something about the impermanence of it that felt really spiritual for me and really inspired me,” Sadigursky said.

Nicknamed after the traditional beet soup of eastern European Jewish immigrants, the Borscht Belt began evolving into a Jewish summer getaway in the 1920s. New York City Jews seeking a summer escape from the city often found themselves unwelcome in hotels and resorts, so they built their own. Lodgings catering to the Jewish community sprang up around Sullivan and Ulster Counties, about 100 miles northwest of New York City.

At the height of its popularity in the 1950s, the Borscht Belt region boasted more than 400 lodgings, ranging from multi-family bungalows to upscale resorts with bountiful kosher food, ballrooms, golf courses, indoor swimming pavilions and movie theaters.

album Cover of  sam sadigursky's The Solomon Diaries, vacationers laughing in reclining chairs on a sunny winter day.
Adhyaropa Records
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Adhyaropa Records

Entertainment was big at the Borscht Belt resorts, where George Burns, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers and many other stars perfected their acts and created the tradition of Borscht Belt humor.

The Borscht Belt flourished quickly but declined even more rapidly. As more hotels welcomed Jewish vacationers and air travel became more common, Jewish families increasingly took advantage of travel options beyond the Catskills. Demand for Borscht Belt lodgings flagged, and the resorts began to close. By the 1970s almost all of the area’s Jewish vacation resorts had closed.

When the Concord Resort Hotel closed in 1998, the Borscht Belt era came to an end, and the region’s once-grand structures fell into ruin.

While the musical works in The Solomon Diaries were inspired by a longing for the Borscht Belt’s vivid past, the music itself doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. Sadigursky’s clarinet performances with accordionist Nathan Koci blend a klezmer-inspired sound world with jazz improvisations and evocative bits of “found” music – historic recordings by Yiddish singer Ruth Rubin, audio of Jewish prayers chanted in Daghestan and Azerbaijan, vocals by present-day Broadway star Katrina Lenk.

The Solomon Diaries is a compelling musical remembrance of a bygone era. It’s also a sobering reminder of humanity’s inexorable march into the future – and the cost of leaving behind the past.