Bronx Pinocchios of the Borscht Belt



Neighborhood: Bronx, The Catskills

Schenk’s Paramount Hotel

My home base in the 50s was Wyatt Street, essentially, a one-block middle class Jewish enclave in the East Bronx. Theirs was a few miles away, on Fox Street in the South Bronx, then a tough area of mostly poor Jews, Italians, Blacks and Puerto Ricans. 

Our paths were unlikely to have ever crossed, except for our meeting in the Borscht circuit (also known as the Jewish Alps), located in the southern region of the Catskills. The 50s was the Borscht Belt’s heyday, a summer extension of New York City, where teenagers and young men and women, many of them college students or college bound, worked the resorts as waiters, bellhops, and life guards in order to pay their way through school, and also to experience rites of passage

Ray and Duke were my roommates at the Schenk’s Paramount Hotel in Sullivan County. Ray was the handsome one: dark skin, blue eyes, movie star looks, cool and seductive. Duke fitted his moniker. He was short and powerfully built but, along with that, had a winning smile and a gift of gab.

What kinds of names were Ray and Duke for nice Jewish boys? They were Jewish, but not particularly “nice.”

Routine and the predictable were not for them. Basketball, mambo dancing and sex were their priorities, probably in that order.

Even then, I styled myself a Buddhist (a rather pseudo one), but I couldn’t find guidance to help me cope with my roommates’ hedonism, or perhaps it was their unique style of Zen spontaneity; no blockage for them—the arrow (or in this case the basketball) effortlessly hit its target time and again.

In fact, sharing a room with them was a terrible shock to my nervous system. Ray was known to smoke “weed” and for me, this was 1957, that seemed close to heroin. Duke dallied with women. “Sex is the game,” he said and he danced compulsively, think of the film “Dirty Dancing.”  Nightly, he would disappear, usually followed by Ray, to another nearby hotel (the Raleigh) for dance soirees. I couldn’t help but admire their energy. Sleeping for only three hours, they were wide awake for the morning athletics and chores. Somehow, between the dancing, the basketball, and work, they managed to have sex with many of the women guests at the hotel. The Borscht Belt was a strange 1950s culture, where the young mothers stayed for the summer at the hotel or nearby cottages. The mice would play while their dutiful husbands, nose to the grindstone, remained in the city until the weekend (this reality was depicted in the flic, “Walk on the Moon”).

My problem was a lack of sophistication and a values conflict. I was only 16, and Ray and Duke seemed to be me, at ages 22 and 23, to be worldly adults. Sometimes suffering vertigo in their presence, that summer I developed an eye twitch.

Who were these guys? To me they were a distinct species. Like the Cross Bronx Expressway, they split open my conventional view of how to live a life. No college for them. Money was just a means to have a good time, and sex only existed in order to satisfy primal cravings. Were they psychopaths? In retrospect, I will give them a break and place them in the category of Dharma bums. While Kerouac was “On the Road,” Duke and Ray danced the summer away in the Catskills and the winter in Miami Beach. While I squirreled my earnings for college and carried on my humdrum existence, they were “liberated” Pinocchios of the Borscht Circuit, singing and dancing to the tune, “Hi diddle dee dee, an actor’s life for me.”


Eugene Barron has a doctorate in Human Relations, and is a psychotherapist, documentary film maker, and author of the book, Hungry Ghosts: Voices of Prostitutes, Addicts, Murderers. He resides on the Upper West Side

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§ 2 Responses to “Bronx Pinocchios of the Borscht Belt”

  • TSB says:

    Hey, where is the manager? I want to make a complaint!

    This is such an alluring set-up. Borscht Belt Bad Boys! It’s like a hollywood pitch. Bad Boys, but with Sandler and Seinfeld! You had my attention.

    But this is all set-up and no pay off. By which I mean, after about the third or fourth graph, the reader, having been introduced to the situation, awaits a specific story. When this happened and then that happened. I would have been content to hearing snippets of these guys talking about what they did the night before. I accept the narrator as bystander, the role of many great literary narrators (Nick Carraway). But we don’t get nothing! Gyp!

    Author, sit down and write an actual scene. A moment. If it lasts a graph, so be it. Something. Then stick it in this piece. It can be done. It’s pixels not print. Go ahead. Do it. Trust me.


    The Neighborhood Ghost

  • Jen Stewart says:

    Thank you for sharing. I would love to interview you for my podcast in the New Year and get some more stories about Schenk’s. Please get in touch. Would love to chat.


§ Leave a Reply

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