Bowling Alley, Homowack Lodge, Spring Glen, NY
I was there in the glory days of The Catskills and the audiences were tough and demanding. They really sharpened your act. It was do or die. No Borscht Belt, no Mel Brooks.
I will never forget my childhood in Brooklyn and my days visiting the Catskill Mountains. I worked one summer at Grossinger’s as a busboy and it was a memorable experience in my life. It is sad to see these pictures of what once was and what will never be again. They are brilliant photographs and the memories will be indelible in my mind. This is sadly joyful.
Susan Sontag famously observed that “all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” One could scarcely imagine a more observant and poetic testimony than Marisa Scheinfeld’s eerie photographic record of the crumbing remains of American Jewry’s mid-century Xanadu, the Borscht Belt. With an archaeologist’s attention to the accumulated layers of history and the passage of time, her melancholic images of ruins, detritus and festering vegetation are haunted by an unseen and undefined presence, providing a visual meditation on abandonment and absence. These photographs invite us to consider the rich history of American Jewish life, the legacy of the Catskills, and the ways in which this complex history is enduringly present and woven into the very fiber of the region.
The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland” featuring photographs by Marisa Scheinfeld, provides a vivid, bittersweet record of forsaken archaeological sites that were once beloved summer havens in the Catskills.
These photographs portray an almost casual apocalypse. These images are affectionate without being nostalgic. The wreckage they show is almost lush with new growth. And while they really can’t compete with history’s vast iconography of ruin, their effect is unusual: The landscape of abandonment still retains signs of vitality — and we’re aware of the remarkable impact that this vitality had on American popular culture.
“The book notes Woody Allen’s quip, no doubt delivered at some point from a Borscht Belt stage: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Some might say that Scheinfeld arrived half a century too late, but her photos reveal that she showed up just in time to discover mutable beauty in tumbledown dreams.”
In New York’s Catskill Mountains, a party began in the 20th century that lasted decades. Party pictures filled thousands of scrapbooks - but now, the party’s over, and the guests are gone, never to return. Enter Marisa Scheinfeld, whose camera finds profound eloquence in the silence that remains, and hope in new life emerging from the ruins. The story was already ancient when Shelley penned Ozymandias: that all things grand eventually fall. But Scheinfeld’s work is all the more moving, because these things are ours, now.
Great. Weird and Sad.
Marisa Scheinfeld’s “Borscht Belt” pictures capture that sweet spot between the exquisite pain and the beauty of decay - Brava to Scheinfeld for giving us this skillfully composed archive of what remains of the splendors of the Catskills past. Scheinfeld’s documentation sensitively shows us the innate elegance and grace within impermanence.
Lord Action famously wrote that history is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul. That sentiment comes alive in the photographs of Marisa Scheinfeld. This collection tells the fascinating story of the history of the once-vaunted Catskill resort industry that at its peak included more than 500 hotels and 50,000 bungalows. This is the story of a paradise lost, and these photos are an invaluable tool in preserving the past for those who were not fortunate enough to have experienced it.
As a kid, I spent many family vacations in the heyday of the Borscht Belt. A few years later, I traveled to those same hotels to hear my jokes being delivered by the comics I was writing for. The memories are filled with activity and fun and laughter. And today, well, a drive to the Catskills bares only the ghosts of that glorious era. Marisa Scheinfeld’s beautiful book captures it all.
These photographs capture the decay of what once a rich cultural tapestry. I can even visualize it all coming back to life....the fun, the joy...places where I grew up, as a woman and a performer.
We all know there’s a genre of ruin-porn, which often features weeds and trees growing up in the man-made environment, and if you close your eyes, I bet you can conjure such a picture of Detroit without trying too hard. But this project is something different. Ms. Scheinfeld has done copious research on the cultural history of our respective ancestors, which overlaps with learning more about where she was literally raised, and what’s become of all these former palaces and huts of leisure.
Melancholy and at times surreal, these decayed, grown-over landscapes and interiors cast a spell. Objects bear silent testimony and conjure up past occupants. This is a book of ghosts, haunting and eloquent.
In photographing the ruins of the great Jewish resort area, Marisa Scheinfeld taps our memories of the great Golden Age of the Catskills, and fills our hearts with recollections. In their whirlwinds of color, these photographs sing the history of the hotels and bungalow colonies, putting us at ease by the pool, at sport on the handball courts, and always at the table in the dining room. It’s a joy to step into these vivid images and relive such an important historical phenomenon.
Marisa Scheinfeld’s new book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, argues convincingly that the ruins captured by her lens form an essential contribution to the history of American Jewish life. These photographs, when joined with narrative, can help scholars provide a more complete explanation of the socio-economic developments that brought the Borscht Belt to ruin than written accounts alone. Though some might react to the images with disgust, curiosity, or wonder, in this example of an oft-maligned genre, aesthetic allure is a conduit for new interrogations of the past.
One winter I went with other teenagers to a convention at Grossinger’s and remember my excitement at discovring the indoor swimming pool and the deep heat of their sauna. My memory lacks detail but I recall that the whole place seemed to offer a wonderland of new experiences. I went to the convention again the next year and thought then that the resort would be around every year. But I never went back after I left New York and Grossinger’s became a hazy memory.There is a stark difference between my memory and the shell of a resort that exists today. Memory alone cannot represent the experiences of the past to others. But the past can be given form and detail by photography and that is what Marisa Scheinfeld’s photographs do. When we compare older pictures to what we see today they tell us about the past. What is less clear is that visualizing the past the way ca actually take the form of memory. Past and present get caught in the middle of a time sandwich in which both ends become dependent on the gap between them. When that happens the combination affects what we are able to see in the present, just as it recreates the past. Old and new pictures help us to experience any change that has happened, and I have found change to be the truest measure of time.
It was my good fortune to land in the Borscht Belt in the summer of 1933. It had an active Jewish community and a bucolic countryside, in many ways similar to the shtetl life (that was) familiar to me in Lithuania. My cousin Seymour Cohen and I visited every major hotel in the area and carefully compared what they had to offer. I was introduced to some of the owners. I think I even met legendary Jennie Grossinger. But all good things eventually end.
These photographs are beautiful and at the same time, terrible. And by that I mean having spent 40 years in many of these hotels, to see them again is wonderful, but at the same time brings a heartache. All in all, this work is fascinating and will linger in my memory.
Scheinfeld’s photographs capture the lost world of the Catskills resorts in images of entropy and decay, as if the hotels were suddenly and inexplicably abandoned, with all evidence of human life extinguished in one fell swoop. One imagines the places having been emptied out in the wake of sudden natural disaster, environmental calamity, or war – instead of the particular socioeconomic changes, e.g., cheap airfare to Florida, that made them no longer attractive to their clientele or even viable. While on the one hand Scheinfeld’s images reek of ghostly devastation, on the other hand they boast their own post-apocalyptic beauty, filled with a haunting presence and eerie echoes of what once was.