The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America's Jewish Vacationland

The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America's Jewish Vacationland


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Today the Borscht Belt is recalled through the nostalgic lens of summer swims, Saturday night dances, and comedy performances. But its current state, like that of many other formerly glorious regions, is nothing like its earlier status. Forgotten about and exhausted, much of its structural environment has been left to decay. The Borscht Belt, which features essays by Stefan Kanfer and Jenna Weissman Joselit, presents Marisa Scheinfeld’s photographs of abandoned sites where resorts, hotels, and bungalow colonies once boomed in the Catskill Mountain region of upstate New York.

The book assembles images Scheinfeld has shot inside and outside locations that once buzzed with life as year-round havens for generations of people. Some of the structures have been lying abandoned for periods ranging from four to twenty years, depending on the specific hotel or bungalow colony and the conditions under which it closed. Other sites have since been demolished or repurposed, making this book an even more significant documentation of a pivotal era in American Jewish history.

The Borscht Belt presents a contemporary view of more than forty hotel and bungalow sites. From entire expanses of abandoned properties to small lots containing drained swimming pools, the remains of the Borscht Belt era now lie forgotten, overgrown, and vacant. In the absence of human activity, nature has reclaimed the sites, having encroached upon or completely overtaken them. Many of the interiors have been vandalized or marked by paintball players and graffiti artists. Each ruin lies radically altered by the elements and effects of time. Scheinfeld’s images record all of these developments.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501700590
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 505,841
Product dimensions: 10.10(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Marisa Scheinfeld’s photography has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is among the collections of The Center for Jewish History, The National Yiddish Book Center, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, and The Edmund and Nancy K. Dubois Library at the Museum of Photographic Arts. Stefan Kanfer is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, from the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt. Jenna Weissman Joselit is Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at The George Washington University, where she also directs two graduate programs in Jewish cultural arts. She is the author of The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880–1950 and A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America.

What People are Saying About This

Freddie Roman

"These photographs are beautiful and at the same time terrible. And by that I mean, having spent forty years in many of these hotels, to see them again is wonderful but at the same time brings heartache. All in all, this work is fascinating and will linger in my memory."

Laurie Simmons

"My mother spent childhood summers at the Tempel Inn at Shandelee. My father was a counselor at Camp Ranger in Bethel. My sisters and I were taken to the Laurels and the Nevele, and I first picked up a camera in Roscoe. Years later my husband and I decamped to Beaverkill when our eldest daughter was born. The Borscht Belt captures that sweet spot between the exquisite pain and the beauty of decay. Brava to Marisa Scheinfeld for giving us this skillfully composed archive of what remains of the splendors of the Catskills past."

Mark Klett

"One winter I went with other teenagers to a convention at Grossinger's and remember my excitement at discovering the indoor swimming pool and the deep heat of their sauna. I recall that the whole place seemed to offer a wonderland of new experiences. I went to the convention again the next year, but I never went back after I left New York. There is a stark difference between my memory and the shell of a resort that exists today. But the past can be given form and detail by photography, and that is what Marisa Scheinfeld’s photographs do. Visualizing the past this way can actually take the form of memory. 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."

Larry King

"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."

Mel Brooks

"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."

Al Jaffee

"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 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 the legendary Jennie Grossinger. But all good things eventually end."

John Conway

"Lord Acton 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 Catskills 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."

Marilyn Michaels

"These photographs capture the decay of what once was 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."

Maya Benton

"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 crumbling remains of American Jewry’s mid-century Xanadu, the Borscht Belt. Scheinfeld has 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."

Phil Brown

"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 photos 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."

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