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P H OTO E S S AY

Left, a soap dish in decay. Bathroom, Grossinger’s Catskill Resort and Hotel, Liberty, NY

R UIN S
of th e

BORSCHT

BELT

A photo essay and conversation with documentary photographer Marisa Scheinfeld by Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter

F

or me, looking at photographs is a different aesthetic experience from appreciating other works of art. A person’s reaction to a given piece is usually in response to its physical form and qualities; pleasure is derived from the immediate sensory experience. When looking at photographs, however, the subject matter and its relationship to the world must also be taken into account. In other words, a photograph cannot be experienced on a strictly sensory level but must also be processed intellectually. Merging sensory experience with intellect, though, allows room for ideology to influence the outcome. This entanglement seems inevitable when considering photographs. Because photos lend themselves to various interpretations and can tell different stories to different people, a person’s mindset and beliefs can affect his understanding. When I viewed Marisa Scheinfeld’s magnificent photographs of the ruins of the Borscht Belt, they symbolized for me the story of the disappearing Jew in America through assimilation. Before me were grand hotels in various states of decay along with mere hints of the once prosperous Jewish guests who vacationed in them. What remains of both are truly only ruins. Yet she interprets the photos differently. “I don’t really look at it as a story of assimilation,” she tells me. “I see it as the universal story of Americans. It’s an epidemic where we Americans have, use, and then abandon. Americans continuously take in and expel—like Detroit, a city that was prosperous and gave us a car industry and was then mismanaged and failed. I really look at it as a cautionary tale for the 21st century.” She is not, though, entirely dismissive of my interpretation. “I can appreciate your perspective, and yes, many Jews have assimilated. But as a Jew whose own family has assimilated, the feeling of being Jewish and how proud I am to be Jewish, regardless of the level of my observance, is still embedded in my heart and soul.”
Coffee Shop, Grossinger’s Catskill Resort and Hotel, Liberty, NY

The Persian Room, The Pines Hotel, South Fallsburg, NY

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So her own strong Jewish identity prevents her from seeing it as the story of the disappearing secular Jew? “True, as time has gone by, many Jews have assimilated. My own family was Orthodox two generations ago and I consider myself a secular Jew. But adjectives aside, I am a Jew. You could look at it like that if you wish. But I don’t necessarily take that viewpoint. I look at it as a tale of America. The beauty of art is that it is open to interpretation and opinion.” So it’s not even a Jewish story? “I don’t like to say something is one or the other. To me, things are always a little of both. There’s a lot of Jewish history in the Catskills as well as world history. I like to emphasize histories, in the plural.” Of course, there’s an undeniably and particular Jewish connection to the Borscht Belt. “No matter the level of observance, there is someone in every Jewish family with a connection. The Borscht Belt began in the 1920s as a reaction to discrimination. The simple fact was that Jews were banned from most hotels in America. The industry was

born out of a desire for Jews to experience an American-style vacation in the country, while also holding on to the customs and observances that were sacred to them. It was also a big plus that the Catskills look a lot like the places in Europe many of the immigrants came from. Most of the hotels were kosher when they started, but of course, some were more religious than others.” “Aren’t there basically two Jewish stories in the Catskills, the Orthodox story and the non-Orthodox story?” I insist. “I think the contemporary phenomenon of Orthodox Jews in the Catskills is different from the one that previously existed. Today, Orthodox Jews make up a large percentage of the county’s (Sullivan County’s) summertime visitors. My family and I embrace the businesses that have sprung up—everything from the bakeries to the falafel places. Other locals don’t have the same attitude, but the Orthodox Jews flocking to the region each summer certainly provide commerce that the area wouldn’t have otherwise. You still have Jews who aren’t Orthodox vacationing in the Catskills, but a lot of the old

(above) Guest Room, Jennie G. Building, Grossinger’s Catskill Resort and Hotel; (below, right) Hallway, Jennie G. Building

Borscht Belt hotels and bungalow colonies have been bought by Orthodox Jews, so in a sense the area has been revived in a completely new way. I wish there was a way to forge more connections between the locals and the summer Orthodox crowd. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I understand the boundaries of each group. I know people in both circles and find myself mingling between them.” Why does she think that the era of the Borscht Belt’s magnificent hotels ultimately came to an end? “There were many reasons why the Borscht Belt failed. Some people just didn’t want to go to a Jewish hotel. They wanted to go to Europe or Atlantic City or Las Vegas. Others attribute it to the growth of the airline industry. Some say it was because women took a more active role in the work force. You could also say that everything in

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the world has its season.” “Are you a professional photographer?” I ask. “Yes. I’ve been taking pictures since I was 15. In high school I learned all about film and how to develop photographs in a darkroom. That’s when I got hooked. I have both a Bachelor of Fine Arts [degree] and a Master of Fine Arts [degree] in photography.” “Which period of art history interests you the most?” I inquire. “I suppose my favorite would be the period of the 1800s, when photography was first invented. I’m fascinated by how its discovery changed the world. Photography allowed people to see beyond their own living rooms and towns and gave them a glimpse of different customs, traditions and lifestyles around the world. Photography allowed for an exploration of the world for those who couldn’t actually travel; that’s how the term ‘armchair travel’ was coined.” “Which part of the world were you born in?” “I was born in Brooklyn. My parents

Wh en I vi ewed Marisa Sch einfeld’s magni ficent p hoto grap hs of th e ruins of th e Borscht B elt, th ey sym bo lized for me th e story of th e d isappearing J ew in America through assi m i lati on.
lived in Flatbush, but shortly afterwards we moved to the Bronx. My parents both grew up in Brooklyn, my father on Ocean Parkway and Avenue J, and my mother in Sheepshead Bay. My father’s father is from Poland. My grandparents, Ruth and Jack, actually met in the Catskills. After my grandparents got married they used to go up to the Catskills all the time, and when my father and his sister were born, they also came along. The Catskills were a big part of our family life, way before me. My whole family is embedded in its hills.” “Where did you grow up?” “We lived in the Bronx until I was six, when my dad finished medical school. He had been going to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and was now looking for a job.

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He didn’t want to raise a family in the city and was offered a position in the Catskills. So that’s how we ended up [living] up there. “Some of my earliest Catskill memories are of going to these Borscht Belt hotels with my grandparents, especially Kutsher’s and the Concord, because we lived right in the middle between both hotels. I remember playing bingo and cards and going for the Jewish holidays and going to the café and the pool. These hotels were immense compounds, and I could run around and be free. I wasn’t really conscious that they were no longer in their heyday, but from the stories I overheard I knew they must have been really great. These stories were unavoidable, whether from family members, friends or locals. They always talked about how busy the hotels were with the shows and entertainment. And the food, of course. “One summer when I was in high school, I worked as a lifeguard at the Concord. That was the last year before it closed. Then I went away to college and didn’t think of the region much except as my hometown. I knew it was experiencing many difficulties, especially economically speaking, but it was a cherished place I loved and still love to return to. The Borscht Belt really began

to deteriorate when I was a teenager. The entire economy of the country (the Catskills region) was built around the hotel industry, and when they closed the whole county took a downturn. And along with the hotel industry, a sense of pride in the area was also lost. “Do you live in New York now?” “On the Upper West Side.” “When did you become interested in the Borscht Belt from a photographic perspective?” “I knew that the region had a great history, this notorious Jewish-American, post-WWII era that had thrived and was internationally famous, even though I’d only seen a tiny glimpse of it in its dying days. I realized that people were slowly forgetting about it. The people who had worked and vacationed there were growing old, and the structures were falling apart and decaying and becoming eyesores in the community. I starting making trips back home during my school breaks to do research, read books and drive around a lot. I tried to get my hands on any old photos and information about the Borscht Belt as I could. There was a treasure trove of stuff. The Borscht Belt was a cherished part of Americana, written

Ice Skating Rink, Pines Hotel, South Fallsburg, NY

about countless times in literature and personal memoirs. There were many archival images and postcards, but as far as I knew there had never been a comprehensive fine art photographic documentation of the region. So I began to do something known as re-photography. Re-photography is the process of ‘now and then’ photography: the act of taking an old picture or postcard and remaking it under the conditions that exist today, from the same vantage point and position as the photographer who took it long ago. It is a very precise method and takes a lot of time.” “Can you give me an example of re-photography of a hotel?” “Okay. I had a postcard of what was once the indoor pool at a hotel called the Laurels in Sackett Lake. The hotel burned down in the 1990s. I went up there and shot a picture of the same pool, but today it’s outdoors. This immediately became a metaphor for the passage of time. It turned on a light bulb in my head. What happens to things over time, to places and people? How do they change, evolve and move forward?

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Then I’d turn around and see something magical, like a plant growing up through a crack in the floor, and I couldn’t walk away without taking a picture. So aside from my intention to do this re-photography project, there was still a narrative to be told from the ruins of these hotels. I set out to see as many of these hotels as I could. I wanted to see them in all four seasons, not only because the Borscht Belt was known as an all-yearlong resort, but also because the seasons were a very big part of my own childhood experience.” “In what conditions did you find these hotels?” “They were all in different stages of decay. Some, like Grossinger’s, have a lot of structures still standing. Others, like the Concord, have been demolished, nothing at all left. Sometimes all you can see is two stone pillars at the end of a road indicating a former entrance, or maybe a little crumbledup concrete. Some places were completely burned down and the only thing left is a pool a few hundred yards into the woods. Then you have other hotels that were bought from the previous owners and converted

into rehab centers, meditation centers or, as I mentioned, Orthodox hotels and resorts. My project focuses solely on the ruins.” “What is it about ruins that interests you?” “I was never the type of person who was interested in taking a photo of a sunset, although I can appreciate it. I think I’m interested in ruins because of all the history that’s embedded in them, all the events that transpired both good and bad. Photographers have always been interested in ruins. In the late 1800s, you had photographers going back to the ancient civilizations in the Middle East and India to document them. Ruins can be metaphors for things that survived, persisted and persevered despite the fact that everything around them was falling and crashing. Some people might consider them dead, but I see them as active and vital, a powerful force.” “So it’s not all about decay?” “Well, it is in a state of decay, but in essence it’s also about renewal and regeneration. There’s that idea again: Things are always a bit of both. The project is also a metaphor for the life cycle. Everything has a birth and a death. In between the two,

there are some things that are very ugly and difficult and hard to look at, but also elements that are very beautiful. I think these pictures lend themselves to that flow. There’s one picture of a laundry room that looks like an apocalyptic scene. Everyone has fled; it’s very ominous and dark and you wonder where everyone went. Then there are other images that are more about life, where you’ll see a plant pushing its way through the floor in a little room that has completely fallen apart and been neglected. The project is filled with metaphors. There’s also the underlying notion of the power of nature having reclaimed these hotels. In that sense, the ruins themselves are alive again, active forces, vital and energetic, but in a new way.” “How many hotels were in the Borscht Belt?” “At one point there were 600 hotels scattered around Sullivan County, and about 400 bungalow colonies. My project presents a contemporary photographic view of these hotels but it’s more than just about the hotels; it has many layers. At its foundation, it’s rooted in the history of American

(above, and below left) Indoor Pool, Grossinger’s Catskill Resort and Hotel

Jews who vacationed in this place and the communities and bonds that were formed. People held weddings and bar mitzvahs and celebrated anniversaries… The social aspect of what the Catskills created is beautiful.” “Would you say there’s a practical purpose too? “Well, a practical purpose would be to call attention to an area that’s been largely forgotten. I really believe it still has so much potential and deserves a renewal and revitalization. If you look at the history of the county, it has had three major industries: lumber, leather tanning and then the hotel industry. When one died out, another popped up in its place. History tends to repeat itself, so at this point it’s only a matter of time before something new evolves.” “When did you take all of these photos?” “They were taken over the past two and a half years, but I’m still shooting. I was up there the last two weekends and I hope to go the next. It’s an ongoing project until the

book goes to print. Or else until I feel complete.” “Were you afraid to go into any of these hotels?” “When I first started I was a little scared. Some of them, like Grossinger’s, are huge— eight buildings on a tremendous plot of land. In the beginning I didn’t know exactly where I was going. I always brought someone along with me for safety. Many of the floors in these buildings were falling through, so I had to be cautious. But once I started working more, I began to feel very comfortable. It was peaceful. People had made wonderful memories in these places. I see a lot of birds, plants and deer, mostly wildlife. I’ve never seen a single rat; there’s no food for them to eat. But I have seen evidence of homeless people, kids partying, skateboarders who made a makeshift skateboard park, but I’ve never been bothered by anyone.” “Have you also explored the old bungalow colonies?” “I’m going to try to do a few this fall.” “I think your photograph of the blue soap dish is one my favorites.”

“That’s a recent one. I really like it too. As soon as I saw that corroded soap dish I couldn’t take my eyes off it. A lot of those images, like the soap dish and the cups on the floor, make me think about how many people stayed there and what their lives were like and their personal histories and stories. “Since I began this project, I can’t tell you how many people have come to my shows or lectures to share their memories. They’ll look at a picture of a lobby and after expressing dismay that it’s falling apart they’ll say, ‘Oh, I met my husband there,’ or ‘That’s where we got married.’ And they’re so happy! I’m so gratified and pleased that my work can do this, that it can provoke emotions and conversation. I think that’s the entire point. “I’m looking at the overpass of the Pines Hotel in South Fallsburg. What’s the significance of that?” “I’m trying to create an experience where you’re actually going through the hotel. So there are a few where I use overpasses that link one area to another, to connect one photograph to the next.
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“The coffee shop with the row of metal and green stools at a nonexistent counter is truly moving.” “Yes. The absence of the counter highlights even more how bereft it is of the people who used to sit in them.” “Then there’s the shot of the indoor pool at Grossinger’s. There’s a beach chair just sitting there.” “The beach chair mimics the shape of a human body. The chair is situated in a room that has been invaded by nature. There’s grass growing through the tiles. That picture has all the ideas I’m interested in: the history of the site; the absence of people signifying its decline; the elements of nature indicating renewed life, albeit in a different form.” “Tell me more about the photograph of the cups.” “That has to do with objects as well as people. There is so much in our lives that we use and toss aside and don’t even consider. That picture can be seen as a moral tale about our society. I’ve traveled around the world and seen how things are reused

more in other places, unlike here, where everything is disposable. We’re always looking for the next shiny big thing.” “Where do you lecture and what do you lecture about?” “About this project. I’ll give a presentation wherever anyone asks me to. Last Sunday I was at the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy. I’m going to speak at a temple in Bedford, New York, another on the Upper West Side, in a JCC in Long Island. A few weeks ago I was at the Monticello Library and at the Arts Center in Liberty. I’ll talk about the project wherever I’m invited. Sometimes it’s in conjunction with an exhibition and sometimes it’s just a PowerPoint presentation. “Right now there’s an exhibition going on at the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy on Grand Street. I’m planning some more for the future that aren’t yet confirmed. “Have you published any of your other works?” “I did a project on a group of Holocaust survivors living in San Diego, California, and published a book about them. It’s in the

Dining Room, Pines Hotel, South Fallsburg, NY

Simon Wiesenthal Library in Los Angeles.” “How many photographs in total do you intend to publish on the Borscht Belt?” “About 80.” “Is there going to be a narrative or include people’s stories?” “No, but I intend to use them as material to paint a more vivid picture of the area. I’m also grateful for these stories, because they enable me to stay in touch with people and let them know about my projects. The Borscht Belt was such an important place to so many people.” “Some artists can’t explain their art,” I tell her before saying goodbye. “I find that you are an artist who can articulate her art very well. You combine the visual with the intellect.” I’m still not certain whether her perspective is entirely in sync with mine, however. But photos lend themselves to various interpretations, telling different stories to different people. 

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