The Borscht Belt

Revisiting the Remains of America's Jewish Vacationland

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Marisa Scheinfeld
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , October
     2016.
     200 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781501700590.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Marisa Scheinfeld’s first book is not what I expected. I did not know Scheinfeld or her work, but as a scholar of American Jewish culture, especially humor, the Borscht Belt is a place and idea I think about often. I was both thrilled and frightened therefore when I opened the book and realized Scheinfeld is a photographer, and the bulk of the volume consists of her captivating, horrifying, haunting photographs of the “ruins” of what was the Borscht Belt. In addition to the photographs there are also three illuminating essays: one by the photographer herself, one by Stefan Kanfer (whose Stardust Lost [Knopf, 2006] is a wonderful history of Yiddish theatre), and one by the authority on mid-century American Jewish culture, Jenna Weissman Joselit. These academic voices not only complement Scheinfeld’s own words and images, but also bring profound and moving insight to the project.

Scheinfeld’s prologue establishes for the reader (viewer?) what her sense of the collection is. She uses words such as “entropy,” “decay,” “blights,” “enchanting solitude,” and “post-apocalyptic” to describe what she found as she tromped through the shuttered and abandoned sites of what was once the vacation playground of America’s Jews. Scheinfeld grew up in Sullivan County, where the majority of the Catskills resorts and bungalow communities were located. The end of their story is the beginning of hers, and she is able to speak with an authority few could about the last days of the once-great region. Her reasons for wanting to undertake this project are reminiscent of the work Phil Brown has done on the Catskills. In particular, when Scheinfeld writes that she wanted to photograph these locations because she had “not come across anything about the physical condition of the sites,” it echoes Brown’s writings on the “memorialization” of the region and its value as an above-ground archaeological site (2; Brown “The Jewish Community in the Catskills” in Jews in American Popular Culture, Praeger, 2006, 126-28).

Kanfer’s essay brings the ghosts of the past into the photographs of the present. He adds life and color to the description of what the Catskills once were, especially as a proving ground for at least two generations of American Jewish comedians. Kanfer reminds the reader of all the famous names and faces who came through these resorts, and asks us to imagine what these places looked like in their prime. He calls his “favorite photograph” the one found on page 161, where the husk of an elevator shaft standing tall, with no building around it and no elevator car in it: “A fire has taken them all away, leaving only a ghost—the vertical path that leads to nowhere” (18). To Kanfer, these ghosts bring with them evocative questions of what once was: “Who took that elevator on its last day in a long-ago summer? Was it a housewife stranded with the kids, waiting for a husband who came up only for weekend visits? Was she accompanied by a waiter working his way through college and hoping for a tryst? Or was it a family newly arrived in the Catskills, on its way to rooms with a superb view of the hills and valleys…” (18). Kanfer’s manufactured nostalgia melds images that span decades of Catskills history. The last passenger of that elevator was unlikely to be any of these stereotypes of the 1950s and 1960s he invokes, but more likely a realtor doing a final walk-through of the building in the 1980s or 1990s. But Kanfer’s imaged moments capture the image most people have of the Catskills, that they were frozen in amber at their peak. This Golden Ageism serves Scheinfeld’s project well because her photographs are such stark and undeniable reminders that the Golden Age ended, and death comes for everything.

The third and final essay is Joselit’s, and her words tie the previous essays together. She focuses on the chairs, and truly they are one of the most striking features of the entire collection. Chairs are everywhere in these photographs. Inside chairs are outside, outside chairs are inside. They are found singly and in groups, broken and whole, tipped, flipped, and submerged. Joselit calls the chairs “out of place, decontextualized” and says she sometimes caught herself “anthropomorphizing these inanimate constructions of metal and wood and fabric” (21). To Joselit, that the chairs seem to be the last and most prominent feature standing (so to speak) is only right. It reflects the very nature of American Jews’ relationship to the Catskills: “American Jews came to the mountains, as they called the Catskills, not to hike or bike or develop their musculature. They came to sit…Nothing held a candle to sitting and chatting” (22). Scheinfeld, Kanfer, and Joselit all highlight how the Catskills came out of a particularly dark time in American Jewish history, the inter-war years when anti-Semitism was on the rise and Jews were barred from many American resorts and clubs. Here in the Catskills they could simply sit, talk, unwind, and be. That security is what allowed Catskills guests to relax in a way they couldn’t anywhere in the non-Jewish world. Joselit implies that the many chairs of Scheinfeld’s photographs stand silent sentinel to a past that regarded the simple act of Jews sitting together as an act of communal defiance.

All of the photographs in The Borscht Belt are remarkable, but I find myself agreeing with Joselit that one thing they make clear is that “Mother Nature has the last laugh” (25). Whether it is a tree growing through a bench, or the grass growing over what was once luxurious wall-to-wall carpet, or snowdrifts inside walls built to keep weather out, Scheinfeld’s collection proves that in the end, nature will find a way. Where once there was so much life, now there is death, seen through the bones and feathers that mark the nests of small predators. But even that is a sign of new life in its own way, and Scheinfeld beautifully illustrates that death and life are never far apart.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Caplan is assistant professor of religioius studies at Towson University.

Date of Review: 
November 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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.

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