Back in 2012, Tablet ran a lovely digital slideshow by photographer Marisa Scheinfeld about Leftover Borscht, her photographic project documenting the ruins of old Jewish resorts in the Catskills. Now, that slideshow has grown into a book calledĀ The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of Americaās Jewish Vacationland.
As you know, the area once was the Jewish equivalent of the Riviera. It teemed with bungalow colonies and fancy hotels, luring Jews of all classes with the promise of fresh air and relaxation. Many of our grandparents have fond memories of family trips to places with glamorous names like the Nevele and the Concord, the Tamarack Lodge and the Windsor Regencyā¦ or to others with more heimische names like Grossingerās, Lansmanās and Kutsherās. Legendary comics got their start there: Woody Allen, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, Billy Crystal, Phyllis Diller, Jackie Mason, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Stiller. Musical and Variety stars-to-be graced Catskills supper club stages: Sammy Davis, Jr., Benny Goodman, Joel Grey, Madeline Kahn, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, and Sophie Tucker. Clean-cut young Jewish men put themselves through college by washing dishes, dancing with bubbes, leading lawn games and conga lines. (Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was a lowly young waiter there.)
But as the 1960s and ā70s progressed, the Catskillsā decline began. Jews were becoming more acculturated; fewer mainstream hotels were overtly discriminatory; air travel became cheaper; families scattered. Old hotels began to crumble. Some became meditation retreats, summer camps for Hasidim, rehab centers. Others were overtaken by nature, and those are the ones that star in Scheinfeldās photography.
The Borscht BeltĀ is full of lush, mysterious, mournful, sometimes oddly funny photos: crumbling walls, graffiti-filled pools, rusted swings and basketball hoops, stacks of webbed nylon pool lounges crabbed like spider legs; childrenās toys half-submerged in murky water, bits of bird skeleton and detritus on industrial carpet, a scattering of festive red, white and blue poker chips on scrabbled ground. There are lovely, melancholy essays by Scheinfeld herself, writer Stefan Kanfer and historian Jenna Weissman Joselit (whose meditation on the resortsā old chairs is damn near virtuosic). Tablet contributor Maya Benton, with a nod to Susan Sontagās comment that āall photographs testify to timeās relentless melt,ā praised Scheinfeldās āmelancholic images of ruins, detritus and festering vegetationā¦haunted by an unseen and undefined presence, providing a visual meditation on abandonment and absence.ā
WhileĀ doing the project, sheĀ became a professional trespasser, gaining access to places that had moldered untouched for decades. Pools lay empty and peeling; many buildings had become charred ruins; nature had begun reclaiming its territory. As she wrote back then, her project cataloged āthe growth, flowering, and exhaustion of things and their subsequent regeneration. As each image began to reveal its layers, the project became reminiscent of the life cycle itself: old structures evolving into something new, odd, and often intriguing.ā
Looking at these pictures, you can practically hear the echoes of clacking mah-jongg tiles, dinner dishes clattering, Dean Martin crooning, waves of laughter at long-dead, outraged, sputtering stand-up comics. You can practically see Baby running into Johnny Castleās muscled arms. The past is gone, and the past is always with us.