Echoes of The Borscht Belt

Yeshiva University Museum Hosts First Large-Scale Exhibition of Haunting Catskills Photos by Marisa Scheinfeld

Turquoise barstools punctuate trash-strewn ruins of Grossinger’s coffee shop. A jumble of weeds clogs the outdoor pool of the Pines Hotel. Colorful furniture rots inside the Nevele’s ski chalet.

Coffee Shop - Grossinger's Catskill Resort and Hotel Liberty NY
Coffee Shop – Grossinger’s Catskill Resort and Hotel (Marisa Scheinfeld)

In the museum debut of a major photographic talent, Yeshiva University Museum will present Marisa Scheinfeld’s haunting photos of abandoned sites where Borscht Belt resorts once boomed in the Catskill Mountain region of upstate New York.

Echoes of the Borscht Belt assembles images Scheinfeld has shot inside and outside structures that once buzzed with life as summer havens for generations of New York Jews.

Scheinfeld, who grew up in the region, began her documentary photo project in 2009; this exhibition marks the first time audiences can see her photographs on the large scale on which they were conceived.

Echoes of the Borscht Belt will also feature original artifacts and ephemera from Scheinfeld’s personal collection, a trove of objects from the Borscht Belt’s most beloved hotels and resorts. Among them: Postcards from the Jerry Lewis Theater Club at Brown’s, soap from The Nevele, an ashtray from Grossinger’s, and a ski hat from the Concord, in addition to era photos.

Some of the structures in Scheinfeld’s photographs have already been demolished, making the project resonate for its documentary as well as for its artistic value.

“The results are portraits of destruction as well as rebirth,” as The New York Times noted in a 2013 essay on Scheinfeld’s photographs. Nature has encroached into or overtaken the historic sites; many of the interiors have been vandalized or marked by paintballers and graffiti artists. Scheinfeld’s images record all of these developments with sensitivity to color, composition and narrative.

“The Borscht Belt was a haven for an entire cultural and social movement of people,” Scheinfeld notes; “its influences spread to mainstream American culture, entertainment and media. Growing up in Sullivan County, I feel a strong connection to the region and, as a photographer, I felt inclined to document its history, decline and what has come of it. I was drawn to the hotels because of their rich history but found unexpected beauty in their current, changing landscape.”

Dr. Jacob Wisse, director of Yeshiva University Museum, agreed. “The Borscht Belt gets labeled as the birthplace of standup comedy; but it was much more than that. It became an important communal resource for Jews from the 1920s to the 1970s, when many of them couldn’t afford to go – or were banned from going – elsewhere. The Borscht Belt became a community where they formed bonds and could vacation ‘like Americans’. In addition to being beautiful and monumental works in themselves, Marisa’s photographs offer a moving reflection on that period.”