The ProsenPeople

B-Sides from The Borscht Belt

Thursday, October 13, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Marisa Scheinfeld reflected on how the themes of the Jewish High Holidays relate to her book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, a collection of photography capturing the remains of onetime Jewish resorts in upstate New York. Marisa is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


From the beginning of this project, my intention for this photographic series was to be published as a book containing three essays and over 100 images. I am so happy that five years later, this goal has come to fruition.

The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland begins with postcards of the Borscht Belt era in its prime and then delves into the photographic series at large. The first pages of it reveal an external view of an overgrown entrance to Grossinger’s and then by the third or fourth photograph the viewer is led inside. Then, like a journey, one is led into a lobby, through a showroom and outside to an Olympic sized swimming pool, revisiting the vestiges of a paradise that is now long gone. Other photographs convey the cycle of life or current activity occurring in the spaces such as a bird living in a guestroom, stacked pots and pans in a kitchen, a flight of steps supporting a combination of AstroTurf and moss, or a rotary phone lying a bed, off the hook. Each scenario is exactly how I found it, arranged not by myself but by time and chance.

Upon making various trips to my photograph the region notably known as the Borscht Belt in each season, I ended up with hundreds if not thousands of photographs. In the end, I had to make some crucial edits. Edits, with regard to photographs, shape an overall narrative and lead a viewer’s eyes through a curated selection of imagery. The book and series was edited over a period of about three months and is intended to flow like a voyage of sorts, traversing the abandoned hotels and bungalow colonies of the area just as I did, revealing relics and remnants both close-up and from a distance.

The book is comprised of exactly 129 photographs of 40 resorts, hotels and bungalow colonies. There are many photographs that I had to let go of on the cutting room floor. Sometimes, it was very difficult. It wasn’t that the photograph was bad per se, it was just to avoid redundancy, or for space constraints. Much of the ephemera did not make it into the book, either—I amassed a large collection of original ephemera from the era in the form of postcards, brochures, matchbooks, and 2-D and 3-D objects that are arranged on various pages of text in the book. I weeded out multiple postcards of pools and merciless cut out photographs of my family members at a specific hotel.

The Borscht Belt was a tremendously impactful era. We know from hearing about it or its marker in the cannons of Jewish American history that it provided entertainment, leisure and fun to so many people, particularly Jews; it also, was places where social bonds were formed, many that continue to this day. I hope this era is never forgotten. Sentimental as it might seem, I operate from the most personal of places because the Borscht Belt is the place where I grew up and the location I will always call my home. I am hopeful for the region to witness another transition, one that will fuel its economy and bring an influx of foot traffic back into the region. I look forward to see what time delivers. While the images contain pathos for what once was, within the photographs I see much room for contemplation about the present and the future. To that end, I present to you a selection of images that did not make the final cut. I am glad that at least here they’ll find a place to reside…

Click on any image below to browse the full gallery of outtakes from the book:

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, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and The Edmund and Nancy K. Dubois Library at the Museum of Photographic Arts

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Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and a Bit of Borscht

Monday, October 10, 2016 | Permalink

Marisa Scheinfeld is the author of The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, a collection of photography capturing the remains of onetime Jewish resorts in upstate New York. Marisa is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


As Jews we’re all quite familiar with the tastes, sounds and actions of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—honey on apples, the roaring of the shofar, and heading to a body of water to symbolically cast away our sins. Whether deeply religious or mildly observant, when we collectively take a moment to stop to think about the messages behind the Jewish New Year and the period of introspection that follows it, measures of heart-searching and self-examination can be quite poignant.

According to rabbinic tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the destiny of the righteous and the wicked are sealed into the Book of Life or the Book of the Dead. During this period we embark upon the task of examining our lives and repenting for any of last years wrongs. We are encouraged to make amends, to reflect, and to make plans for improving ourselves in the coming year. While Rosh Hashanah concerns tragic themes of life and death, it is also a holiday filled with hope. When considered from this perspective, Rosh Hashana is about making peace with our communities, ourselves, and striving to be a better person.

In many ways my new and first book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, echoes with much of these themes. For the past five years I have been surveying, studying and photographing my hometown region known as the Borscht Belt. Colossal names such as Grossingers and the Concord are instantly recognizable to American Jews from the east coast, as are the many entertainers and acts that graced their stages.

Growing up in Monticello, New York in the 1980s, the Borscht Belt heyday was always recalled to me through a nostalgic lens; whether by a stranger, a friend, or by my own family members. Once an internationally known tourism mecca, the region was an epicenter for Jewish culture, connection and leisure. On a regional scale, the Borscht Belt brought commerce, culture and fueled the local economy.

I began to consider the Borscht Belt during a time of transition as a graduate student in California. During my downtime, I made repeated trips home to Sullivan County, New York. I saw the abandoned structures of deserted hotels and bungalows scattered across the landscape in a new light. These structures had become eyesores, symbols of stagnation and failure. Broken apart by the hands of time or people, these historic spaces and their skeletal remains captivated me. These were each paradise lost, places where people once had the times of their lives. Visiting over 40 former hotel, resort and bungalow locations conjured up immense personal reflections on time, change, and nature.

Though the original colors of the Borscht Belt have faded, the transformed figures, shades and textures that I found among its remnants signaled a new sense of vigor. No longer are these spaces being used as places of leisure as originally intended—dining rooms have become paint ball war zones, local kids have turned showrooms into skate parks, and wild birds live in the guest rooms.

For those who spent time in these hotels, the photographs in this series often evoke waves of nostalgia and feelings of loss. But these are always followed by the most enlivening stories of how they met someone in that lobby, or saw so and so on that stage, or what happened that one summer. The duality, the yin and yang of it all, is quite fascinating to me. In looking beyond the decay and pathos, there is much beauty and life that still remains. There is simultaneously tragedy and hope.

Just as the Jewish New Year asks us to reflect on the past—this book is a rumination on the past of my home region. In creating this series, I feel as if I’ve returned closer to the soul of a collective history. My feelings on this project align closely with themes of the Jewish New Year: somber consideration of the past in preparation for facing the future with positivity and hope.

Click on any image below to browse the full gallery of ephemera Marisa Scheinfeld collected in her research for the book:

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, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and The Edmund and Nancy K. Dubois Library at the Museum of Photographic Arts

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