The Borscht Belt

Cornell University Press  2016


The Borscht Belt, once a thriving resort and vacation community in the Catskill Mountains, served as a respite for New York City’s Jewry in the mid-twentieth century. Marisa Scheinfeld’s five-year photographic exploration of the decaying remains of the Borscht Belt was a deeply personal pilgrimage—an homage to her youth and heritage, and to the genesis of her cultural identity as a Jewish American. This survey provides a remarkably comprehensive overview of the physical spaces that defined this prosperous epoch, successfully bridging past and present.

By displaying her images alongside photographic references from the period, Scheinfeld immediately educates viewers who may not otherwise share her associations. The photographs themselves are textured, tactile, and richly saturated. Cropped images of detailed objects, wider depictions of rooms, and vast “portraits” of exterior spaces and buildings are fluidly interwoven. By alternating perspectives, Scheinfeld conveys a thorough impression of the community’s intimate remnants and original grand scale. The pictures are most effective when she provides viewers with enough distance to observe her more complex compositions, in which each visual element is perfectly balanced within the frame.

A vacant space is more readily accessible to viewers if it contains a hint of human interference, such as an old piece of furniture or clothing. Perhaps we need these familiar objects to engage comfortably with the image because they ground us in our own experiences; we instinctively recognize the scene and thus appreciate the photograph. Viewers empathize with Scheinfeld because they understand nostalgia for lost youth, profound attachment to physical spaces during formative years, and the compulsive desire to deconstruct personal and more widespread cultural identity. The fear of losing these buildings and spaces that are embedded with historical significance is something that drives both photographers and viewers to this imagery. These haunting states of decay incite a sense of longing and awe that Marisa Scheinfeld has captured exquisitely.

Visiting Scribe: Marisa Scheinfeld

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and a Bit of Borscht

B-Sides from 'The Borscht Belt'

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