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
Marisa Scheinfeld was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1980, and raised in the Catskills. She received a BA from the SUNY Albany in 2002 and an MFA from San Diego State University in 2011. Marisa’s work 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 Dubois Library at the Museum of Photographic Arts. The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland is her first publication.