The Romantic novelist François-René de Chateaubriand wrote that ruins appeal to us “due to the fragility of our nature, to a secret analogy between destroyed monuments and our own fleeting existence.” In 1819, his contemporary Caspar David Friedrich painted Monastery Graveyard in the Snow, imagining a religious procession threading through the few towering arches left standing amid the scattered rubble of a fallen cathedral. History is such that this painting was itself destroyed during the Allied bombing of Berlin in 1945.
Where Chateaubriand was concerned with battered monuments to monarchs and Friedrich with the cracked edifices of God, the photographer Marisa Scheinfeld (born 1980, in Brooklyn) has trained her lens on the ruins of mid-twentieth-century American leisure: the hotels and bungalows of the Borscht Belt. From roughly the Twenties through the Seventies this area, located in the Catskills ninety miles northwest of New York City, was known as the “Jewish Alps” — a woodsy getaway from the crowds, smog, and sweltering apartment blocks of the five boroughs. First- and second-generation immigrants found a haven from the pervasive anti-Semitism of the era, along with others who wished to hang on to old-world traditions (the Ukrainian beet soup that gave the region its nickname was a staple of resort menus) while enjoying the comforts of middle-class American life, such as air conditioning and live entertainment from stars of radio, stage, and film.
Scheinfeld’s new book, The Borscht Belt, includes postcards in saturated hues from the heyday of this Jewish Xanadu. One image conveys the scale of the region’s most opulent accommodations: Two women in swimwear wave through a huge picture window at a pair of men in red sweaters holding snow skis — balmy summer indoors, healthy winter sports without. Another shot captures couples gliding across a massive indoor ice rink with arched ceilings. Decades later, Scheinfeld entered that same structure and found shredded plastic hanging from the ceiling like Spanish moss. A promotional shot from 1960 features four poolside couples engaged in earnest flirting, most notably a lad holding out a brightly colored beach ball to a girl in a white bikini, a contrived pose advertising the allure of year-round water sports. Half a century later, Scheinfeld set her camera at the same angle and recorded the kidney-shaped hole in the ground, denuded of the original enclosing ceiling and windows and now filled with windswept snow.
Journalist Stefan Kanfer recounts in the book how a little rural hotel grew into “Grossinger’s, the greatest of all resorts…an 800-acre estate with its own post office.” His essay and the author’s own introduction point out that as Jews became more Americanized (and as America became enamored of the televised wisecracks of such Borscht Belt veterans as Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, and Joan Rivers), the need for a separate vacationland atrophied, and by 1990 even Grossinger’s had collapsed into bankruptcy.
Those structures that haven’t been repurposed as meditation centers or rehab facilities have fallen into that beguiling realm neither humanity nor nature can produce alone, with wild vegetation blurring, bending, and breaking the rigid geometries of civilization. In one hallway, pink insulation dangles like dried intestines from broken ceiling tiles while tree branches poke through shattered windows; elsewhere, orange lounge chairs are heaped like pick-up sticks and a tree trunk juts through the thick boards of a lichen-coated park bench. Everywhere, green moss grows more thickly than shag carpets in the Sixties. In some interiors, layered graffiti competes with mold to colonize walls. Renegade paintballers have turned dining rooms into free-fire zones, upending tables as shields, the splattery ammo creating ersatz Pollocks. A poignant photo of a naked lightbulb and pull chain hanging from a ceiling recalls, in the subtly shifting hues of the crazed walls, the tragicomic existentialism of Philip Guston’s late cartoon paintings.
The book notes Woody Allen’s quip, no doubt delivered at some point from a Borscht Belt stage: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Some might say that Scheinfeld arrived half a century too late, but her photos reveal that she showed up just in time to discover mutable beauty in tumbledown dreams.
Scheinfeld will give book talks at the Museum at Eldridge Street on October 27 and at the 92nd Street Y on November 16.
The Borscht Belt
By Marisa Scheinfeld
Cornell University Press