I came across mention of The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland (Cornell University Press, 2017) on the website of the American Historical Association. Since my family spent numerous summers at hotels there that included the Granit, the Concord, the Fallsview and Nevele, and the Homowack, I had to reach out to photographer and author Marisa Scheinfeld. Here is the result of our interview:
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What drew you to document the Borscht Belt visually?
Marisa Scheinfeld (MS): I received some advice from a mentor who told me to “shoot what I know.” Those four words lit the fire inside of me that caused me to consider my roots, my hometown, and its history. This led into the beginning of the project where I used a technique called Re-photography, essentially a “now” and “then” view of the hotels and bungalows made by using a found postcard and going back to the same location and re-making the image again, with a time lapse in between the two images. I did this many times over and the technique acted like a treasure map of sorts—leading me to a specific hotel or bungalow site, but as I journeyed to them, I began to see scenes that caused me to deviate from the re-photographic project and make alternate photographs. It was then that the series evolved—and I realized there was much more of a story than the one I originally set out to tell.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in taking these photos and assembling the book?
MS: I worked on this for over 5 years and amassed many photographs in the process, all made on film. A huge challenge was editing. The book has 129 photographs and I had to let go of many on the “cutting room floor.” Other challenges arose during the process of making the images—and those were the tenuous nature of these hotels and bungalow colonies, essentially ruins, including their instability, what I might encounter, whom I might encounter, getting permission (which was always varied and depended on a lot of forged connections, new connections, strangers, locals, and friends/family to help me out. In addition, I learned quickly, and early in the project that I could not do this alone. While I made every single photograph alone, I always needed someone to accompany me on the shoots because of the various situations, people, etc, I might have come across.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
MS: Accomplishing what I set out to do from the start—make and publish a book of these photographs.
TWM: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
MS: Not really, but there are about three images in particular that I wished I would have not cut from the book. If we ever do a reprint, they are going in.
TWM: Will these photos show in a gallery or exhibition?
MS: Curated by Yeshiva University Museum and myself, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland is available as a traveling exhibition. The exhibition is ready to install and exists of thirty-two (25” x 35” in size) custom framed images including a selection of rephotographic (now and then) diptych pieces and a large selection of Borscht Belt ephemera for display in a case. Ephemera items consist of various 2-D and 3-D objects from my own collection and include items such as postcards, brochures, menus, original photographs, ashtrays, photo viewers, pens, clothing items, and even soap. The exhibition is accompanied by three main text panels, docent materials and programming options. Overall, the exhibition can be easily tailored to each venue’s vision, size constraints, along with the curator or director’s selection. The exhibition has been on view at the Center for Jewish History, the Yiddish Book Center, the Gershman Y, and I am currently amid exhibition plans with the New York State Museum. In addition, all photographs from the series are for sale and are available in multiple sizes.