The Romance Of Catskills Ruins


(New York Jewish Week) — “Just to live in the country is a full-time job,” wrote E.B. White. “You don’t have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”

For three generations – that’s all it was – in the 20th century, when Jews said “the country” we meant the Catskills, and “living in the country” was how we spent summer, and holidays in spring and fall. All we had to do was crack jokes, tell secrets, steal kisses, listen to stories, eat, eat again and walk it off – walking to waterfalls, along streams. We listened to accordions; mastered the mysteries of lanyards and midnight lobbies; some danced in the night; and if anyone wanted to play tennis instead of talk, well, to each their own.

We bet on the ponies in simulated races, rode to town like Pinocchio and Lampwick, and caught “the show” (every night, somewhere, a singer and a comedian) in wooden, gambling-free “casinos.” If there was a more joyous interlude in a deadly century, lucky were the Jews who lived it.

Of course, it’s all gone now, the experts will tell you. Like a cop at an accident might say, “nothing to see, move along.” However, Marisa Scheinfeld, like all great photographers, knows there is always something to see. A child of the mountains, she has been photographing the abandoned hotels and bungalows for nearly a decade, her seductive and haunting craft, finally collected in a 188-page book, “The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland” (Cornell University Press), featuring essays by Stefan Kanfer, author of “A Summer World,” and Jenna Weissman Joselit, the terrific street-level historian of American Jewish life.

Of course, “the country” is not entirely gone. Yes, the 1,172 hotels are unoccupied or embers, as are many of the 849 bungalow colonies; the economy tanked; crime is up; and the county waits for the Godot-like Las Vegas-style casinos to rise. Sullivan County’s population is 74,877, but still triples every July and August to 150,000, with scores of thousands of Jews filling bungalows and second homes, reports the ocal Times Herald-Record. The streets of Woodbourne and other Jewish hamlets are packed with kosher eateries and Jewish book stores. More than 100 Orthodox summer camps still exist off the side roads, and on the two visiting Sundays, non-Jewish locals know it’s best to shop on Saturday, leaving the bumper-to-bumper roads to visiting parents. Come Labor Day, these towns are boarded-up, until the leaves turn green.

Where did it go? Even the cows graze elsewhere. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent census found that Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties lost 2,252 cows in recent years.

Kanfer writes, “Today, small towns that once seemed as Hebraic as prewar Lublin, and as roiled and noisy as Tel Aviv, are quiet shrunken little hamlets with storefronts… The forsaken hostelries have become reminiscent of festivals after the celebrants go home, leaving a lawn scattered with rinds and paper cups.”

Life beyond the hotel driveways is not Scheinfeld’s concern. Neither is she concerned with the famous 1950s comedians that fascinate historians but had little to do with why most Jews loved the Catskills, or how Jews experienced it. “My fascination with the Borscht Belt was not just its place in American history or its role in American Jewish life; it was always personal.” Her grandparents met while “hitchhiking the woodsy roads.” They spent their summers in bungalows. Everyone had their personal hotels and Scheinfeld’s were Kutsher’s and the Concord. “Although we were not guests at these hotels, we strolled in as if we were.”

She strolls in still, her soul drawn to the magic in the ruins. “On the deserted grounds of these former retreats I have found an enchanting solitude,” she writes, “a seclusion that is empty and uncontrolled. Yet the stillness is deceptive. What appears to be abandoned is actually full of life and activity… Guest rooms have become sanctuaries for birds. Leafy ferns have pushed their way through foundations and floors. Overgrown shrubs and tangled weeds have swallowed staircases.”

She enters the ruins with a camera. Photography, writes Joselit, “was the seductive medium by which potential guests were encouraged to head for the hills of upstate New York. Colorful (and carefully scripted)” picture postcards “of people just like them, at play, both reassured and stimulated the American Jewish imagination. … Guests wielded cameras, first Instamatics and later Leicas… capturing and preserving the antics of their children and one another.” The old photos “project a wholesome, lighthearted image of a culture at one with its surroundings – happy and content. It is now Marisa Scheinfeld’s turn. Even in death, the Catskills deserves to have its picture taken.”

Please, a reminder: The Catskills aren’t dead. The hotels are dead.

In these photos of desolation, Kanfer remembers how guests once “filled the rooms with laughter and rumor.” His favorite photo: “In the middle of deserted acreage, an elevator shaft thrusts upward into the sky. But there are no passengers… in fact, no elevator. A fire has taken them all away, leaving only a ghost – the vertical path that leads to nowhere. But it does lead the viewer to wonder – who took that elevator on its last day in a long ago summer? Was it a housewife stranded with the kids, waiting for a husband who came up only for weekend visits? Was she accompanied by a waiter working his way through college and hoping for a tryst?”

The photos will do to most viewers what they did to Kanfer, stirring the imagination, stirring memories, filling in the spaces between what was and what no longer is. A few of her photos use what Scheinfeld calls “re-photographing,” taking the same shot, from the same perspective, of a scene in a hotel’s picture postcard, but as it looks today. An indoor ice skating rink at the Pines, in the glory of a long-ago winter. The rink now, the ceiling in a state of collapse, looks even colder than when it had ice. As an old Burt Lancaster wistfully tells a kid in “Atlantic City,” remembering summer glories before the gambling came in, “The Atlantic Ocean was somethin’ then.”

“Time it was and, what a time it was,” wrote Paul Simon. “I have a photograph.” A lobby where the “front desk” still has dozens of little boxes for individual room keys and mail, back when there was such a thing. A red soda machine stands unplugged outside the “main” dining room. A baby carriage is left outside a bungalow. The big dining room at Camp Hili is standing, as is the outdoor stairs leading up to it, on a hill of weeds. In one hotel room, feathers. In the Tamarack Lodge, the remains of a bird. In the wild grass outside Grossinger’s, three animal bones. White plates are stacked in a hotel kitchen.

In the photos we see wicker chairs, Adirondack chairs, hairpin chairs, folding chairs, sofas, chaise lounges, all empty except in imagination. “The presence of so many chairs in Scheinfeld’s chronicle,” Joselit writes, “is no accident, no artifact of her aesthetic imagination. It reflects one of the most characteristic of all Catskills experiences: sitting.” Jews came “not to hike or bike or develop their musculature. They came to sit. No it wasn’t laziness or physical limitations that contained them so much as their avid and collective pursuit of conversation. Over the years, as the Catskills came into its own as a destination, enterprising hotel proprietors augmented their facilities with tennis, racket ball and basketball courts, with golfing, swimming, boating and games of Simon Says, all of which were designed to get the guests out of their chairs and on their feet, up and about, moving. They did, but only up to a point. Nothing held a candle to sitting and chatting… Talk, not movement, was the coin of the realm… Vacationers sat around the pool, on the veranda, and at the dining room table, commenting on the human condition…” We were with our own. We could talk.

“The Catskills didn’t give up the ghost,” writes Joselit. The guests and ghosts “gave up on the Catskills.” Too many of us stopped going.

You should have seen it in the old days, kid. It was somethin.’