Comprising over 500 resorts spread across Sullivan, Greene, Orange, and Ulster counties, the Borscht Belt was a cultural phenomenon—a safe vacation destination for Jewish families away from the rampant antisemitism of the first half of the 20th century. Though the Borscht Belt’s comedy, culinary, and cultural legacy endures, most of the buildings and campuses that were its backdrop have fallen into ruin.
The newly launched Borscht Belt Historical Markers Project aims to save these sites from oblivion by commemorating them with historical plaques that both honor the past and educate the present public, creating a literal roadmap through history.
Relating to History
For photographers Marisa Scheinfeld, the project’s founder and director, and Isaac Jeffreys, the project’s visual coordinator, the passion for the project is born out of their personal ties to the region and nurtured through their respective artistic exploration.
Brooklyn-born Scheinfeld moved to the Catskills in the mid-’80s at age five. “I knew that my hometown had experienced this unbelievable cultural renaissance,” she says. Living in the area, she had watched the old resorts fall into disrepair as the cultural conversation grew quieter. “I saw a lot of these ruins, and instead of looking at them as symbols of failure and stagnation, I decided that I wanted to celebrate them,” she says. And so began a five-year project to document monuments of the past. The resulting photo book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, employs Scheinfeld’s signature style—haunting, unstaged still lifes shot in natural light. A windblown tableau of toppled lounge chairs, trees growing up through empty pools, moss-covered carpets.
Whereas Scheinfeld considers herself a visual historian, Jeffreys’ photos of the Borscht Belt are “purposely escapist.” His highly conceptual night scenes require complicated lighting setups, creating a photographic mirage. “I'm actively trying to create some sort of illusion that something is there when nothing really is there anymore,” he explains. His work offers a glamorized glimpse of what the Borscht Belt looked like in its heyday, while Scheinfeld’s evocative work lays bare the present reality of places that time forgot. Jeffreys, who was raised in Rhinebeck, describes growing up with “a longing for the past,” adding, “I hung out with my grandparents a lot, so I always [heard] stories of the Catskills and life in that era.”
The Borscht Belt Historical Markers project will introduce 20 markers throughout the region, each identifying a spot that was especially formative to the identity of the Borscht Belt as well as in high-traffic areas that will meet visitors where they already are. The first marker, which was inaugurated in May, is on the grounds of the Ethelbert B. Crawford Library in Monticello, a town that was once home to around 65 resorts. Another will be installed at the Kauneonga Lake Community Gazebo.
The markers are larger and more modern than typical hiking trail markers: the text is aided by photos, and each features a QR code that links to further information about the site. The project is made possible by Jerry Klinger, who runs the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, an organization that funds historic markers across the United States.
The inauguration of each marker is being honored with a dedication ceremony that pays homage to the region’s history through music, film, and art. The Monticello event was paired with a screening of the documentary Welcome to Kutsher’s. The dedication events, which are open to the public, will continue through summer 2024. The next one takes place on August 13 in Mountain Dale on Post Hill Road across from the Post Office. The event will coincide with an exhibition of Jeffreys and Scheinfeld’s work at Grocery Store Gallery called “Day and Night: Return to the Borscht Belt.” August 20 will see the unveiling of a marker at Swan Lake Park and festivities will include live music from Hotsie Totsie Klezmer Orkester.
Scheinfeld notes that many people are experiencing the longing for and idealization of the past that she and Jeffreys capture through their work. Pointing to a variety of causes, from the stress of the pandemic to the pressure of social media, she credits these emotions, in part, to the renaissance the Catskills has experienced recently that has resulted in an influx of new residents. “That's why our project feels more important than ever, because as people come to the area, we don't want the past to become overshadowed,” she says.
In addition to the markers themselves, the project leaders hope to integrate modern technology such as a self-guided audio tour, an online map with pins corresponding to every marker, and, ideally, an app. In the future, they also plan to increase their educational programming. Concerts, lectures, book signings by notable authors and historians, film screenings, exhibitions of ephemera, and a bus tour that would stop at both the markers and nearby breweries are all currently in the works.
For now, Scheinfeld advises visitors to the Catskills to “Slow down, pay attention, and see what of the era might remain, because there are surprises around every corner.” The remnants of the past are still all around us, she says, you just have to look a little closer.