- The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America's Jewish Vacationland by Marisa Scheinfeld
The July 24, 2017 edition of Time magazine featured an article titled, "Where Did America's Summer Jobs Go?" Author Karl Vick of New Jersey made poignant reference to the declining numbers of young men and women out of high school and college applying for seasonal work, particularly in venues associated with summer recreation. Life guards, kiosk attendants, movie theaters, summer resorts, and day camps—job demographics have changed over the last sixty years, reflecting the ambitious values of a nation keenly attuned to upward mobility and career status. Asking the same question, cross-disciplinary scholars have taken a deeper look at the Catskill Mountains, carefully documenting the memory of the summer resorts and the people who worked and played there during the twentieth century.
From century to century, the passing of time creates a powerful forum for memory and the recollection of unique moments in our nation's social history. Marisa Scheinfeld's photographic collection, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America's Jewish Vacationland—with essays by noted authors and scholars Stefan Kanfer and Jenna Weissman Joselit—is a beautiful series of visual compositions designed to evoke the experience of [End Page 513] America's early Jewish communities which rose from the immigrant ghettos of New York City to enjoy the mobile lifestyles so popular at the height of the modern era. Hard-won prosperity and the expansion of the railroads into the New York State hinterland created the momentum for the aggregation of rural Catskill Mountain communities into a vibrant resort complex that catered to scores of vacationers, eager to escape the city's summer doldrums. Like the velveteen rabbit of Margery Williams's classic tale, the Borscht Belt and its cultural artifacts stand as the rumpled remains of an immigrant community's warm embrace of their new American homeland.
Scheinfeld's opening prologue is followed with a full-page map that illustrates the locations of many memorable "hotels and bungalow colonies of the Borscht Belt" (13). Located approximately ninety miles north of New York City, the southern Catskill resort complex fanned out east and west along Route 17 in Ulster and Sullivan Counties. Bungalow colonies were nestled along its tributaries, creating a vibrant multi-layered venue for summer recreation. While nineteenth-century European fin de siècle artists lamented the decadence of a passing age, more than two million Jews vacated the shtetls of Central and Eastern Europe to take refuge in America. Many settled in the crowded tenement communities for which Manhattan's Lower East Side is noted, while other families preferred the rural lifestyles that the Catskill communities offered. Long inured to hard poverty and its exclusions, Jewish newcomers to the mountains nevertheless bought farms and created homesteads, relying on the railroads for a steady population of transient merchants and vacationers looking for room and board.
The relationship between the city and its mountain resorts was enhanced in great measure by the flowering sophistication of the popular arts and the rise of the entertainment industry at the dawn of the twentieth century. Gilded Age patronage for the classical performing arts gave way to a popular demand for entertainments for which vaudeville and Broadway were famous. By the early twentieth century, the Yiddish Theater District was world-renowned for its productions of classic theatre and entertainments. It was a fertile training ground for many artists whose talents filled vaudevillian show houses and movie theaters all over the country. Booking agents contracted resort hotels which provided enthusiastic audiences for the rising stars of film and radio. Borscht Belt venues were a stronghold [End Page 514] for performers whose sharp wits and warm personas took the edge off American nativism in homes and communities nationwide. With the distribution of televised broadcasts, the lively antics and seasoned humor of dozens of performers became beloved twentieth-century American film industry classics, including iconic productions...