The Borscht Belt still draws crowds.
Slush and sleet on a recent evening couldn’t keep a group of Catskill buffs away from “Echoes of the Borscht Belt,” a Yeshiva University Museum exhibition of photographs by Marisa Scheinfeld. The gallery visit was followed by a screening of “When Comedy Went to School” and a discussion led by the documentary’s host and narrator, comedian and actor Robert Klein.
Scheinfeld, 34, who grew up near the Concord, has been acclaimed for her non-airbrushed, haunting full-color images of resort ruins.
In one photo, the doors in a hallway at Grossinger’s eerily open on long-vacant rooms. Another image shows empty room key slots at the Pines Hotel, behind a grimy, teetering music stand. In others, an indoor pool, now outdoors, is surrounded by lush vegetation and algae mixed with unbiodegradable tufts of lobby upholstery.
An unmade double bed and a phone off the hook in a guest room at Tamarack Lodge, on which Herman Wouk based the theater camp in his novel “Marjorie Morningstar,” easily evokes Marjorie on the rumpled blanket, receiver in hand, plotting a lakeside tryst with the drama director Noel Airman.
“When Comedy Went to School” traces modern comedy to the routines of Jewish Borscht Circuit headliners like Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason and the late Sid Caesar. In Uggs and a long scarf, Robert Klein, looking more like a downtown art dealer than a former Catskills comic, praised the political satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but bemoaned today’s unrestrained profanity.
“The pendulum has swung too far,” Klein said. “The liberty is being abused.”
Jokes that might now be bleeped, such as “Take my wife—please!,” which were rife in the movie, provoked chuckles, but at least one couple who met in the mountains, still seemed like starry-eyed newlyweds.
Judy and Andy Gold have been married for more than 50 years. Now they spend weekends at their vacation home in a “high-end community” in Sullivan County.
When they revisited the Concord not long before its demise, the hotel seemed stuck in a time warp. “It was still aqua and pink,” said Judy, who described Scheinfeld’s photographs as “sad but beautiful.”
Was there a dissonance between the humor in the movie and the images of destruction and decay?
Jacob Wisse, director of Yeshiva University Museum, doesn’t think so. “There’s a reclamation of life, of nature and new forms of self-expression by graffiti artists and paintballers.” He sees Scheinfeld’s pictures as “descendants of those biting jokes.”
"Echoes of the Borscht Belt: Contemporary Photographs by Marisa Scheinfeld" Is on on view at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street in Manhattan through April 12th 2015. Scheinfeld will speak at the Center for Jewish History on February 11th and March 11th at 6 pm and will also participate in a panel discussion on the “Borscht Belt: Past, Present and Future,” with historian Jenna Weissman Joselit on March 26th at 7 pm. The exhibition next travels to the Yiddish Book Center in April.
Martha Mendelsohn frequently writes about the Catskills. Her novel for young adults, "Bromley Girls," is coming out in April.