A Love Letter to the Jewish Alps

Is it really gone? Can it be? So it seems. Oy, it hurts.

I’ve developed a recent fascination with the decaying landscape of the Jewish resorts in the Catskills. My fascination really began when I found out that The Homowack–the orthodox Jewish hotel I went to growing up for Pesach and Sukkos and where my brother had his Bar Mitzvah–closed. So, no only is it closed, its was totally abandoned, in ruins (note, the story of its demise is complicated: the Skever Chasidim had plans to build a new town on the hotel grounds, but were evicted in 2014). I have very vivid memories of this place: the comedians and magicians who frequented the nightly entertainment on chol hamoed, the lectures on Torah, Talmud, and Jewish history my grandmother schlepped me to, the trail where we were told George Washington built a fort or something at some time or other. I am inspired by this deep sense of loss for an institution that seemed to be, both in my youth and adulthood, invincible.

I just submitted a paper proposal, entitled, “Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner: Resurrecting the Borscht Belt in the Jewish-American Ruin” to the American Studies Association, because my head is spinning with ideas about a future project. This head-spinning feeling isn’t going away. There’s so much more to say. For now, here is that proposal:

This paper explores the idea of home and homelessness in the abandoned Jewish resorts of Upstate NY. With its heyday spanning the 1920s to the 1960s, the “Jewish Alps” or “Borscht Belt,” has largely been reduced to the skeletons of the now defunct hotels of Grossinger’s, Kutcher’s, and the Homowack. The subject of the Hudson River School painters, the place of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” and the setting of Dirty Dancin , the Catskills occupies a varied and eclectic park in the long history of the US. Irving, in particular, noted how the region was “full of fable,” and believed to be haunted by a “Manitou” or spirit in Native-American folklore. The Catskills are, indeed, inhabited by many ghosts of conflicting and overlapping histories. I explore then how these Jewish-American ruins negotiate their connection to the Native-American, colonial, and early Republican claims to land of the Catskills.  How does the disappearance of the Jewish Catskills create the myth of the Jew in American folklore and is this homelessness a necessary effect of the project of assimilation?

I look to the the work of photographer Marisa Scheinfeld, who spent three years documenting the Jewish resorts. Inspired my Scheinfeld, my talk includes my own photographic work which forms a visual vocabulary to channel the feelings of homelessness and haunting invoked by the passing of these spaces. The project includes photographs of artifacts from these long-gone hotels, like stationary, pens, and room keys. I also will present on self-portraits I shot using vintage large format film against the backdrop of the ruins to re-enact scenes from 1950’s promotional postcards of the resorts.

For anyone who is interested, these are the sorts of postcards I’m inspired by:

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