Young photographer drawn to Catskills’ ruins and relics, and to Elul’s existential questions.
Ruins harbor demons, says the Talmud. The sage Reb Yose dared to pray in a ruin and later was asked by an apparition of Elijah, “What did you hear in there?” Reb Yose replied, “I heard a Divine voice, cooing like a dove…”
There are ruins in the Catskills forests, relics of Jewish hotels, both the grand and the humble. In the desolation is a holy cooing, from the Jewish ghosts and the divinity of nature reclaiming its domain. Moss grows over carpets, once so carefully chosen. The darkened tearooms and nightclubs are now waterlogged, with weeds springing up within shells of buildings that are falling down, not torn down. Marisa Scheinfeld, a photographer documenting this almost apocalyptic transformation, says, “The decay and return of the wild is almost as opulent and lavish as the hotels were in their prime.”
Sometimes she finds a stairway — just a stairway — in a sylvan clearing; or a music stand from the nightclub in the Pines Hotel that somehow ended up in what was once the lobby, identifiable by the front desk where keys to each room were kept in little boxes. Sometimes there are “demons” in these ruins, mysterious intruders who steal copper wiring, or vandals of uncommon strength who just a few weeks ago knocked down each of the eight soda-fountain stools in what had been the Grossinger’s coffee shop. The metal stools had survived the hotel’s closing (more than a quarter-century ago) by virtue of being bolted into the ground, says Scheinfeld, but the metal stools were upended … by whom?
Scheinfeld, engaged in this project since 2011, enters the ruins with the permission of the police, or absentee owners, or she’ll enter as a trespasser, if need be. She’s a child of these hills, and though she’s only 32 she’s old enough to remember the twilight years. “I think I’m just an old soul,” she says. Her family moved to Kiamesha Lake (and later to Rock Hill) when she was 7. “On weekends we’d go to the Concord. We lived down the road. We could walk right in.” As a teenager she worked as a lifeguard at the Concord pool. “It was one of my first jobs. It’s in my heart.” Her grandparents “had a condo at Kutshers. My grandmother still has it.”
Scheinfeld now lives in Manhattan but often returns to Rock Hill. “I keep finding old hotels I didn’t know about.” She drives to the Commodore, the Tamarack Lodge, Camp Hi-Li (formerly the Fur Workers Resort), the Laurels on the hem of Sackett Lake. She drives on the two-lane roads of Route 42 and Route 52, shaded by trees in the summers, still lush here; in the winters, in the snow, and each time she goes back, “I see more changes.” A roof has caved in. Rainwater fills what had been an indoor pool.
The Catskills were always “the mountains,” or “the country,” as if the hardscrabble counties of Sullivan and Ulster were not New York State but a country, a mythical kingdom onto itself. Scheinfeld loves the rhythms and cycles of Catskills history, how the lumber industry in these heavily forested mountains gave way to the leather and tanning industry, leading to the smokestack soot of the Ontario & Western locomotives chugging up with New Yorkers escaping the city, filling more than 1,100 hotels and some 850 bungalow colonies.
There are only two or three hotels left, but numerous summer communities and colonies remain. According to the local Times Herald-Record, the population of Sullivan County still quadruples every summer, with the return of more than 200,000 Jews, mostly Orthodox but increasingly non-Orthodox, as well; teachers, artists, business people, “people who aren’t the Hamptons crowd,” says Scheinfeld.
Then, as now, when summer’s end is in sight, the nights come earlier, growing cooler. “August, die she must,” goes the song. The month coincides with Elul, prelude to Rosh HaShanah. Who — and what — lives and dies? “Times moves on,” says Scheinfeld. “It has me wondering. What has happened to me? What family members have gone? Who was with me then, and no longer? I find myself entranced by ruins and all they evoke.”
Like a rabbi attempting to eulogize an old man whom he doesn’t really know, some suggest that the Jewish Catskills were primarily about the great comedians and entertainers, but if that were the case then the loss would be minimal, as we live in an era with no shortage of Jewish performers. In the end, we don’t mourn the loss of entertainers but the loss of each other; not the comedy routines but the clock-free conversations, the loss of a shtetl-like existence in hamlets and hills — if only for a few weeks each year — that were so evocative of the Eastern European hills and wooden buildings in a similar terrain.
“Growing up, it was unavoidable to hear stories of how busy this area was,” Scheinfeld says, referring not only to the nightlife but the day-life. “It is so clear that it was a cherished era. When people who knew the mountains see my work sometimes they’re sad, but the photos will evoke a memory and suddenly their faces will light up, and they’d tell me how they fell in love there, or had a favorite memory there, all these beautiful feelings will be stirred. I want the project to trigger those emotions. It was a miniature society, to which people returned year after year, where other guests turned into family and community was created.”
She plans, as a “side dish,” to shoot portraits of former workers, guests and locals who had a connection to the hotels, to bring “a new, personal element to the project,” which she hopes to turn into a book.
Scheinfeld sometimes practices what is known in the trade as “re-photography,” in which the photographer, working off an old photograph, shoots the exact scene now, from the exact same perspective and distance. She found an old postcard of the indoor pool at the Laurels in the 1950s, where four pairs of young men and young women, each in a relatively skimpy bathing suit, were playing poolside games, with a beach ball, with all the coy sexual suggestion but innocence of an Annette Funicello movie. “Re-photographed” by Scheinfeld, the walls of the indoor pool have come down; snow fills the pool; small-twigged trees have taken root on the edge of the pool, where in the postcard a pretty girl once sat in her bikini, needing a young man’s helping hand so she could rise.
The area, says Scheinfeld, “keeps waiting for gambling or something that could revitalize the place. If gambling comes, maybe it would be good, but a gimmick. The area needs to really think about why people originally came here” and are still coming: not for dice and slot machines but for serenity, friendship and nature. The old hotels are gone but “there’s so much potential for the area to renew itself.
“My heart is there.”
Many of these photographs can be seen at www.marisascheinfeld.com. On Aug. 11, The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, 400 Grand Street, will be featuring (through Sept. 10) the Catskill photographs of Marisa Scheinfeld, who will be on hand to discuss her work, as she also will on the evening of Sept. 8. For more information, call the Conservancy at (212) 374-4100.
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