Rediscovering Beauty Amid Ruins of Once-Glorious Catskills

Memories Live On in Dying Iconic Resort Towns

Decades of Decay: Amid the rubble, vestiges remain of the coffee shop at Grossinger’s Catskills Resort and Hotel in Liberty, N.Y. Photographer Marisa Scheinfeld has been capturing the ruins of the Borscht Belt hotels for the past three years.
Marisa Scheinfeld
Decades of Decay: Amid the rubble, vestiges remain of the coffee shop at Grossinger’s Catskills Resort and Hotel in Liberty, N.Y. Photographer Marisa Scheinfeld has been capturing the ruins of the Borscht Belt hotels for the past three years.

By Abigail Jones

Published September 22, 2013, issue of September 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 5)

In the summer of 1949, 19-year-old Ruth Scheinfeld was hitchhiking with a friend to the Stevensville Hotel, just north of Monticello. Suddenly, though not entirely unexpectedly (it was the late ’40s, after all, a different era — a safer era), a car of young guys stopped to pick them up. The two girls, both rail thin and wearing heels, got in. A year later, Ruth married one of those guys, and by 1956, she and Jack Scheinfeld had two children and were spending summers immersed in the Catskills experience. They are the grandparents of Marisa Scheinfeld.

Jack worked in Manhattan during the week (he owned a fabric store on the Lower East Side) and joined his family at the bungalow colonies on the weekends. He played poker. His wife liked the nightlife. The couple went to the Concord for Jewish holidays and watched beauty contests at the pool. (The 1999 movie “A Walk on the Moon,” about a young housewife who rediscovers herself during the summer of 1969 at a Catskills bungalow colony, captured this experience perfectly.)

During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the Catskills claimed its place as one of the most popular leisure retreats in America. The region’s hotel industry spent around $4.1 million each year in new construction and guests spent $55 million in a single summer, according to New York Times reports in 1955 and 1954 respectively. Historically, Jews had not attended Christian resorts, and vice versa. Only as Jews assimilated and those ethnic barriers began to break down did the heyday reach its peak. By the 1960s, non-Jewish guests made up one-quarter to one-third of Grossinger’s annual visitors.

During this period of rapid expansion, larger resorts, like Grossinger’s and the Concord, sprawled across hundreds of acres. Each summer they jockeyed for big-name entertainers like Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar and Red Buttons. Sports stars such as Jewish boxer Barney Ross and tennis pro Jack Kramer trained at the hotels, and future NBA stars such as Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Cousy played on the resorts’ basketball teams.

Under the large hotels’ shadow, smaller resorts and bungalow colonies thrived with family-sized staffs, a few buildings and a few acres of land. These modest retreats did not offer a full menu of entertainment, so their guests stimulated the local economies, visiting movie theaters, restaurants and shops.

Summering in the Catskills also presented an unrivaled social opportunity for throngs of young men and women: their sexual awakening.

“Every year, I had a new boyfriend,” recalled 59-year-old Jona Strauss, who works in fashion. Strauss grew up in Queens and started spending her summers in the Catskills in the 1950s. “Then you went home, and if you were a Queens girl and he was from Brooklyn, you were geographically undesirable,” she said.

Local kids caddied, worked in kitchens and served on wait staffs.

“I remember Monticello being just shoulder to shoulder with people on the streets into the wee hours,” said Conway, who spent his childhood working at his father’s gas station and romancing girls from the bungalows.

Phil Brown, 64, a professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University, worked his way up, from busboy to waiter, at various Catskills hotels.

“As a young guy, it was very exciting to be there Friday nights,” he told the Forward. “Guests would check in, and you’d be waiting around for young girls to show up with their parents in the lobby, and meet them, and hope that they’d be interested in meeting you later and going to a show. It was like growing up quicker in an exciting, fast-paced way.”

Brown co-founded the Catskills Institute, which promotes research and education on Catskills history. “The whole culture of the hotels was very integrated. Black and white lived together and ate together in staff areas.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.