From the 1920s to the late 1960s, the Catskill Mountains were the tourist destination for tens of thousands of New Yorkers, primarily Jews, seeking an escape from the clatter and chaos of city life. People came to the area, popularly known as the "Borscht Belt," for the sunbathing, swimming, dining, dancing and more. They stayed in bungalows and the big resort hotels, places like Kutsher's, Grossinger's, and the Concord. The entertainment was legendary. Generations of Jewish comedians cut their teeth performing in the Borscht Belt: Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, and Jackie Mason all played the circuit. So did Sid Caesar and Rodney Dangerfield. Joan Rivers bombed there; Lenny Bruce tried out jokes. Even a young Jerry Seinfeld came through.

But by the 1970s, the vacationers who had packed the bungalows and hotels abandoned the Borscht Belt for warmer or more exotic climes. Business dried up, and one by one, the hotels shuttered their doors. For decades, they have sat, decaying.

Photographer Marisa Scheinfeld, who was raised in the Catskills in the '80s and '90s, spent five years photographing what remains of the old Catskill resorts. Her photographs form the basis for the book, The Borscht Belt: Revisiting The Remains of America's Jewish Vacationland, now available from Cornell University Press. Gothamist spoke to Scheinfeld about the history of the Borscht Belt, her childhood in the Catskills and the nature of Jewish identity in the United States.

Gothamist: So what was the origin of the book?

I was born in Brooklyn in the 1980s and when I was 6 years old, my dad got a job up in the area that was known as the Borscht Belt, in Sullivan County, New York. It's about an hour and a half from the city.

Looking back, I believe he took the job up there because as a kid he went up to the Borscht Belt. His parents, my grandparents, had met while my grandmother was hitchhiking, likely some time in the late 40s. That was how they got together.

They had both also gone there as teenagers in the summer. That was the point at which my family started to establish that quintessential Catskill summer life, where they went up every single year to various bungalow colonies, and made memories: met people, went to the shows, got dressed up, went to dinner. Pools, skiing in the winter—all the activities that it offered.

My dad wanted to get out of the city and we moved up there. My grandparents owned a condo adjacent to one of the hotels that I frequented a lot as a kid, Kutsher's. My parents would drop me off on the weekends. I went in the pool, played shuffleboard, engaged in all those kitschy Borscht Belt activities—that were still going on.

Looking back, I don't remember seeing too many people in the hotel. Really, they experienced a mere footprint of what they had a few decades earlier. But to me, they were these fortresses of fun, where I could roam around freely. I remember having the greatest time there.

We were never guests at the hotel, but you could just walk in. They weren't packed to the brim. I've heard stories of people sneaking in under fences to these same hotels—Kutsher's and the Concord, specifically—literally crawling under gates to get in to go see Jackie Mason, or someone, play.

I was a lifeguard at one of the hotels when I was 15 and then I left the area for a long time. I went to SUNY Albany, then I moved out to California—always working in photography. I went to graduate school for a Masters in Fine Art. You have to make work, and I was really stuck. I got some great advice: "Shoot what you know."

I took that and ran with it. I knew my hometown was an internationally known mecca of tourism. It was unavoidable to hear that growing up as a kid.

I started to reflect on where I was from, and decided to make repeated trips back home to look at the landscape of the place.

The Borscht Belt—I never experienced what the average Baby Boomer and older would have—but I experienced a little bit of it in its dying days.

I knew that there were remnants of it—in structural form. Eyesores to the community. People pass by them year after year, and they're lying there. And I started to go in them, to places I went to as a kid and to new places. And that's how the images for the project came, from four words of advice.

So all the photographs in the book are scenes that you just walked into?

I did a mixture of trespassing and getting permission. I do think that, because I was from this place, that's why I could get the access I was granted. A stranger going into many of these places, you'd likely get arrested. Because even though they're abandoned, most of them are monitored. They're all owned by someone. I sought out the owners when I could.

It was a lot of long, aimless driving and serendipitous conversations with strangers, people who pointed me in the direction of how to get there and how to get in. And then other times, I pulled off the side of the road and trespassed. Because many of these places, there's just a pool in the middle of the woods and no one is there. It's very easy to access.

Why hasn't this stuff been demolished? It's like a ghost town...

Each hotel has this different story about why it closed, when it closed, and what is currently happening to it.

So, for example, Kutcher's, is being demolished. The Concord was totally leveled. They auctioned off the furniture, used it as a firemen's training camp for a while, and now they're building a casino called Adelaar. It's going to be a huge casino, with a hotel and a water park and chefs from the Food Network that are gonna have restaurants there.

But a lot of the time, people have been waiting for gambling to be approved by the state. Other people who are investors that own these properties, don't or haven't wanted to sink money into a project where they're unsure if people are going to come.

The Catskills has, for a long period of time, waxed and waned. The Borscht Belt is the third major industry that area, the southern tip of the Catskills, has seen. The first industry, in the late 1700s, was the lumber industry, logging wood down the Delaware River to build up New York City. That industry faded when the natural resources were depleted. Then came the tanning industry, which used bark from trees to tan leather. That was done a lot during the Civil War. That industry faded out in the late 1860s, 1870s.

YouTube short about Borscht Belt comedy.

The Borscht Belt sprung up in the 1920s—Jews were banned from hotels in the U.S. There was a huge boom of immigrants coming from Eastern Europe, mostly living on the Lower East Side, Brooklyn. I think the area really reminded them of their homeland. It was super close to the city and it was a place where they could go and not be persecuted. There were 500 hotels by the 1950s, 50,000 bungalows. And then the area declined—for so many reasons. People say the boom of the airline industry, some people say, "It was a changing time"—women got more involved in the workforce.

And Jews were also fully assimilated, and not banned from hotels. So the era really had its day. And what hasn't been scooped up and purchased has just been sitting and essentially decaying for periods of five, 10, all the way up to 30 years. It's yet another period of stagnation.

So it all just stands there?

In the book, there's a hotel called the Pines. The Pines was owned by a family for forever, the Ehrlich family. When I started photographing, they owned it and they would allow me in. They eventually sold it to an Orthodox group, who had plans to turn the hotel into condos. For some reason, they never did this. I assume they didn't anticipate the cost. So what you have now is, it's owned by these absentee landlords, who are in litigation with the local police, who are suing them because they've left this building to rot.

People are there on a daily basis, destroying it, breaking it apart, photographing like myself, squatting, scrapping metal. It's become a problem. In some cases there are things being done. But you have an area that since the 1980s, mid '90s, when pretty much all the hotels closed, has been on such an economic downturn that there are so many other problems.

Grossinger's was set to be demolished and turned into the "new Grossinger's." And it just never happened. The plans fell by the wayside. Those are just two examples. Others are abandoned and for sale, you literally can walk right in. And there are photographs in the book of specific hotels that have "For Sale" signs outside of them. But they're so dilapidated that it's going to take a vision and a lot of work.

What is the story that you're trying to tell with the book?

When I started, I was interested in the past, in the Borscht Belt, everything it stood for. And in documenting it as it appears today. It's been widely written on in novel, memoir. From historians to busboys—you have so many people that wrote about it.

I was interested as a photographer, in making a visual anthology of this past.

What really happened very fast, is while I was on this expedition, almost felt like an archaeologist looking for remnants or relics of a former era. I realized I was even more intrigued by the present, and what had happened, and what these places looked like today, which are modern day ruins. The idea of the ruins, all of the shades of light and darkness that are in the ruin itself. And the questions that one may ask themselves, "Why are these places like this? How did this happen? What happens over time? How does it change things, particular built environments, besides people themselves?"

There's a lot of peculiar modern-age beauty in what is now considered a dead place. I don't really consider these places dead, I think they're very vital. They change every season. I never knew what I was going to find. I could've never anticipated walking into a lobby and seeing a plant, growing through carpeting and foundation, that was knee-high and flowering.

It was those moments—that feeling of capturing the past and the present— and the future now, where you have nature reclaiming. And what will happen? That's the story I got absorbed in. What I also want to show people are the processes of time. That it's a metaphor, almost, for the life cycle itself, that everything has a birth and a death and all the spaces in between, even if some of the images, for a Borscht Belter, are hard to look at.

How does the trajectory of the Borscht Belt reflect Jewish identity in the United States?

I think Jewish identity in the United States is constantly changing. My grandfather grew up in an Orthodox household, they came to America, they stayed Orthodox for quite some time. They were black hat. Then my grandfather kind of adopted a different lifestyle.

He owned a fabric store on the Lower East Side, he dealt with many different people on a daily basis. He kind of hung onto the tradition of Shabbat, but he started to wear more Americanized clothing. When my dad came around, they tried to send him to Yeshiva. I guess they were like, "Oh, now we have a family, we have to be religious again." But my dad completely rebelled. And I grew up a Reform Jew. I'm not observant at all. I think that my story is very much like a lot of people's stories.

When the Borscht Belt came up, it was because Jews were literally banned from hotels. Moving ahead to the '60s and '70s, there was a lot more freedom in the world for the average Jew, as well as many other groups. So I think there was just a change, there was a real evolution of what it means to be Jewish, what does a Jew look like, and what does a Jew observe, what does a Jew eat, what does a Jew do.

A lot of this may be nostalgia, but it seems like with that assimilation, there was this loss of this very tight-knit culture, Jewish resort culture, comedy culture, sort of melting into the broader culture.

My project, if you look at it from a distance, it's about loss and change within the broader Jewish community. Jews abandoned the Borscht Belt by their own volition. They weren't told not to go there anymore. They decided to go to Jamaica, they decided to go to Paris, they got on a plane and went to Florida. I think, as cheesy as it is, that line in Dirty Dancing when Mr. Kellerman, the owner of the hotel, is talking to one of the band leaders and he says, "They don't want this anymore. They don't want fox-trot lessons. Trips to Europe, that's what the kids want!"

And if I look at my own dad, he didn't want to go back up there anymore in the '70s. 1969, he went to Woodstock, and the next year he didn't want to go back to the Catskills with his parents to a bungalow. He went to Paris. He went backpacking around Europe. And he was one of thousands of Baby Boomers who did that, who just didn't go back.

And I guess people were more affluent, they could go further than a hundred miles, hundred and fifty miles...

A hundred percent. Jews were more affluent. Most had come to the U.S. with nothing, they had built up their lives, raised families, and then they moved to the suburbs and they didn't need to go to the Borscht Belt anymore. They weren't living in the Lower East Side in tenements and needing to kind of get out of the city in the summer.

It was really different. And in the 1950s, they stopped railroad service to the area, which I think also stopped people from going. And then it's a car culture, where people are really exploring the United States, not just this, an hour and a half away from the city. It was money.

In my book, there's a historian, and she writes, "American Jews came of age in the Borscht Belt." And that's true, they developed there, they grew up there. And after they grew up, they didn't go back home.

The Borscht Belt: Revisiting The Remains of America's Jewish Vacationland is now available from Cornell University Press. Marisa Scheinfeld will be discussing the book tonight (Monday) from 6-8 p.m. at Rizzolli Bookstore in the Flatiron District.