Gallery talks are nice. So, too, are lectures and other forms of cultural outreach and engagement. But when it comes to eliciting a response, there’s nothing quite like the Q&A that follows on the heels of a public program about American Jewish culture, especially if its destination is that of the Catskills. Talk about audience participation!
The recipe is simple: Take a group whose members make up what the French call a “certain age,” leaven with memories of that former “kingdom of outdoor happiness,” as Grossinger’s, the eminent Catskills hotel, once put it, and mix it up with contemporary observations about Jewish history and humor, food and frolic — and you’re off and running.
“Echoes of the Borscht Belt: The Contemporary Photography of Marisa Scheinfeld” is now on view at Yeshiva University Museum. An evocative and witty meditation on place, on the tussle between History and Mother Nature, the exhibition doesn’t just document what happened to the Catskills when its fortunes ran dry. Here, subject matter and visual artistry collude, compelling the viewer to reckon with absence and loss.
The exhibition, which will be closing on April 12th, after which it’ll be headed for the Yiddish Book Center, was accompanied the other evening by a conversation among Ms. Scheinfeld, Jacob Wisse, the museum’s imaginative director, and myself. Although we didn’t lack for what to say — our conversation encompassed a wide range of topics, from creative land use to Jewish history — it was the audience that made the evening a success.
Some attendees reminisced about their days as a band leader or as a guest at a bungalow colony. Others told a slightly naughty joke. Still others speculated on why the Catskills declined. Nearly everyone had something to say — and said it. At one memorable point in the proceedings, some audience members even started speaking directly to other audience members, bypassing the moderator entirely.
One extremely animated participant had been a former tumler at a Catskills establishment. His job was to get the guests, their bellies filled with food, up and about, exercising, swimming, walking, moving and interacting with one another. He would have had an easy time of it with this crowd.
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