Photo by Mackensie Griffin.

In January 2023, I had the opportunity to meet with the board of the newly created Borscht Belt Museum and was later hired, along with fellow Bard Graduate Center MA students Mackensie Griffin and Bob Hewis, as a curatorial intern. BGC faculty members Caspar Meyer and Aaron Glass helped to facilitate this opportunity, which fulfilled the MA degree’s internship requirement.

The Borscht Belt refers to a group of resorts in New York’s Catskill Mountains that catered to Jewish clientele in the 1950s and ’60s. They offered a vacation wonderland, an all-inclusive experience for families that included meals, childcare, sports and other recreational activities, entertainment, and nightlife. According to one of the founders of the Borscht Belt Museum, Allen Frishman, the museum will “preserve this slice of Americana” and share how the “region catered to Jewish families denied access to other resorts during an era of closeted anti-Semitism.”

The primary purpose of my internship was assisting with the creation of a pop-up exhibition to foreground the opening of the permanent museum in Ellenville, New York. It covered roughly one hundred years of history, including the early settlements, the heyday of the resorts, and their eventual dilapidation. This was a lot of time to cover in a small-scale exhibition, so one of the primary goals of the curatorial team was researching and determining the themes that would frame the exhibition and inform our limited selection of objects. Every week we met on Zoom and each of us were given tasks to complete; some of mine included writing object labels, working on a land acknowledgement, researching specific objects and themes, and connecting with various collectors. I had never worked on a project of this scale before, so it has been a particularly valuable experience for me as a future curator.

Something that I found difficult was deciding as a team which objects to include in the exhibition, as there were many objects to choose from and we could only include so many. For example, we had access to hundreds of vintage postcards and so we had to determine which best communicated the themes that we wanted to convey. I became attached to certain objects and the stories they tell, so another challenge was accepting that not all the objects that I liked would be included in the exhibition.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Salem-Wiseman.

Before becoming involved with the museum I was not familiar with the history of the Borscht Belt, but I through my work on the exhibition I came to realize how much my own family’s story is connected to these resorts. After I told my parents about the internship, I found out that my great-uncle and great-aunt spent their honeymoon at the prominent Grossinger’s resort. I spoke to my mother’s cousin who sent me a digitized home video that included footage of resort activities, evening entertainment, and my great-uncle and great-aunt romantically lounging by the pool. To my family’s excitement, some of this footage was included in the exhibition.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Salem-Wiseman.

This personal connection was an indication of how important the history of the Borscht Belt is to a lot of people, and that was a bit daunting since I was partially responsible for communicating that history in a meaningful and accessible manner. Like members of my own family, many visitors to the pop-up had stayed at these resorts and lived the experiences the exhibition was intended to reflect.

This internship was longer than the one hundred hours that BGC requires. Internships are usually completed in the summer, but I began working on the exhibition in January and my commitment concluded at the end of July. I gained a lot of valuable work experience and professional connections; however, I had to balance this internship with schoolwork and my campus employment, which was quite stressful at times. In spite of this, I was really excited about helping to install the exhibition in Ellenville and seeing the pop-up come to life after working on it for so long. It was an especially rewarding project that brought me more in touch with my Jewish heritage and my relatives and gave me a valuable learning experience.

Rachel Salem-Wiseman is a BGC second-year MA student.