On Nov. 1, Beth El Synagogue hosted the Borscht Belt Cabaret as part of its Beth El Music & Arts (BEMA) series, with performances from Ben Tisser, Talya Smilowitz, Hershel Fox, the Sid Engel Orchestra, Elissa Badzin, Rebecca Badzin, and Johnna Parks.
The event was modeled on performances that took place in the 20th century at resorts in the Catskill Mountains, referred to as the “Borscht Belt,” according to the playbill.
Although the event had been scheduled well before Israel was attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, Tisser, a cantor at Beth El who was the creative force behind the event, recalled the history of the Borscht Belt shows: they allowed Jews a break from antisemitism. He sought to emulate that function in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. “We wanted to provide that same bit of respite,” Tisser said.
Additionally, Tisser wanted the show to keep the tradition of the Borscht Belt alive and to share it with people who may not understand the experience. As he explained, “There aren’t too many people around who worked in the Catskills.”
The synagogue’s auditorium featured a mix of small and large tables for audience members, with space for dancing during the first half of the show front and center. Opposite the stage, there was a bar in addition to a buffet with finger foods such as latkes with lox and sour cream, egg rolls, and deviled eggs; and later brownies and more for dessert. During the show Tisser made certain to shout out Spirit Of Asia Catering, a local mainstay for kosher party spreads.
The show ushered in nostalgia in two parts, starting with “Dinner and Dancing,” featuring Tisser and the Sid Engel Orchestra. Couples danced and swayed to classic standards, showing off practiced moves you don’t often see on contemporary dance floors. This was followed by the main show, where Smilowitz, the cantor of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor, in Oyster Bay, N.Y., and Fox, a comedian and cantor at Valley Beth Shalom, an Encino, Calif. synagogue, took turns onstage with Tisser and the Orchestra.
Additionally, the main show featured guest performances from high school students and sisters Elissa Badzin and Rebecca Badzin, and University of Minnesota student Johnna Parks. Tisser recalled working with the Badzin sisters as youth in Beth El’s b’nai mitzvah cohorts, while his predecessor, Cantor Audrey Abrams introduced him to Parks, who had been her student.
While the lineup of performances centered around show tunes and period throwbacks, the program included several traditional prayers sung for peace and healing as well. Tisser and his co-hosts didn’t shy away from acknowledging the pain and concern of the community; but by naming and responding to it they created the atmosphere of respite Tisser had hoped for. According to several attendees, the celebration of Jewish American culture seemed to be just what was needed.
Throughout the night, some of the renditions included “Memory,” “HaTikvah,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” “My Heart Will Go On,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and a medley of “Where Can I Go” and “Somewhere.” During one of the songs, some of the audience shined their cellphone flashlights to accentuate a crescendo. In addition to singing, Fox performed jokes and Yiddish shtick for the audience. It was almost all varying degrees of off-color, although he assured the crowd he was reserving his dirtiest jokes “because I want you to invite me back!”
A meaningful part of the performance for Tisser was performing alongside Fox, who he met at age 7, and was his teacher and the cantor of his childhood synagogue. Fox ribbed Tisser for openly angling to usurp his position as a young kid — while acknowledging that “Benji” very much had the makings of an accomplished cantor and learned what he had to teach extraordinarily quickly. “It’s special to come full circle with the student and teacher,” Tisser said.