‘What’s With Jews and Comedy?’ Borscht Belt-themed show to chronicle beloved Catskills comedy circuit

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — What’s a Borscht Belt joke? Comedy historian Lenny Dave shares this classic told by the famous Catskills entertainer Myron Cohen.

A Jewish grandmother is taking her grandson on a walk on Coney Island’s beach in Brooklyn. Suddenly an enormous wave washes over the sand, sweeping up her grandson as it heads back to the ocean. She implores God: “Please, please, bring back my grandson!” Moments later, another wave comes and deposits the boy back at her feet. She looks up to God and says: “He had a hat.”

Or, the famous joke about a restaurant visit: “The food was terrible. And such small portions!”

Dave believes these jokes reveal a Jewish love for the world despite the sufferings of the people over the centuries. He will explore the history of this sweet and caustic humor during his presentation, “What’s With Jews and Comedy?” on March 21, at the Levis Jewish Community Center in Boca Raton.

The show is in coordination with the Catskills Borscht Belt Museum, a cultural center in Ellenville, New York, dedicated to the history of the Jewish resorts of the Catskills and the humor that emerged and influenced American comedy for generations.

The Catskills are a mountain getaway, just two hours from New York City, that thrived from the post-World War II era through the 1970s. Many Catskills vacationers were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe with their children and grandchildren. Some of these families were excluded from the American mainstream due to anti-Semitism and sought a modestly priced refuge with good food, fresh air and recreational opportunities they lacked in the city.

The Catskills Institute, dedicated to recording the region’s history, estimates 500,000 people were visiting the mountains each summer in the 1950s. The mountain experience had an enormous impact on American culture, birthing comedians from the Borscht Belt, as the hotel circuit became affectionately known, who later became famous nationwide. Among them: Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett and Alan King.

The resorts began to decline in the 1970s, when a new generation of families chose sleep-away camp for their kids or more exotic destinations for vacations. The final blow for many was the closing in 1998 of the 1,200-room Concord, a grand resort where the dining room sat 3,000.

Dave, a Cincinnati native who now lives in Lake Worth Beach, said he has spent decades researching not only Borscht Belt comedians but the history of American humor. He relishes interaction with his mostly Jewish, mostly older audiences, who are taken back to “a happy time, a happy place, when their body didn’t hurt.”

He said he has especially come to appreciate Jewish stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, who died in 1966 and pioneered jokes about sex, politics and religion, “things you weren’t supposed to talk about,” Dave said.

Dave serves on the advisory board for the museum, which is working to raise millions of dollars to renovate a former bank in Ellenville into a repository of Catskills culture, memorabilia and entertainment.

Andrew Jacobs, board of trustees president, said he is excited to meet the Boca Raton audience, which he expects will be filled with former New Yorkers who spent time in the Borscht Belt as kids.

“Those are our people,” Jacobs said. “They loved it, they lived it.”


If you go

What: “What’s With Jews and Comedy?” featuring Lenny Dave and the Catskills Borscht Belt Museum

When: 7:30 p.m. March 21

Where: Levis Jewish Community Center’s Phyllis and Harvey Sandler Center, Boca Raton, Florida

Tickets: $25 general admission

Info: levisjcc.org/events