Stand Up, Fit In

The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt waxes nostalgic for the Jewish comedy of assimilation

Mrs. Greenbaum, seated at a long table full of Gentile ladies having supper, reaches a little too far for the mushroom gravy, sending it straight into Mrs. Worthington's lap. "Oy gevalt!" Mrs. Greenbaum cries--adding, with a relaxed, elegant smile, "whatever that means."

That joke--embodying the essential comedy of assimilation, its yearnings and hypocrisies--might have made the ideal epigraph for The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt, a 1986 documentary that's screening at the Minneapolis Jewish Community Center this weekend as part of the two-week Ninth Annual Jewish Film Series. The doc itself is mostly purebred bomb, with hilariously inapt voiceover narration by the actor Joseph Wiseman--who, as if parodying the subject, reads his lines in the cultivated English voice of John Gielgud. (Imagine Wiseman's Gielgud-ish reading of "This was a place of beginning for the likes of Henny Youngman and Jack Carter.") Patched together with home movies of belly flops into the deep end and numerous swordfights with pumpernickel loaves, Borscht Belt is the kind of "heartwarming" Jewish nostalgia film that feels appropriate for after-dinner screening at Nana Sophie's "senior living community." But for a goyish, onetime wannabe Jew like myself, it does answer a few questions. As in: So this is the world Woody Allen is always running away from as he hurtles toward Elisabeth Shue and Mira Sorvino!

The so-called borscht belt--the concatenation of successful Catskills hotels that served America's Jewish middle class from the Twenties to the Sixties--has had pungent representation on film prior to this, most memorably in Ted Kotcheff's masterful The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), wherein the frog-voiced character actor Joe Silver indelibly snapped five-spots at Richard Dreyfuss like taut bed sheets, croaking, "Hey, boychik! Remember--I like snappy service!" The relationship between these two men--a sonata of fatherly corruption in the making--took the Catskills milieu out of its usual grotesquerie and revealed something new about characters like Silver's: an avidity, a Sammy Glick hunger to get out of Siberia and up front at the Special Tables, a longing so intense the audience could feel it. And laugh at it. As a comic-opera training ground for a hustler in the works, Kotcheff's borscht belt could be kidded, but only affectionately.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Catskills: Eddie Fisher (center) enjoys the poolside scenery of the borscht belt
A funny thing happened on the way to the Catskills: Eddie Fisher (center) enjoys the poolside scenery of the borscht belt

The other memorable portrait comes in Bob Fosse's sublime, underrated 1974 biopic Lenny. Busted for using "blue" material onstage, Lenny (Dustin Hoffman) is humiliated by Sherman Hart--a roman à clef version of Uncle Miltie himself. When Sherman introduces Lenny on a Catskills stage, and segues into Lenny's abject apology for his risqué act the night before, a funny thing happens on the way to the punch line. "By way of making it up to you," Lenny says, looking Sherman square in his self-satisfied face, "I think...I'd like to piss on you." And in that moment, as the Entertainment Counselor informs Lenny Bruce that he'll never work in this town again, a new era is born--and the old world of borscht belt comedy is gone forever.

So what was the signature borscht belt style, exactly? As Joey Bishop says in the documentary: "I am afraid there is no other word for it than...haimish"--that is to say, an almost folksy sort of broad humor that made audiences feel right at home. The filmmakers wisely employ footage of a post-borscht-belt Bill Dana on an early Ed McMahon variety show, as the material goes from being specifically Jewish to safely "mainstream"--bland, inoffensive, proto-Cosbyish. Catskills humor crossed over not when it was Jewish-folksy-raconteurish, as it was with the Jackie Masons of the world, but when it was Tasmanian-devil, crazy-man comedy--in other words, the school of Jerry Lewis.

Moviemakers from Larry Peerce (Goodbye, Columbus) to Woody Allen have shuddered at this world, populating it with Diane Arbus grandmas and ghastly after-dinner dress-up games. What were they recoiling from, these guys? Why were they so disturbed by a universe so far away? Could it be that this world was, er, too Jewish for them? Is it too reductive to say that the tradition of Jewish hipsterism, from Lenny and Woody to Philip Roth and beyond, is just another grasp at Americanness--the smart kid's means of fitting in?

Whether it is or not, the borscht belt has trickled down into our bone marrow like a mineral deposit. Its latest great-grandchild is Jerry Seinfeld, the cool, postmodern offspring of the Catskills comic. Unlike the haimish joke-tellers, Jerry isn't sentimental. And unlike the Lenny Bruces begetting Richard Pryors begetting Chris Rocks, he isn't angry; he doesn't even want to change the channel. But like the old tummlers, he does aim to please. He's our closest variant of Dick Shawn or Morey Amsterdam, making Aunt Myrtle laugh till she loses her soup.

The one curio we do get from Borscht Belt is that the Catskills were the American Jewish dream--or delusion--of the Fitzgeraldian: a fantasy of gentrification, of being waited on, of living in the middle of Healthful Nature. It was "luxury" the way Real Americans enjoy it. The guys we know who popularized the term borscht belt (and they were all guys) were just the furnishings. For years, they couldn't compete with the penny-ante casinos. But their style--part desperate, part pandering, part unmasked aggression--remains, for better or worse, the template for contemporary standup. The tummlers' ghosts persist. These days, when you walk into a comedy club, you sure ain't seeing the great-grandchildren of Bob Hope.

 

The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt screens Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at the Minneapolis JCC. The Ninth Annual Jewish Film Series begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with the documentary In Our Own Hands, and continues through March 26. For more information call the JCC at (612) 377-8330.

 
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