Meet the Man Amplifying the Sounds of the Borscht Belt

April 7, 2021Andrew Silow-Carroll

Growing up, Aaron Bendich would spend lots of time with his grandfather Max in the North Bronx, in a house “filled to the brim” with records, videotapes, and CDs. Among Max’s collection were recordings of Yiddish songs and other Jewish music.

Fast forward a few years and Aaron is the manager of the radio station at Vassar College and taking Yiddish classes. Inevitably, he started a show featuring Yiddish music and spent his free time scouring thrift shops and used record stores for obscure Jewish recordings.

At 27, while living in Brooklyn, Bendich launched his second Yiddish music show on WJFF Radio Catskill, the public radio station for the Catskills and Northeast Pennsylvania. He hosted “Borscht Beat,” a weekly hour of Jewish music recalling the heyday of the Jewish vacationland in upstate New York.

“I can be a bridge to this lost media to other people, Jewish or not, who might enjoy it. [It] is just so pleasing,” said Bendich, whose day job is director of advertising for Digital Media Rights, a film distributor in Manhattan. “There’s a real magic to it.”

Bendich said he was excited to be hosting the show, which launched on a radio station with ties to a historic epicenter of Yiddish culture in the United States.

“Most of the artists I play have, at one time, performed within WJFF’s broadcast area,” Bendich said. “I think it’s very wonderful and exciting that my show is now on the station. There is some beautiful continuity with the rich Jewish cultural history of the region.”

We asked Bendich to pick and discuss five songs that represent the range of the Borscht Belt. He added a sixth as a bonus: a recording of his grandfather, Max Bendich, who ran a laundry service in the Bronx and passed away at the age of 105.

Mein Shtetl Yaass” — Marc Kurz

A nostalgic tune about the longing for one’s home in the Old World is uncharacteristically raucous in this 1960 sing-along record by Marv Kurz, a band leader who frequently performed in the ’40s and ’50s at Gibber Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, New York. Kurz’s voice has the crazed excitement that many of the great Yiddish stage performers once had. The scat-singing conclusion is explosive, and inspires ecstatic longing for an Old World that I’ve never visited.

“Birds Chorus” — Jenny Kessler

I found a copy of this record at a Hasidic-run thrift shop called Blessed Buy in Brooklyn among a stack of much older 78 rpm records. To my surprise, this relatively recent LP was by far the least documented, and rarest, of my haul. I could find no information about it online, except Kessler put out the album with an Israeli conductor named Martin Moskovitch. I gave it a listen, and this opening track, “Bird’s Chorus,” blew me away with its upbeat, pop-y sound, prefaced with audio of actual birds chirping

In the years since, Blessed Buy has closed, but someone uploaded the record onto YouTube, and it’s been a joy to listen to such a sweet and happy record.

Ot Azoy” (from “Az Men Git Nemt Men”) — Yakov Bodo 

I first heard this odd, disco-inflected Yiddish song from a YouTube search. The video, featuring a group of young dancing Hasidim surrounding a notably older singer (Yakov Bodo), captivated me and my grandfather.

I showed him the video nearly every time I visited him, and he learned the words quickly (which was no small feat for a centenarian).

Az Men Git Nemt Men” was the first film in Yiddish produced in Israel, released in 1982. Bodo is still alive and performing in Yiddish theater in Israel.

I set out to find a copy of the film on DVD, which took over a year. To this day, I consider it one of my greatest achievements in collecting media.

“Coney Island” — The Barry Sisters

The Barry Sisters, born Minnie and Clara Bagelman, were crossover superstars of Yiddish song from the 1940s to the early 1970s. They had a long, illustrious career and recorded a substantial body of work in many languages. When Claire Barry died in 2014 (her younger sister Merna died in 1976), The New York Times remembered them not only as “darlings of the Catskills, Miami Beach, and other Jewish entertainment outposts,” but as stars in Las Vegas and on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

This tune, “Coney Island,” has a classic “Yinglish” style of lyricism; English lyrics are seamlessly melded with those in Yiddish. The lyrics revel in the boundless joy to be found a short train ride away, in Coney Island: “There’s garlic and cheese in the ocean breeze.”

A Chazandl in Amerike” — Aaron Lebedeff

This is a parody of the classic tune “A Chazan af Shabbos” (“A Cantor for the Sabbath”), where a cantor auditions and three workers describe the glory of his voice in terms of their labors.

In this parody, the judges are restaurateurs, each coming from a different region of the Yiddish-speaking world: one a Litvak, one a Galitzianer and one from America. Each compares the singing to their favorite foods in their wildly hyperbolic accents.

This culminates in the Amerikaner comparing the cantor to ham and eggs, and then proclaiming “Holy Moses! Jesus Christ! Is this a cantor!” This hysterical parody was actually censored in its LP release by The Greater Recording Co. and the name of Jesus was removed from the recording.

The singer, the legendary Aaron Lebedeff (1873-1960), was one of the greatest Yiddish theater performers, who would “regularly lead a contingent of actors and actresses to the Catskills to perfect their dramatic skills,” according to a website dedicated to his memory. His idiosyncratic style is still beloved and remembered to this day.

Mentshn Zenen Mishigge” — Max Bendich

My main inspiration for my record collecting and radio pursuits is my zayde (grandfather) Max Bendich, who was an avid collector himself, a devout Yiddishist and a fount of knowledge and wisdom.

Three years ago, he burst out in song with a Yiddish tune I’d never heard before, with lyrics about the goldfish-swallowing fad of the 1930s.

I recorded him and circulated the recording. It has now been viewed thousands of times.

Max died at the age of 105 without ever learning where the song came from, but he took great joy in knowing I was carrying on his legacy of collecting Jewish music and sharing it with others.

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