A bright swell of clarinets and brass make way for a strong but ghostly voice, singing in a minor Klezmer scale above the soft crackle of old vinyl. This is the mid-century recording of Cantor Mordecai Hershman, who recorded a series of albums documenting secular Yiddish folk songs. You don’t have to dig through basement library archives to find this kind of rare Jewish music: They’re brought to the public on a radio show called Borscht Beat.
Three times a week, host Aaron Bendich draws from his massive collection of over 1,000 Jewish records to share an hour of otherwise hidden music. “Borscht Beat” is a reference to the “Borscht Belt,” once the nickname for a string of resorts in the Catskill Mountains that used to be frequented by Jewish clientele from the early to mid-20th century.
Many of Bendich’s records come from his grandfather, a native Yiddish speaker, who grew up in the Bronx as the son of immigrants from the area that is present-day Ukraine.
“I grew up with American folk music, Jewish music, opera, blues music, really all sorts of cultures, including our own,” said Bendich. When he began Yiddish language classes at Vassar College, he shared the songs written in his textbook with his grandfather. “He recognized the songs. He would sing them with me over the phone,” Bendich added.
This kicked off Bedrich’s knack for collecting Jewish records, which he played on his college radio station. Years later, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the station reached out to alumni asking if they wanted to do radio remotely. That’s how Borscht Beat was born. His grandfather, at 105 years old, was able to hear the show live just months before his passing.
Today, the show airs on three FM radio stations, and Bendich expanded from collecting records to pressing his own by launching an independent Yiddish record label in February 2022. The label was inaugurated with the release of “forshpil:tsvey,” a trippy Klezmer/garage rock fusion album of “dark yiddish love songs from a parallel world.”
The label’s next release, titled “Kosmopolitn,” is a collection of early 19th-century modernist Yiddish poetry set to vibrant operatic compositions by the duo Tsvey Brider. While the poems describe daily life, they are anything but ordinary: “A circus dancer with an erotic attraction to knives. A man fantasizing fervently about an unknown woman in a cafe. A mountain of granite, coal and steel building itself into Chicago.” The album also includes an early 1900s Yiddish translation of a Shakespearian monologue, set to perfect rhyme and meter.
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell’s rich operatic vocals blend with the rhythmic dance of accordion and piano by Dmitri Gaskin, invoking early 20th-century French cafe chansons. The crisp, colorful album cover, illustrated by Audrey Lynn Estok, shows a cozy and bustling brasserie. “Imagine you’re in some old-time cafe, and you’re watching this performance of an unimaginable, almost uncanny fusion of genres,” said Bendich.
Borscht Beat is already gearing up for the release of yet another album by Romania-based violinist Zoe Aqua titled “In Vald Arayn,” Yiddish for “Into the Forest.” The musician has been carrying out a Fulbright scholarship researching folk violin melodies in Transylvania, which she combines with Yiddish tunes. While the songs are new, Bendich said that they feel like they’ve been played for generations. “It’s magical to me. There’s a sort of impossible union of this sound that comes from the old world … by a contemporary artist. It’s extraordinary.”
Between the rise of educational Yiddish social media accounts and the release of a highly anticipated Duolingo course, many are wondering if we’re in the middle of a Yiddish renaissance. If so, music will play a central role in its revival.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for people to generate culture, to re-engage in cultural heritage and identity,” said Bendich. By stewardship of both historical music and contemporary albums, Borscht Beat is here to help usher in a new era of Jewish art.
Borscht Beat plays on WJFF Radio Catskill at 1pm Sundays (wjffradio.org), WVKR Poughkeepsie, NY, at 9am Wednesdays (wvkr.org), and WCFA-LP Cape May, NJ, at 11am Sundays (capemayradio.org).