A new documentary, When Comedy Went to School, illustrates the famous Catskill hotels that composed what is commonly referred to today as the “Borscht Belt,” compiling footage of such comedians as Sid Caeser, Jerry Lewis, Rodney Dangerfield and then some, alongside a slew of interviews. It’s an illuminating lesson on where Jewish comedy first put down its roots in North America—and, when it analyzes the Catskill hotels’ earliest comedians, a compelling argument for the power of comedy to integrate outsiders into a large population.
The Borscht Belt was often nicknamed the “Jewish Alps” for the high volume of working-class Jewish Americans who would vacation there. The comedians interviewed in the documentary refer to this area as a “laboratory,” a testing ground not only for comedians to hone their craft, but for Jewish Americans to find their place, to build their own community within the larger community of the United States. It leads us to ask the question: Where is today’s Borscht Belt?
As a sect of the larger standup comedy scene, Jewish comedy has largely joined in transitioning to the online world. Countless comedians of all stripes are building audiences and communities online, and Jewish comedians are no different. It may not be quite the same as the Borscht Belt, but comedy historians will certainly look back on this period and trace a bold, if circuitous line from the Catskills to Cyberspace.