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The first-ever Borscht Belt Festival celebrates a bygone Jewish era

(New York Jewish Week) — After a dozen-plus years in the making, the Catskills Borscht Belt museum is set to open in 2025. But for those who can’t wait another two years, the museum is launching a festival to honor the history and culture of the “Jewish Alps” this summer.

The first-ever Borscht Belt Fest will debut on July 29 in Ellenville, New York, about 90 miles from Manhattan. 

The one-day festival will pay tribute to the legacy of the Borscht Belt — the colloquial name for the once-ubiquitous resorts and bungalow colonies in parts of Sullivan, Ulster and Orange counties that catered to Jewish families — and its influence on modern American culture. On the lineup are comedy shows, workshops, lectures, exhibits, film screenings and a street fair with plenty of entertainment and Jewish food. 

With a few years before the museum opens, the festival is “a way for us to start cultivating a really broad audience for this new cultural institution,” Andrew Jacobs, president of Catskills Borscht Belt Museum’s board of directors and a reporter for The New York Times, told the New York Jewish Week. 

The museum will be located in an old bank, pictured above, at 90 Canal Street in Ellenville, New York. (Catskills Borscht Belt Museum)

The timing for the festival and subsequent museum opening, noted Jacobs, is ideal: “We’re tapping into this zeitgeist moment,” he said, pointing to the Amazon Prime hit “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and how it revived interest in the Catskills and its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s.

“Also there’s a sense that this time in history has been unacknowledged, underappreciated nd hasn’t gotten its due,” Jacobs added. “And so I think there’s a sense among people who lived it, or whose parents lived it, like, ‘I want this to be acknowledged, I want it to be honored and celebrated, and I want to be part of that.’”

Like the festival, the forthcoming Borscht Belt Museum will also be in Ellenville, located in a building that was once home to Home National Bank — one of the first banks to lend money to Jewish hotel owners in the 1920s. Exhibits and activities will include archival film and audio, lectures, interactive activities and workshops.

Back in the day, from roughly the 1900s to the 1970s, Route 17, then better known as “The Quickway,” was packed during the summer months with New York Jews making their exodus from the crowded city to the Catskill Mountains. Named after the Ashkenazi beet soup, the Borscht Belt drew travelers upstate for leisure, Yiddish culture, food and entertainment. Many legendary Jewish comedians performed early in their careers at Catskills resorts, including Jackie Mason, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld.

Of course, Jews also came to the Catskills because they were barred from vacationing at many other popular locales — and therefore they created a vacationland of their own, packing Jewish-owned resorts like Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel and Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club. 

“These institutions shaped American Jewish culture, enabling Jews to become more American while at the same time introducing the American public to immigrant Jewish culture,” according to the Catskills Institute, an organization at Northeastern University promoting research and education about the region and the era.

By the late 1960s, however, with the rise of air travel, more resorts allowing Jews and younger generations choosing other vacation destinations, the lure of the Catskills began to dim. By the 1980s, most resorts and hotels that populated the Borscht Belt were defunct.

The Borscht Belt Festival aims, however briefly, to revive the traditions and culture of the Catskills’ golden age. With a focus on comedy, the festival’s events include “The Borscht Belt Classic,” a homage to family-friendly Catskills comedy, and a talk with writers Alan Zweibel and Bill Scheft about their experiences writing and performing stand-up comedy in the mountains. 

Another comedy performance is Luci Pohl’s “Immigrant Jam,” which pays tribute to immigrant culture and experiences — Pohl herself is a Jewish immigrant from Germany — and a standup comedy showcase presented by the Manhattan club the Comedy Cellar.  

Pohl, who is a member of the festival’s advisory board, said that rather than choosing a big headliner, the organizers wanted to focus on comedians they can’t see on Netflix, or maybe haven’t heard of yet. Similar to the Borscht Belt, the festival aims to be a place to “discover new talents,” she told the New York Jewish Week.  

Other highlights include a “Rocky Horror”-esque screening of “Dirty Dancing” — in which participants are encouraged to dress as their favorite characters and can sing and dance along to the film, set at a Catskills resort  — and a concert from the klezmer group The Shul Band. There will also be the first exhibit of the work of the late Holocaust survivor and painter Morris Katz — who was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Record as both the world’s fastest and most prolific artist — put together by a curator from the New-York Historical Society. 

Various signs for the resorts and bungalow colonies in the Borscht Belt. (Catskills Borscht Belt Museum)

Jacobs expects some 8,000 to 10,000 attendees at the festival throughout the day. In addition to having a good time and learning about the Borscht Belt, “We want to bring culture back to the Catskills and … develop Ellenville as a kind of a regional cultural hub,” he said. 

Looking ahead, Jacobs said the goal is to have the Borscht Belt Museum and its spin-off festival evolve into a brand. They are hoping to host the Borscht Belt Film Festival in Ellenville in the fall; create a stand-up comedy outpost at Ellenville’s Shadowland Theater, featuring monthly shows there; and create year-round programming in both New York City and upstate.

The museum’s first pop-exhibit, curated by the International Center for Photography New York in partnership with the Bard Graduate Center, will be open from early July through the end of the summer at the yet-to-be renovated site of the future museum. 

Many Jewish museums “can be a bit depressing — it’s pogroms and the Holocaust, which is important,” said Jacobs, who directed the 2008 documentary “Four Seasons Lodge,” about a Catskills bungalow colony populated by Holocaust survivors.  “But I think there’s a real craving for a museum that tells a story about Jews that is triumphant and joyous.”

The Borscht Belt Fest will take place on July 29 in Ellenville, New York. For tickets, visit Borschtbeltfest.org


The post The first-ever Borscht Belt Festival celebrates a bygone Jewish era appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Biden Administration Urges Israel to Tone Down Response to Hezbollah Aggression in Bid to Avert Wider Conflict

Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces who according to Lebanese security sources was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon, in Khirbet Selm, Lebanon, Jan. 9, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The Biden administration has been pushing the Israeli government to de-escalate hostilities with Hezbollah to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-backed terrorist group wields significant political and military influence.

In Israel’s north, Hezbollah terrorists have been firing rockets at Israel daily from southern Lebanon since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, leading Israeli forces to strike back. Tensions have been escalating between both sides, fueling concerns that the conflict in Gaza — the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, another Iran-backed Islamist terrorist group, to Israel’s south — could escalate into a regional conflict.

More than 80,000 Israelis evacuated Israel’s north in October and have since been unable to return to their homes. The majority of those spent the past eight months residing in hotels in safer areas of the country. The mass displacement has ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a swift resolution to the situation.

The ongoing conflict between both sides escalated on Tuesday when senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah was killed in an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching over 200 missiles into northern Israel. 

During Abdullah’s funeral, senior Hezbollah official Hachem Saffieddine vowed that the terrorist group would intensify its strikes on Israel. 

“Our response after the martyrdom of Abu Taleb will be to intensify our operations in severity, strength, quantity and quality,” Saffieddine said. “Let the enemy wait for us in the battlefield.”

In Israel, meanwhile, officials have said they prefer a diplomatic solution to the current crisis but are prepared to escalate military action to push Hezbollah back from the border in order to allow internally displaced Israelis to return home. Polling has shown that the majority of the Israeli public wants the military to engage in expanded actions against the Lebanese terrorist group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Biden administration has been advising Netanyahu against pursuing the idea of a “limited war” against Hezbollah, arguing that it could spark a regional war throughout the Middle East. According to multiple reports, US officials have warned Israel that Iran could dispatch militants from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen into Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s effort.

The White House has also expressed concern  that Israeli officials do not have a clear strategy on how to keep the war contained to solely Lebanon. Fear of a broader regional war has intensified the Biden administration’s urgency to finalize a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which launched the ongoing war in Gaza by slaughtering over 1,200 people throughout southern Israel and kidnapping more than 250 others on Oct. 7.

“We are concerned about an increase in activity in the north. We don’t want this to escalate to a broad regional conflict and we urge de-escalation,” a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters this week.

The Pentagon also released a statement saying that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin discussed efforts to “de-escalate tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border in the wake of Lebanese Hezbollah’s increased aggression.”

According to multiple reports, Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden for energy and investment, will head to Israel on Monday in an effort to temper tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah. Hochstein will meet with Netanyahu and Gallant with the goal of swaying them against green-lighting a “limited ground invasion” in Lebanon. Hochstein will reportedly also journey to Beirut to conduct discussions with Lebanese officials.

“There was a lot of work, diplomatic work done behind the scenes by several folks in the US administration, working with regional powers and our allies to try and tamp this down,” Hochstein has said regarding the prospect of a regional war erupting in the Middle East.

Hochstein argued that preventing a large-scale war between Israel and Lebanon requires “active engagement” with both parties and for the public of both countries to “understand the risks” of further escalation. He added that “despite the bravado talk” coming from government officials, Lebanese people do not to go to war with Israel.

“The bottom line is a lot of civilians will die,” Hochstein said.

Despite chest-thumping by Hezbollah leaders, experts believe that the elimination of Abdullah might cause Hezbollah to exercise caution in engaging further with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

The powerful elimination worries Hezbollah members. They now understand that the IDF knows much more about them than we do,” Professor Amatzia Baram told The Jerusalem Post. “Additionally, the operation indicates that Hezbollah’s field security is not airtight and that the organization’s intelligence system has been penetrated to such an extent that we were able to eliminate such an important sector commander. The IDF managed to infiltrate their networks and systems and identify the right people for elimination.”

The post Biden Administration Urges Israel to Tone Down Response to Hezbollah Aggression in Bid to Avert Wider Conflict first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Iranian Court Sentences Woman to 18 Years in Prison for Supporting Israel

Iranian protesters carry a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Yemeni flag as they burn an Israeli flag during an anti-US and anti-British protest in front of the British embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect

Fatemeh Sepehri, a prominent Iranian dissident and political prisoner, has been sentenced to an additional 18 and a half years in prison after she publicly expressed support for Israel.

The harsh prison sentence appeared to be at least partly in response to a video clip released on Oct. 16 from Ghaem Hospital in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in which Sepehri, who suffers from a heart ailment, condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel. Hamas is backed by the Iranian regime, which provides the Palestinian terror group in Gaza with funding, weapons, and training.

“I emphatically declare that the Iranian nation stands in solidarity with the people of Israel,” she said. “I hope [Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks] closes the Islamic Republic’s chapter in history.”

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For 45 years, Iranian women have tirelessly battled for their rights, freedom, and advancement. Among them, Fatemeh Sepehri has boldly challenged the ideals of the Islamic Republic. NUFDI proudly awards her the 2024 Humanitarian Award.
pic.twitter.com/ccSnhXVQ9e

— سه خط طلا (@misanthropgirl) March 19, 2024

Although Fatimeh’s court records are unavailable to the public, her brother Asghar Sepehri tweeted details about the sentence. According to her sibling, Fatimeh was sentenced earlier this month by a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Mashhad to seven years for supporting Israel, another seven years for conspiring against internal security, three years for insulting Iran’s so-called “supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and one year and six months for propaganda against the Islamist regime.

Iran’s rulers regularly call for the destruction of Israel, often referring to the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” or “the Zionist entity.”

Sepehri was originally arrested in Sept. 2022 following the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked nationwide protests against the ruling Islamist regime on an unprecedented scale.

Sepehri’s pro-Israel video was posted after she was temporary released from prison to undergo open-heart surgery. According to her family, Sepehri has been subjected to intense “psychological torture” while in prison. Her brothers, Mohammad-Hossein and Hossein, have also received severe sentences for similar charges: eight years and two years and 11 months, respectively.

In the past, Sepehri has been an outspoken critic of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic more broadly. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported in 2021 that Sepehri said on video that she hoped to see the day when Khamenei would be dragged through the streets and killed like Libya’s late ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Days after Sepehri received her sentence, Iran released political prisoner Louis Arnaud, a French citizen, on Thursday. Arnaud was arrested in Sept. 2022 as anti-government protests were erupting across Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted shortly after Arnaud’s release, “Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran.”

Louis Arnaut is greeted by Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné at Paris’ Le Bourget Airport following his release from Iran. Photo: Screenshot

Three French nationals remain imprisoned in Iran as political prisoners. French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné posted on social media that securing their release remains a top priority.

The post Iranian Court Sentences Woman to 18 Years in Prison for Supporting Israel first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism

One of the billboards erected in partnership between JewBelong and O7C. Photo: Instagram

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton said this week that following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, it should be a “natural” reaction among all humans to want to combat antisemitism, as well as support the Jewish people and Israel’s right to exist.

The “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle” star, who is a devout Catholic, made the comments during her guest appearance on the NewsNation show “CUOMO,” where she also advocated for Christians to voice solidarity with Jews and Israel after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 250 hostages during their Oct. 7 onslaught. Heaton began by telling host Chris Cuomo that after the Oct. 7 atrocities, she was “confused by the lack of outcry from the churches.”

“I even posted on Instagram, ‘Did you ever have that thought that if you were in Germany during World War II, you hoped that you would be that good German that helped to hide your Jewish neighbors? Well, today you have that opportunity,’” she added.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton founded a nonprofit called the Oct. 7 Coalition (O7C) to urge Christians to be visibly outspoken against antisemitism, and in support of Jews and Israel’s right to exist. Heaton’s O7C has since teamed up with the nonprofit JewBelong to launch a nationwide billboard campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism in the US.

Talking about why she wanted to get involved in rallying support for Israel and Jewish communities facing a rise in antisemitism in the US since the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton said, “I think if you’re a human being, that should be your natural response to what we saw.” When asked about how people in the entertainment industry have reacted to her avid pro-Israel stance, she said Jewish friends in the business have called her “brave and courageous.”

“[But] I just think this is just a normal human reaction,” she said. “I have heard ‘We have projects we have to promote. We don’t want to bring politics into it.’ I guess if someone spent 50 or 100 million on a movie, they don’t want to introduce this subject matter and I guess you can understand that. But generally speaking I think Hollywood could do more to support our Jewish community.”

The post Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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