Somewhere deep in the French countryside, a group of 30 people—mostly strangers—gathers for a meal. As they walk in, they are greeted by the strains of a violin playing a traditional Jewish melody. On a long communal table, a lavish spread and bottles of red wine and chilled vodka await. The mood at first is tentative as guests take in the scene, which feels at once vintage—like stepping into a sepia-toned photograph—and completely in the moment. Before long, the strangers are singing, laughing together, and toasting to their good fortune for ending up at such a magical spot.
The event, called Tish, is a roving, semi-regular musical dinner party founded by accordion player Jérôme Block, violinist Amit Weisbeger, and a handful of other musicians (several of whom play together in the klezmer band, Beigalé Orkestra). The idea was born out of the informal jam sessions that would often spontaneously emerge during meals shared by these musician friends and colleagues. “We’d be around the table, having so much fun playing music outside of of a traditional concert context,” Weisbeger said. “We wanted to replicate that acoustic, natural feel and share it with others—and to bring the music off the stage.” Over the last two years, the team has hosted more than a dozen Tish events, in far-flung locales across France as well as a satellite event in the Czech Republic.
A tish (which translates to “table” in Yiddish) is typically associated with the Hasidic community, an intimate gathering on Shabbat or holidays that centers around music and singing (particularly the wordless melodies called nigunim) storytelling and religious teachings, copious drinking and eating, and dancing. Weisbeger said their events are strictly cultural, not religious, in nature but share a spirit of sacred conviviality with a traditional tish.
While none of the founders have a culinary background, they knew that in order to attract a vibrant crowd, the food served would have to be as good as the music. The team partnered with Thomas Perrée, a professional chef who doesn’t come from a Jewish background but was interested in learning the about the Yiddish kitchen. Weisbeger shared recipes with him and, over time, he began turning out Ashkenazi feasts. “The cooking and preparations are always a very communal thing,” Weisbeger said. “I have found myself frying latkes the whole day before the show.”
For the most recent Tish, which was held in Brittany in May, the founders also brought in Laurel Kratochvila, an American ex-pat living in Berlin who runs the artisanal bagel shop, Fine Bagels. Kratochvila served a five-course modern Ashkenazi meal, starting with a shot of icy Zubrowka vodka, chopped liver with balsamic reduction, sour pickles, and individual challah knots. “In France it is important to have a proper aperitif,” Weisbeger said. Next comes matzo ball soup flavored with local wild onions, and a duo of salads—smoked trout and marinated Russian radish. Those were followed by a cabbage and caramelized onion knish with dill sour cream. For dessert, guests nibbled poppyseed rugelach and cheese blintzes with blueberry sauce, washed down with a shot of plum brandy.
“I was sweating bullets before serving this meal,” Kratochvila said. “I mean, it’s France. That’s a tough culinary crowd.”
Between courses, the performers share stories and reflections, and play traditional Jewish melodies with guests increasingly joining in as the wine and vodka continues to flow. “People start off a bit embarrassed, but three hours later, they are dancing on the tables,” Weisbeger said.
Each member of the team helps create that feeling that guests are temporary family members gathering for a festive occasion. “My experience catering large dinners is that there’s usually a point where the chef comes out and says a few words, then dives back into the kitchen,” said Kratochvila. “At Tish, you are given a role, a persona to take on, nigunim to sing. You are actively involved in transporting the table to some other very drunken, very musical time and place.”
In France, klezmer music is widely popular, with a much broader audience than the one in America. “It is seen as happy, exotic music and often people don’t even know the background,” Weisbeger said. “We actively bring in the cultural aspects, and help people make connections.” Judging by the enthusiastic responses and the consistently full houses, it seems Tish’s guests—who come from both Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds—are as eager to learn as celebrate.
As for the musicians? They work hard (“We do have to earn a living,” Weisbeger said), but end up having as much fun as the crowd. “We will keep doing this as long as people want to come,” he said.
The next Tish event will be held on August 26 in Vendée. More information can be found on Tish’s website and by calling 33/60-406-7578.