Growing up, I never did care much for country life. Hated it, in fact. The problem is that I still do, a feeling that makes me something of an oddball, if not an out and out misfit, in my community.
For many of my fellow Orthodox New York Jews, the fourth week of June signals the onset of the season of deliverance, as the congregation rises and chants as one: take Thy people out of Brooklyn, and from Queens remove Thy servants; yea speedily and safely bring them to Sullivan County and deliver them to Mandelbaum’s Green Acres, Weissberg’s Shady Rest, Feldman’s Cozy Pines…. This phenomenon is by now so deeply fixed in the cycle of Jewish observance that an outsider might quite understandably equate it with a celebration as ancient as Purim and an experience as ritualistically meaningful as a Passover Seder.
But it is, in many ways, a strikingly uncharacteristic hankering. Other Jews take vacations, of course—usually of the one- or two-week variety, and to points farther south and west than the Catskills. But the phenomenon of entire middle-class neighborhoods very nearly emptying out for the summer can, for all intents and purposes, come wrapped and packaged with the designation “glatt kosher” stamped all over it. I once heard a psychologist insist that this trend stemmed from an atavistic Jewish need to wander. Why, I thought, would someone choose to wander from a comfortably appointed Brooklyn home to a significantly more hardscrabble Borscht Belt bungalow?
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my preference for the fumes of automobile exhaust on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway over the odeur of freshly spread fertilizer on the road to Monticello is a contrarian one. But, as I lounge comfortably in my urban idyll, I can’t help but wonder at the hold maintained by “the country” on people who otherwise share my background, tastes, and preferences.
On the first visit to the Catskills that I can remember, which we took when I was six, I immediately felt a profound unease with the sights and sounds and smells of country life. I didn’t have to be Eva Gabor in the 1960s sitcom Green Acres to identify fully with her plaintive cry in that show’s opening theme song: “New York is where I’d rather stay / I get allergic smelling hay.”
Too young at the time to articulate, to myself or to others, the precise reason for my downcast countenance and melancholy state of mind during that initial Catskills sojourn, I would at a more mature age come to the realization that my condition resulted from the sense of profound dislocation common to any creature yanked from its natural habitat.
Not that the habitat of which I speak was the jungle landscape of New York City in the early 1970s. No, I was to the suburbs born and bred, and no doubt would have suffered the same shock to the system, the same dread and dismay, at suddenly finding myself forced to reside in a Manhattan high-rise as I did when glimpsing for the first time a farmhouse off in the distance framed by a rusty old tractor and a cadaver-like scarecrow swaying lazily in the afternoon breeze.
But suburban New Jersey, whatever its myriad faults, is close enough in proximity to New York to qualify as part of that “greater metropolitan area” ceaselessly intoned by television weatherpersons and thus to reap the status the term conveys—particularly to a youngster who already had come to associate the concept of a big city with qualities like intelligence, sophistication, and a certain measure of quick-wittedness just not associated with those slower-paced burgs where, at least in the imaginings of youth, demolition derbies and monster-truck meets were high-society events and grown men walked around on weekday afternoons wearing smeared overalls and company baseball caps with adjustable plastic straps.
This favoring of city over country was not, however, a matter of mere image—though neither was it an empirical conclusion arrived at through rigorous intellectual exercise. Whatever it was, it issued from the deepest, most visceral levels of my psyche. The eerie stillness of country nights gave me the creeps, the deadly monotonousness of country towns depressed me to no end, and that was all there was to it. I knew then, as I do now, that my feelings about the country were so intrinsically a part of me that to deny them would make about as much sense as denying the color of my eyes or the freckles on my nose.
And so it was that I rather quickly came to consider myself a city boy through and through. Forced to endure the annual family trek to one or another self-described haimish hotel or bungalow colony (haimish apparently being defined by the proprietors of said establishments as threadbare carpeting, chipped and wobbly furniture, and alarmingly loud indoor plumbing), I would methodically check off the long days and longer nights until that most wondrous of dates finally arrived—our scheduled return to New Jersey.
Not even the realization that the end of August signaled the approach of school offset the joy I felt when my father’s old Pontiac was fully packed and pointed homeward. It’s been decades since I last was forced to endure an extended stay in the country.
A friend—an individual who, it happens, does not share my dislike of the country—says it’s all very simple: a bungalow in the country, even one rented rather than owned, has become just one more symbol of status for a generation of Orthodox Jews whose ever-greater stringency in matters of religious ritual is equaled, rather incongruously, by an ever-increasing appetite for the material things of life.
An unfair generalization no doubt, but one need only consider the phenomenon—widespread in communities where most families struggle to meet the monthly bills—of what this friend calls “keeping up with the Berkowitzes,” the driving need to match the neighbors dollar for dollar on expenditures ranging from weddings and bar mitzvahs to even the most rudimentary implements of Jewish ritual.
“The cost of yeshivas and camps, especially when there are five, six, seven or more children in a household, that isn’t backbreaking enough?” my friend has asked on more than one occasion. “A fellow who struggles to keep a roof over his wife and kids has to worry how it would look to others if, God forbid, his family is home for the summer?”
Of course, the whole business of Jews and the Catskills had its origins in a time that bears no resemblance to present-day reality. The forerunners of the hotels and bungalow colonies of later vintage were grubby little boardinghouses where Jews could, in those years before the blessed arrival of the air conditioner, escape the stifling humidity of the city at reasonably affordable prices.
It was also an era, it bears noting, in which the sheer difficulty of long-distance travel—coupled with the fact that Jews were not welcome in many hotels and resort areas (including, in not a few instances, establishments located in the Catskills region itself)—meant that Jewish New Yorkers faced a limited choice of destinations in their quest for rest and recreation.
But today? Travel has never been easier, the availability and accessibility of viable vacation options for Orthodox Jews never better.
Besides, given the universality of air conditioning in homes, stores, and offices, the very idea of fleeing the city for eight or nine weeks has become a rather quaint indulgence, one of the few shared by wealthy Manhattanites sunning in the Hamptons and Orthodox Brooklynites shpatzeering in Sullivan County.
There are, no doubt, those who will read the above with not a little indignation or scorn. To them I can only plead for tolerance as I attempt to come to terms with my utter inability to grasp the appeal the country experience holds for so many.
Forgive me if I like the cacophony of sounds wafting through my open window on a summer night in the city; indulge me my preference for the reassuring noises coming from the apartment above my own; understand that tall buildings give me a bracketing sense of security from the sheer capriciousness of nature in the raw.
For my part, I promise to look with greater understanding on those who just happen to enjoy a little rural living as a welcome change of pace. And who knows? The day may yet arrive when the mountains become a central pillar of my own Jewish existence—when my ritualistic chanting of “By the rivers of Babylon” is done by the scenic Lake of Kiamesha; when the term “religious pilgrimage” no longer conjures up the City of David but the Village of Woodbourne; when I ceremonially shout “Next Year in Jerusalem,” knowing full well I really mean Next Summer at Loch Sheldrake.
Jason Maoz is senior editor of The Jewish Press, a New York-based Orthodox weekly.