“S’iz chver tzu zein a Yid” (it’s difficult to be a Jew), the saying goes, but when it comes to the Berkshires it’s never been easier.
The Jewish presence in western Massachusetts continues to bloom. It hearkens back to the 17th century when Sephardim came to the area as traders. By the late 19th century there were German Jewish peddlers moving through the area and settling in the pastoral hill and mill towns. In fact, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose little red house still stands across from Tanglewood, included a Jew as a character in his short story, “Ethan Brand.”
Baron de Hirsch, a wealthy 19th-century German-Jewish philanthropist who helped Jewish immigrants settle in the Americas, helped Jewish immigrants from New York’s Lower East Side purchase farmland in Sandisfield, which is south of Great Barrington. Many became chicken farmers. Their children left the area in search of higher education.
Later, thanks in large part to conductor Serge Koussevitzky, Tanglewood became the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and young musicians flocked to Lenox to study with professionals during the summer months and perform what they learned before audiences. Thus, it attracted Jews who wanted a different kind of vacation than the Catskills offered. By the early 1960s the area also had great appeal for fans of folk music and the counterculture. The opportunity to leave the frenetic pace of city life for a cleaner, calmer environment attracted many people, including Jews. Holocaust survivors had found a home there in the Hitler era, and in the 1980s and 1990s Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union settled in the Berkshires.
The population of Jews who live in the Berkshires year round is still relatively small, but growing as more baby boomers, many of whom were introduced to the area through summer camps, are now retirees. The internet, which has made it possible to work from home, has also contributed to its growth.
Country with culture is a good way of describing the Berkshires. It doesn’t attract the throngs that ocean resorts do, but its rivers and lakes invite swimming, water-skiing and fishing. When winter sets in there’s ice skating and ice-fishing as well as cross-country and downhill skiing. There are mountains and marvelous hiking trails, including the Appalachian Trail, and beautiful golf courses and tennis courts. If gym workouts and yoga are your preference, there’s plenty of that too.
The Berkshire Jewish Film Festival, which supports Knesset Israel’s school, began life in the conservative synagogue in Pittsfield on Monday nights and grew to fill both a matinee and evening performance at a school in Lenox. Most screenings sell out and it’s no longer because there’s little to do in the Berkshires on Mondays when most theaters are closed.
If your interest is more cerebral, there are more music, theater, dance and art performances and lectures than you can possibly attend in any given summer week. And the season continues to expand. Autumn brings “leaf peepers” who come to experience New England’s fabulous fall foliage and enjoy fairs, as well as performances of plays and concerts, some of them at nearby colleges and universities. Tanglewood is in the midst of constructing climate-controlled buildings that will greatly extend the musical season.
Also, the Berkshires boast some spectacular museums, including the gorgeous Clark, which has one the best collections of Impressionists. Then there’s the massive MassMoca and the more intimate Norman Rockwell Museum, as well as the Berkshire Museum, to name just a few.
For spiritually minded and observant Jews, the area boasts Conservative and Reform synagogues and lay-led minyanim, as well as Chabad, which is building a center in Lenox. It’s not unusual to go to Tanglewood on Friday evenings and see a group standing to recite prayers and Kiddush before the concerts. (There are several inns within easy walking distance of Tanglewood.)
I was planning to attend a Friday service and a friend told me I could spot the congregants if I looked for the blue and white balloons. I did and soon found the balloons on a blanket, along with candlesticks, a cloth-covered challah and siddur. No one was at the blanket so I wandered a bit, thinking they had started mincha at the back of the lawn. Within a few hundred feet, I came across a large table with balloons, all set up with a candelabra, wine, the challah and lots of fruit and baked goods for the oneg. More than 75 people showed up for the service.
For those who prefer a more secular Jewish experience, local synagogues and the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires produce a variety of engaging and meaningful programs all summer long. Hardly a day goes by when there’s not an enticing entertaining, enriching event. The wonderful Yiddish Book Center in Amherst offers an annual Klezmer Festival and is dedicated to preserving Yiddish by offering summer workshops and internships that draw students from the nation’s top colleges and universities.
The Jewish Theological Seminary and the Maimonides Society offer talks. One of the synagogues hosted a four-day Jewish book fair with talks by authors and is co-sponsoring, with Shakespeare and Company, a production of an Israeli play, “Fertile,” and The Miniature Theatre of Chester offered a run of “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” a play that won the 2017 Jewish Plays Project contest.
With the High Holidays approaching, there are a number of educational programs taking place to help people better understand and appreciate the history and prayers that compose the liturgy and customs of the services. The Berkshire Minyan is more traditional, with members sending out regular emails inviting people to sign up to participate in the weekly services and other events. It has grown so popular that it expanded beyond its original space and, at this writing, the congregation is renting space at the Quaker Meeting House on a trial basis. After services they walk back to the synagogue to join the congregants for Kiddush.
Vegetarian and vegan food is readily available for travelers, and kosher meat and poultry, which has to be imported from Albany, is now also available (frozen) in the local supermarkets. This summer, Crown Kosher Supermarket in West Hartford is offering delivery service of raw and prepared foods. So a vacation doesn’t have to be a vacation from Judaism and its rich traditions because being Jewish in the Berkshire nowadays is not the least bit difficult. In fact, it’s easy, fun and highly rewarding.
By Barbara Wind