October 1, 2023
October 1, 2023

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The Sweetest Thing of All

What makes this summer different from other summers in the beautiful Berkshires? The answer is the many Jewish-related offerings. This season’s unprecedented heat and rain, which has hampered outdoor activities, may actually be a boon to the area’s cultural programs.

The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires teamed up with local synagogues to ensure that there’s hardly a day without an event related to Judaism. Besides synagogue services, there’s everything from botany to babka, Torah and tea, learning opportunities, baking and eating while socializing. Chabad also offers kosher catering and individual meals (These must be ordered in advance). Knesset Israel serves kosher lunches after talks at their premises and following their Shabbat services.

Tanglewood made the Berkshires a cultural center. The summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and the Tanglewood Institute draws thousands of people, including students, from all over the world, to what is one of the globe’s greatest, diverse and most creative summer music festivals and schools. It was founded by BSO Conductor Serge Koussevitsky of the well-known cantorial family, who was succeeded by Leonard Bernstein. The venue offers classical music and much more, including jazz, contemporary and popular artists.

John Lockhardt, the conductor of the Boston Pops since 1995, conducted “Twin Pianos” on a recent Friday at Tanglewood. Michael Feinstein, the popular pianist and singer famed for his interpretations of songs from The Great American Songbook, wished the audience a “good Shabbos,” for which he got a huge round of applause.

Besides music, book readings and signings that take place in various venues throughout the area, Jeremy Yudkin offers free pre-performance music appreciation talks. From other experts, one can learn more about everything from Torah to poetry, food and science, humor, history, etc. One presentation by Jon Greenberg, PhD, who teaches at Manhattan’s Heschel School, revealed how archeology and technology proved the First Temple’s existence of the four species as part of the Sukkot service.

Even the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric facility in nearby Stockbridge, is hosting an exhibition on the German Jewish refugees who fled Hitler. Many settled in the Berkshires.

It’s quite impossible to attend every Berkshire Jewish-related event. The Federation published a 30 page 8×10 brochure listing most, including its annual Jewish Film Festival, one of America’s oldest and best. One of its films, “Reckoning,” is about Israel and the Claims Conference’s efforts to get Germany to compensate Holocaust survivors for their suffering. It was a revolutionary feat, the first time in history that victims of war received compensation. Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, former US deputy secretary of the Treasury, spoke at the film’s showing about his pro bono ongoing negotiations with Germany, Austria and Poland.

The Berkshires may not be Broadway, but there are plenty of theaters that put on a variety of plays that are Broadway quality and often better. The productions are usually smaller but so are the ticket prices. Some theaters are also venues for new plays and plays-in-progress.

Barrington Stage Company began this season with an outstanding production of ”Cabaret.” Given the current surge of antisemitism, the hit musical about pre-WWII Germany is more politically relevant now than in its original 1966 production. The work of three Jews, Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb made Joel Grey (son of Borscht Belt musical entertainer Mickey Katz) a star. This was half a century before he directed the Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Shakespeare and Company, which premiered ”Golda’s Balcony” in 2003, is reviving it in August with its original star, Annette Miller. The play about Golda Meir was produced on Broadway with Tovah Feldshuh, who later starred in the 2019 award-winning film. It will be shown as part of the Berkshires’ Jewish Film Festival this season.

Before Sheldon Harnack wrote the lyrics for “Fiddler on the Roof,” he studied the writings of Sholem Aleichem. Tevye, the legendary milkman, was a typical Jew of his time. Poor, devoutly dedicated to God, his family and community, a philosopher and dreamer who spoke to God while eking out a living, is best defined in the song, “If I Were a Rich Man” (originally titled, “If I Were a Rothschild”). A combination of pathos and aspiration, its last stanza is the most telling. It’s not the material things he wants. It’s the time to sit in the synagogue with wise men and study the holy books that he most desires because “That would be the sweetest thing of all.” People call the Berkshires “Heaven on earth.” Learning amidst all this beauty, talent and genius really is heavenly and “the sweetest thing of all.”

Barbara Wind is a writer, speaker and Holocaust-related independent scholar, curator and consultant.  

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