The Jewish Traveler: The Berkshires
Koussevitzky, Bernstein, Copland, Fleisher, Abravanel, Levine—names that are intricately woven into the history of these bucolic hills.
From Memorial Day, when the vegetable gardens go in, to mid-October, when the hills turn shades of gold and bronze, Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts is a magical place. Visitors are drawn to the summertime music, dance and theater programs; others hike the Appalachian Trail and swim in clear lakes. And increasingly, visitors are finding a Jewish experience here. Who knew?
Actually, it’s no secret. Jewish life in the Berkshires is taking off. Particularly centering around the town of Great Barrington, the Jewish population has been enhanced by a mini-exodus from Boston and New York. Together with old-timers, urban transplants have helped revive interest in Jewish learning and cultural activities, and in general revitalized a Jewish community with roots in late-19th-century European immigration.
But one doesn’t have to live in the area to enjoy this renaissance. Visitors can take part in many offerings, ranging from the summer lecture series at Hevreh in Great Barrington to the Jewish film festival in Pittsfield to the new cultural program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Add to that the magnificent cultural scene and one has an ideal destination for the Jewish traveler.
Berkshire County has everything from little hamlets with white-painted Colonial houses to small towns and cities with red-brick, two-story buildings. Traveling north on Route 7 one passes through Great Barrington, its main street lined with Edward Hopper-like storefronts. In about 20 minutes one is in picturesque Stockbridge, its Colonial houses adorned with wide porches; Lenox is about 15 minutes north of Stockbridge down winding, tree-lined roads. From Stockbridge another 20 minutes takes you to the urban center of Pittsfield. And from there, another half-hour’s drive brings you to Williamstown, home to Williams College, near the Vermont border.
New England’s first Jewish residents were 17th-century Sefardic traders; Ashkenazim came in the late 19th century, “for the most part traveling peddlers” of German origin, says folklorist and oral historian Michael Hoberman. Native son Nathaniel Hawthorne even included a German Jewish peddler in his mid-19th-century short story, “Ethan Brand.”
Like the peddlers of old, Hoberman has been wandering byways and highways gathering stories from old-timers and newcomers for a book about the Jews of rural New England. “There is something about the tightly knit, small-town life that resonates for Jews,” says Hoberman. “Certainly the tolerance [for difference] and the idea that life is made richer by the things we do collectively” reflect Jewish and New England traditions.
Some Jews came as farmers to the rocky New England soil thanks to Baron de Hirsch, a wealthy 19th-century German Jewish industrialist who believed Jews should work the land. “He made it possible for a few dozen Jewish immigrants from New York’s Lower East Side to purchase farmland in the Sandisfield area [just south of Great Barrington],” Hoberman explains.
But the second generation moved to big cities to attend college and find Jewish partners. However, in the 1960’s and 1970’s the trend reversed itself and Jews started moving back to the country. In the 1980’s and 1990’s immigrants from the former Soviet Union also settled here, yet the Jewish population is still relatively small; Arlene Schiff of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires estimates there are about 6,000 living in the region today.
Perhaps the best advertisement for the Berkshires is those who have chosen to make their lives here. Drawn by the small-town life, they have worked to ensure that it is possible to live Jewishly in a region where Jews are a minority. Pittsfield, the moderate-size city about 40 minutes north of Great Barrington, boasts the first synagogue in Western Massachusetts—Temple Anshe Amunim, started by German Jewish immigrants in 1869. It is also the second oldest Reform congregation in the United States; some of the founders’ original minutes, written in German, are housed in the temple archive.
And Orthodoxy is making a slow comeback. Chabad Rabbi Levi Volovik and his wife, Sara, who moved to Pittsfield last Rosh Hashana, opened an Orthodox minyan. This summer they will offer a Jewish art show, lectures on Kabbala and Hebrew classes.
Great Barrington also has a long Jewish history. The town’s first synagogue opened in the 1920’s; today there are two active congregations and a private minyan that welcome visitors.
Seth Rogovoy, editor in chief of the new Berkshire Living magazine, settled in Great Barrington in 2001 with his wife, Karin Watkins, and their two teenage children. Rogovoy, 45, started the South Berkshire Minyan on Saturday mornings for traditional and egalitarian prayer and Torah study (413-644-882; minyan@ro govoy.com). “Great Barrington has the real feel of a market town,” says Rogovoy. “My grandparents mostly came from shtetls, and this has that kind of quality—without the Cossacks, which is nice.”
In general, Western Massachusetts has a tradition of tolerance for minorities. Local towns are proud of their historic role in hiding escaped former slaves, and the noted African American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington. Jews did not always have it easy, but Hoberman says anti-Semitism rarely came up in his interviews.
The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires in Pittsfield (196 South Street; 413-442-4360; www.jewishfederation berkshires.org), which also publishes the Berkshire Jewish Voice, is a source for information about local synagogues, kosher food and Jewish cultural events. A new resource is the Culture Connect Jewish Calendar of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (www.hgf.org).
The Berkshires has several Jewish summer camps, and seasonal courses in Hebrew are offered at synagogues and local colleges. But even for those who just spend a long weekend or a few weeks in this region, there are plenty of opportunities to add a Jewish flavor to the visit.
The award-winning 1964 Temple Anshe Amunim of Pittsfield (26 Broad Street; 413-442-5910; https://ma010. urj.net) is the spiritual home of some 250 households. The sanctuary ascends toward the Ark and has an illuminated Ten Commandments that can be seen from outside at night. “It rises up as though you are ascending Sinai,” says Susan Lubell, temple administrator.
Close by is Conservative Congregation Knesset Israel (16 Colt Road; 413-445-4872; www.knessetisrael. org). Located on several acres of wooded land, it is the only synagogue in Berkshire County that has minyanim virtually daily; occasionally services are held out of doors. The synagogue’s Braun Memorial Gardens were donated by a local family.
Even the domed sanctuary, with its wood-and-brick interior and large stained-glass windows, “is an extension of the natural,” says congregation president Roberta Cohn, whose maternal ancestors immigrated here in 1913 from Romania. “Although we have this lovely building in this wonderful, bucolic and therapeutic setting, we are most proud of the heimish nature of the congregation,” she adds. Cohn is past president of the Berkshire Hills chapter of Hadassah (16 Colt Road; 413-499-5970) and current chair of Ivrit la Hadassah, the Hadassah Hebrew literacy program, for the Western New England region.
Certainly a sign of the vitality of Great Barrington Jewish life is in the 31-year-old Reform Congregation Hevreh of Southern Berkshire (270 State Street; 413-528-6378; www.hevreh.org). It started in 1974 with barely a minyan and today has some 400 members, both families and individuals.
“That I am here is evidence of God’s unbelievable sense of humor, that someone who loves urban living would end up in this paradise,” says Rabbi Deborah Zecher. Hevreh grew astronomically and in 1999 moved into its new building on Route 23, down the road from a Quaker meeting house.
Hevreh’s modern wooden structure features a lofty sanctuary and an ethereal, transparent Torah Ark crowned by a fan of gold-leafed glass. Large picture windows look out onto a stone patio and the hills beyond. During the High Holy Days, the patio becomes a tented extension of the sanctuary. Many part-timers extend their summer stay through the Days of Atonement and the congregation welcomes visitors at any time.
Harold Schrager, 59, came from Brooklyn 30 years ago and now is president of the Reconstructionist Congregation Ahavath Sholom, housed in Great Barrington’s former Orthodox shul, a small, two-story white house off Route 7 (413-528-4197).
Local Jews bought it in the 1920’s, installing the long wooden pews that are still in use today and adding a Star of David to the front of the building under the peaked roof. As a reminder of its Orthodox roots, the synagogue has two entrances, one for men, the other for women, though seldom was the second door used even during the old days. Today’s congregation is home to 50 members.
The Appalachian Mountain Club (www.amcberkshire.org) runs a lodge atop Mount Greylock (near Pittsfield) for hikers on the Maine to Georgia trail. Monument Mountain in Great Barrington also offers moderate to easy paths, with a special annual event recalling a hike that local writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Cullen Bryant and Herman Melville took up the mountain together. The reward is a fabulous view of South Berkshire County. Bash Bish Falls in Egremont near the New York border is a refreshing stop for a dip on a hot day; watch but don’t imitate the daredevils leaping off a rocky outcropping into deep cold pools below.
Other attractions include The Mount Estate & Gardens in Lenox (413-637-1899; www.edithwharton. org) designed and built by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton; the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge (413-298-4100; www.nrm.org) with its marvelous sculpture garden. Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield (800-817-1137; www. hancockshakervillage.org) provides a glimpse into how adherents to this unusual religious movement lived.
For a real countrified experience, visit the 138-year-old Blandford Fair on Labor Day Weekend (www.thebland fordfair.com). Located about half an hour west of Great Barrington, the fair features a fiddling contest, farm animal exhibits and a horse show, a few rides and folk art (such as chain-saw sculpture).
Contact the Berkshires Visitors Bureau (www.berkshires.org; 800-237-5747) for a more detailed list of sights and events.
The 19th annual Berkshire Jewish Film Festival runs for six Mondays in July and August at Knesset Israel in Pittsfield, whose modern sanctuary is transformed into a screening room. The event raises funds for the synagogue’s Hebrew school. “The festival started out very small, with Yiddish films,” says founder Margie Metzger, and today includes both serious and comedic films.
Brandeis in the Berkshires is offering two weeklong institutes and a special weekend this summer featuring the Waltham-based university’s business school. Contact the university for information (781-736-3355; www.brandeis.edu/berkshires).
A talk by the gay Jewish activist and radio personality Libby Post is planned at Congregation Ahavath Sholom for June 26.
As the last autumn leaves are drifting from the trees, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox (800-741-7353; www.kripalu.org) is offering two programs on Jewish topics: November 4 to 6, Neil Douglas-Klotz will lead a program on “Genesis Now! A Shared Practice of Peace for Jews, Christians and Muslims”; and November 10 to 13, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone of Boulder, Colorado, will explore “Boundaries of the Soul: Kabbalah and Depth of Psychology.”
Many local Jewish cultural programs are supported or promoted by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which is taking on a new challenge: to help promote Jewish culture. “Our mission is creating vibrant Jewish life in Western Massachusetts and beyond,” explains Dyan Wiley, director of Jewish Arts and Culture Initiative for the foundation.
Perhaps the most famous local cultural institution is the Tanglewood Music Center (413-637-1600; www. tanglewood.org), summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Located on a broad estate of wide fields dotted with giant trees in Lenox, about a half-hour’s drive north of Great Barrington (give yourself more time on a concert night), it was started in 1934 by local music lovers, who then invited the BSO and its musical director, Serge Koussevitzky (who was of Jewish heritage) to take part. In 1937, the BSO took over. From the hilltop grounds, one looks out over the undulating Berkshire landscape and the sparkling Stockbridge Bowl lake.
The Seiji Ozawa Hall, completed in 1994, looks like a two-story brick barn; it is world renowned for its acoustics. Like the famous and much larger Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed, Ozawa Hall’s concerts are accessible to the outdoors. Visitors spread out blankets and picnic while listening to the best musicians in the world.
Tanglewood has nurtured the talents of numerous Jewish composers, musicians and conductors, from Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland to Leon Fleischer and Maurice Abravanel. Concerts attract some 350,000 visitors a year—reportedly, celebrity attendees include director Steven Spielberg, many of whose films, including Schindler’s List, incorporate scores by Oscar-winning artist-in-residence John Williams.
This summer, in his inaugural season as Tanglewood music director, James Levine will conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra on July 8 in a world-class performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.
Museums in the area include the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams (about 50 minutes north of Great Barrington), with its famous installation of trees hung upside down (413-664-4481; www.massmoca.org). In Williamstown there is the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, with its stellar collection of classical and impressionist art (413-458-2303; www. clarkart.edu) and the Williams College Museum of Art (413-597-2429; www.wcma.org). The Berkshire Museum, a comprehensive regional museum with art, natural history and the natural sciences, is located in Pittsfield (413-443-7171; www.berkshire museum.org).
The town of Becket, about 40 minutes northwest of Great Barrington, boasts Jacob’s Pillow, the oldest dance festival in the country (413-243-0745; www.jacobspillow.org). The national landmark includes the historic 1942 Ted Shawn Theatre, with its dramatically sweeping roof, billed as the first auditorium ever built specifically for dance; the “Inside Out” stage, where dancers perform outdoors surrounded by lush forests; and the rustic, barn-like Doris Duke Studio Theater for smaller audiences. Theater in the area includes Shakespeare & Company in Lenox (413-637-1199; www.shakespeare. org), the Williamstown Theatre Festival (413-597-3400; www. wtfestival. org) and the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge (413-298-5576; www. berkshiretheatre.org).
Among the programs federation is cosponsoring this summer is a concert on August 7 by the Boston-based group Safam, which blends contemporary and traditional Jewish American styles. The performance will raise funds for Ethiopian Israeli youth.
A good hour northwest of Great Barrington is the National Yiddish Book Center (413-256-4900; www.yiddish bookcenter.org) in Amherst, the repository of Yiddish culture marking its 25th anniversary this year.
This archive and museum is launching a new program. The Paper Bridge Summer Arts Festival, July 10 to August 3, will include four nights a week of music, film and theater, including a family program every Sunday afternoon and an outdoor film festival on Wednesdays. It’s a good idea to get tickets in advance.
Also in Amherst, the Ko Theater Festival of Performance is kicking off its 14th season July 15 to 17 with a performance of Nita & Zita, about two Hungarian Jewish sisters who immigrated to America in the 1920’s. This show, which won an OBIE award, will be performed at the Holden Theatre on the Amherst College campus (413-427-6147; www.kofest.com). The creators of the performance will offer a six-day workshop on the production of biographical drama.
Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (Vintage Books) also is set in the region and the film based on the book was shot at Williams College. Herman Melville wrote part of Moby Dick while living in Pittsfield, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales takes place in the Berkshires.
Offering a glimpse into New England Jewish history is the new book, The Jews of Paradise: Creating a Vibrant Community in Northampton, Massachusetts, by Penina Migdal Glazer and Myron Peretz Glazer, available at the National Yiddish Book Center.
In Vignettes of Early Days in the Jewish Community of Great Barrington, Massachusetts (Attic Revivals Press), Shifra Deykin documents the town’s history.
About 30 minutes north of Great Barrington is Lenox, the genteel, emerald of a town to which Phil and Linda Halpern moved four years ago from New Jersey. They opened the 15-room Victorian Brook Farm Inn (15 Hawthorne Street; 800-285-7638; www.brookfarm.com), perhaps the only kosher dairy B&B in the region.
There is no official mashgiah, but Halpern has good credentials: His father, Rabbi Naftali Halpern, was the first mashgiah to the Conservative movement in America. There is no synagogue in Lenox.
You’ll find no kosher or strictly vegetarian restaurants in the Berkshires; those seeking kosher meals can contact the federation or Chabad of Berkshire County in Pittsfield (450 South Street; 413-499-9899).
Knesset Israel takes orders for kosher meat from Albany a couple of times a month. Several bakeries provide kosher halla and the federation prepares kosher meals for seniors.
Crickets chirping at night, the glimpse of early morning sunlight through maple leaves, a dip in a lake on a hot afternoon and a view of sunset over the sloping Berkshire Hills—all this can be an extended Shabbat for the soul.