It’s similar to riding a bicycle. It’s the kind of thing that once you know how to do it, you just never forget.
It’s been many years, but this week I discovered what I always suspected, and that is my innate feel for the roads up here that wind around what we always affectionately called “the mountains” or “the country.”
The roads are curvy and circuitous and nearly impossible to navigate at night. As a young man of 19, I used to be able to drive at night with my car lights off, that’s how well I knew this part of New York. But I haven’t tried anything like that for more than four decades, and I really did not have any desire to try that again this week.
Riding through the towns and hamlets up here, I could not help but be drawn to the shuls that seem to dot every small main street. Whether it’s Wurtsboro, Spring Glen, Loch Sheldrake, Woodbourne, or Swan Lake, among others, one thing each of these main streets feature is a shul. Most of them — except in Woodbourne — are rundown and dilapidated but still standing.
As I made my way to Kauneonga Lake on Sunday morning, I spotted, or actually felt, a familiar stretch of roadway. It just looked familiar. It was near something that once played a vital role in my life. I know this road, I thought, but I did not know why. But then it hit me, and out of the corner of my eye I spotted the Stevensville Hotel in Swan Lake.
This is where we spent four fantastic Pesach yomim tovim back in the mid-1980s. It is where we made good friends, including the Mehl family who ran this excellent program year after year. It was easy to love Izzie and Irwin Mehl and their families. Irwin passed away about a decade ago, and, interesting enough, I spotted his son Jeffrey at a store in Woodridge on Friday. He didn’t see me or recognize me so I kept on moving. I know that if we would have stopped to talk we would have reminisced about those days and what good friends his father and I were, and we would then just look at each other, shake our heads in disbelief, get filled with emotion, and so on.
Izzie and his wife, Frances, passed away just a few weeks ago. I told their sons that I always thought that Izzie was like the straight man of the two and Irwin was like the funny man — and he was very funny. We certainly enjoyed many good laughs together. Irwin’s wife, Evelyn, may she live and be well, lives in Lawrence and we see each other from time to time.
I bring this up because being here in the Catskills for this first month of summer, I am marveling at the intricate memories that can be conjured just by passing by an old hotel at 70 miles per hour on a Sunday morning. I don’t know what is going on at the Stevensville today, but I can tell you that, unlike other hotels of that era, this one is standing; maybe it has a z’chus of some kind because it provided a few hundred Jews with a nice Pesach 35 years or so ago.
Like I said, I only passed by the Stevensville. I was on my way to meet Gene and Susan Stevens who live near the lake and have this new pontoon boat. They invited us to spend a couple of hours on the water taking in the greatness of G-d’s creations from this liquid vantage point.
It is very unusual to meet someone for the first time and five minutes later it’s like we knew them all our lives. But that’s Gene and Susan and their children. Gene knows my son-in-law Eliezer. They met just a bit more than a year ago, and, as expected, they, too, became fast friends.
I was told that while spending part of the summer here in the country a ride on Kauneonga Lake with Gene and Susan was a must. It was Sunday morning and the sky was a superb and sparkling blue. Not a cloud was floating in the sky above us.
It continues to amaze me how there are these numerous enclaves that are located in various nooks and crannies of the Catskills, and you only discover their unique identities once you have the opportunity to take a closer look.
Gene was a New York City police officer until he took early retirement a few years ago; Susan works in the fashion industry in New York City. Today Gene works in the private security business, and like so many others these days, they both have been working from home — in this case, their summer home — more often than not.
There is a double lake out here that many of you who frequent this area are probably aware of. The two bodies of water are conjoined, one being Kauneonga and the other White Lake.
Gene’s boat is an easygoing pontoon. It features comfortable seating, a small table in the common area, and cup holders for whatever you might be drinking, which, in our case, was coffee and iced tea. “I love riding this lake,” Gene says, as he smoothly works the controls.
Gene and Susan became frum about 20 years ago; about three years ago they and a group of friends uprooted themselves from Mill Basin in Brooklyn. Rabbi Heshy Blumstein, a well-known and popular rabbinic personality in the Five Towns, was instrumental in inspiring them to make the move and become observant Jews. When they are not in the Catskills, they live in Woodmere.
They read the 5TJT, so they more or less know what Esta and I are up to. We discussed some of the latest issues and controversies, including a letter I received last week from a reader about last week’s front-page photo. It features the head of school from The Brandeis School in Lawrence waving to students and parents from the roof of the building during the school’s end-of-year countdown and drive-through celebration.
The letter writer wanted to know why the mitzvah of building a fence along a rooftop was not adhered to by the school. A casual inquiry of our rabbinic advisers told us that the mitzvah of a ma’akah, a fence so no one falls off your roof, is required for a residential or private home.
The roads in White Lake are some of the most beautiful up here in the mountains. They are extremely hilly and filled with great-looking, fully blossomed trees that contrast so beautifully with the bright blue skies. One of the most fascinating things in the White Lake area is that the folks who make up the association that manages the area continue after all these years to vote against the construction of an eruv covering the neighborhood.
According to Gene, there are numerous observant families here, but while the majority is Jewish, they are mostly not shomer Shabbos. A drive though the area demonstrates that this spot on the map is surrounded by bungalow colonies populated by chassidim, so if you want to know why there is no eruv up here yet, well, you’ll have to figure it out.
It was about ten in the morning so the waterways were not that busy. But it was Sunday of July 4th weekend and it was bound to get busier as the morning progressed. At a nearby residential dock, Gene saw his friend Jay Rand, whom I also know from Lawrence. We edged up to his dock and Gene invited him aboard to join us for a while. We chatted and played a little Jewish geography before our conversation went back to the dynamics of these waterways. It seems that at its deepest part the lake is about 80 feet deep. It is not unusual for people to stop their boats and jump in for a swim, which Gene did at one point.
After about two hours floating out there, we headed back to shore. The temperature was going up to 90 degrees and it was going to be one of those summer scorchers.
It has been many years since I spent so much time in the Catskills. If you think that its time has passed, think again, although it’s different this year, with most of the sleepaway camps not operating at full capacity or not opening at all. There may not be as many people, though with international travel restricted, there may be more than expected up here, like us. The point is that the hills — or “the mountains” — are very much alive.