Back then, “the country,” or “the mountains,” as we tended to refer to that area as, was like a different, otherworldly geographic location than the one we lived in. We resided in the city–mostly Brooklyn–and then the other dimension or dynamic to our lives was upstate in the Catskills.
There was always a pristine beauty and hiddenness to getting away to the country for the summer. As a child of six or seven years, I really had no choice and was, how should I say it, locked in or confined to the Catskills for eight or so weeks of the summer. That was it. No one asked, and there were no choices.
It has always been rather obvious to me that the land that is the Catskills has some kind of specialness attached to it. I don’t want to use the word holy, because I’m sure that it may be a lot of things but certainly not holy. So maybe it’s hallowed, as today and for many decades it has been largely populated by what we call chassidim or chareidim, those who tremble before Gâ€‘d in some fashion–as I hope most of us do without a specific assignation hanging over us for identification purposes.
So what role did the Catskills, about a 100-mile drive north of New York City, play in our lives over all those years? If I had to find a few words that could be universally applied to all, regardless of the specifics of who you are or who you may think you are, I would say that going to the country back then, as well as today, can be best described as a getaway. It appears that we always have a pressing need for some place to get away to, to be on the move and be somewhere other than where we are now.
After being confined there for those summers of my early youth and not being able to independently come and go or bounce around, I then discovered that the country–or the mountains–was for the most part a place that I needed to get to or a place I had to leave to get back to the city.
Just like my ancestors before me, once I came of age and my children were young, I did not challenge or question the tradition. I went ahead and, though I was tied down to a demanding job in the city, I knew I had to walk the tightrope or the balance beam of dedication to the job and enjoying a young family in the relaxing setting of the Catskills.
So as far as I can recall at this juncture, those ten or so summers basically consisted of leaving the bungalow colony on Monday morning and then planning whenever possible an early Thursday afternoon escape from work onto the West Side Highway, the George Washington Bridge, the Palisades Parkway, and then Route 17 to my exit and my home sweet summer home.
That was the 1980s. I knew the drill so well because as a kid I watched my father do the same thing in the 1960s. That is certainly part of the great thrill of this entire exercise–being apart from the wife and kids all week (well, three and a half days), and then the reunion on Thursday evenings whenever possible.
Like I said, I knew how it worked and how good it was because I can still recall my father tiptoeing into our bungalow on top of a hill near Ellenville, New York, late Thursday nights long after us kids were asleep. He would gently place a kiss on our foreheads and wake us lightly and only momentarily, very gently, as a way of letting us know he was back after a long three days apart.
I don’t think that I can summon the words to effectively communicate the wonderful feeling of closeness, comfort, and love that a situation like that was and in a sense still is capable of conjuring, but as you can see, it is one I will always cherish.
Summer days in the Catskills always seemed to have endlessness to them. A day was eternal probably because time did not really matter then. Even as an adult, I felt that in case you thought time was flying by, all you had to do was spend a summer day with the family in the Catskills. It started with Shacharis on Sunday followed by a leisurely breakfast, then a softball game–a sport at which I was fairly proficient as a pitcher for a number of years. Then there was shopping with the family for nothing special, then for food for the week ahead, followed by a barbecue, watching the sunset, Minchah, Ma’ariv, and finally taking in the darkness and thinking about rolling out of bed the next morning before it became light outside.
I loathed those Monday mornings, and for a few years I worked for people that scheduled 8:30 a.m. Monday meetings. I never asked them to make it later in the day or move the meeting to Tuesday to cut me some slack so I would not have to be in my car at 5 a.m. I managed to make it on time to most of those meetings–which were usually nonsensical and a waste of time anyway. I suppose that the thought crossed my mind that they were scheduling those Monday-morning meetings just to make my life a little more difficult, but I quickly dismissed the idea (though not completely).
Before I conclude this essay, let me dwell for a few lines on the solitude that I experienced being at home alone for those Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights each week of those summers. They were profoundly quiet, and it took more than a few weeks to get used to the idea of being alone at night. Sure, I would have dinner with friends, sometimes at my parents’ home, and would spend some time learning at night in shul too.
Probably the most fascinating observation that I made–to myself, anyway–was that when I would come home at 7 or 8 p.m. (I worked late because I had nothing else to do anyway) and I flung my suit jacket on the couch in the living room or took my shoes off in the kitchen, the next morning when I woke up nothing had been moved. I was awed by this simple discovery that my things would not get moved around and I could sleep with the comfort and confidence that I knew exactly where my shoes or my briefcase would be the next morning. As you can see, I have not entirely gotten over that experience.
After all these years, I still do not know what it is that has made the Catskills so special and the z’chus that that piece of upstate New York real estate has, to have the kol Torah echoed through its mountains from so many summer camps and year-round yeshivas. I gave up running up there for the summer quite some time ago, but I have many friends and contemporaries who could never let go and who to this day have not given up the getaway aspect of the country experience.
The Catskills are ageless and timeless. Run-down, dirty, and poverty-stricken towns come to life in July and August. Shuls in long disremembered Sullivan County towns that are empty most of the year become round-the-clock hubs of activity. I miss all the good times we had up there. But it seems to me that although I let go a long time ago, somehow I am also still managing to hold on. Those were excellent days, long gone but never forgotten. v
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