I was looking for an attractive alliteration with which to title this article. There’s a relatively old movie called Sleepless in Seattle, which kept coming to mind when seeking the right title for this piece. And while I could have called it Alone in Ellenville, which arguably could be considered alliteration, there is something about the words “Ellent in Ellenville” that flows from the tongue. Perhaps, as Rashi says in this week’s parashah, the way “nechash nechoshes” is a lashon nofel al lashon. Besides, there is something about the Yiddish term “ellent,” given the deep connection that Yiddish life and the Catskills share, that just begs to be together.
It seems that the term is not commonly used in everyday Yiddish, to the extent that both my father and father-in-law, who both have a good command of the Yiddish language, were unfamiliar with it. I cannot recall where or when I heard this term and, in all honesty, while I was pretty sure it meant “alone” or “lonely,” I had to consult the Yiddish–English app on my iPhone to ascertain that.
By now, you are all well aware that our family has been spending the month in Ellenville, New York, about 20 minutes up Route 52 off of exit 113 on NY-17. These were alternate plans made upon the realization that regardless of whether or not camps would open, their ability to function would be impacted by the regulations levied against them as a result of the lingering effects of this pandemic. While this is a departure from our run-of-the-mill summer routine, how often is it that families have an opportunity to spend extended time together? My siblings and I are all older, building our families, and preoccupied with the things that families are preoccupied with. Although the world looks different as a result of the craziness of the past number of months, the opportunity to spend time under one roof with the people we grew up with will always be a welcome change of plans.
It has been quite some time since I spent the summer, or part of it, in the Catskill Mountains. You are getting a good view of the contrast between the old Catskills and the new one in my father’s reminiscences of what the summers of the sixties, seventies, and eighties looked like and the direction it has gone in today. I spent a few summers in bungalow colonies and about ten or so summers in sleepaway camps, and while they were admittedly enjoyable summers, conjuring up memorable moments, my view of the Catskills is less sentimental than the image emerging from my father’s finger-strokes across his keyboard.
One of the variables in making our summer plans was the need to find a daily minyan. Although the mountains are bustling during the summer and round-the-clock minyanim are just a short drive away, Ellenville isn’t Woodbourne or Woodridge. While they are just 15 to 20 minutes away by car, there is nothing like the luxury of a local minyan within a few blocks of where we are staying. Congregation Ezrath Israel in Ellenville was for many years under the auspices of Rabbi Moshe Frank, who, as it turns out, was just a few grades below my father at Mesivta of Crown Heights, which I learned moments after listening to them converse following the first Ma’ariv on the evening we arrived.
It’s an interesting dynamic here in Ellenville, far different than the scene in nearby Woodbourne or Woodridge. In the absence of the Homowack and some other iconic destination spots of years gone by, Jewish presence in Ellenville isn’t what it once was, evidenced by the antiquated synagogue with a legal occupancy of over 300 people struggling to get a minyan. Pretty much the only observant Jews left here are Rabbi Frank and his wife, the current rabbi and his family, a few Chabad families (for many of them, this is a secondary residence), and a rotation of Satmar chassidim who live in the area for a year or so before moving back to Monroe, Monsey, or Williamsburg. So although they generally do not have a daily Shacharis minyan, when there is a minyan for Minchah and Ma’ariv or over Shabbos, it consists of a smattering of Chabad and Satmar chassidim, which is funny enough — talk about an interesting dynamic.
Ellenville is in a valley, and the house we rented for the month is perched atop a series of extremely steep inclines, making it challenging to trek up. So while the plan originally was to daven on Shabbos at Ezrath Israel, with seven men over bar mitzvah age we were hoping to attract a few locals to help make the minyan and spare my father the arduous walk to shul. After just a couple of inquiries it seemed that we had found our men, but we were informed shortly thereafter that they had to decline.
Now don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan of Satmar; I regularly learn the sefer Divrei Yoel, and while I may not choose to approach the matter of Medinas Yisrael in the same manner that the Satmar has been known for, I do believe there is something to the application of the Gimmel Shavuos which are the basis of Reb Yoel’s shitah with regards to Medinas Yisrael during our exilic sojourn. However, the more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that while the dynamic between Chabad and Satmar has improved exponentially of late in view of the historic unrest and hostility that existed for many years, Satmar is the opposite of what Chabad represents. Although in terms of bikur cholim nobody comes near Satmar, in regard to providing spiritual guidance and expressions of unconditional ahavas Yisrael, while it is no doubt important in the Satmar worldview, it’s not something they are particularly known for. So despite the congenial coexistence between the two factions, it occurred to me that their coexistence mutually negates each other’s virtues.
This dynamic of a Chabad Rabbi and Satmar mispallelim left some of us to daven b’yechidus where it would normally be the prerogative of a Chabad shliach and community to facilitate a minyan for those in need.
Our stay thus far has been extremely enjoyable, and the opportunity to spend quality time with family in a relaxed atmosphere is something that I would not easily pass up. However, while we have made the trip to Woodbourne to the expanded Woodbourne Shul and have benefited from the openness and hospitality of the Nikolsburger Rebbe in nearby Woodbourne, aside from the hubbub in the house with upwards of thirty of us there on the weekends, the feeling outside of the home could only be characterized in one way — ellent in Ellenville.