Maybe I was a tad defensive when a friend asked me this weekend if I was enjoying the mountain air. "The air’s not so bad where I am," I answered.
This is the first summer in five years that my family has not spent in the Catskills. The kids hadn’t seemed to mind so much, but during our return visit this past weekend, as guests of another family, it all came flowing back. The long, sun-drenched Shabbos afternoons. The sprawling grounds of the bungalow colony, where kids can roam freely without worries, and it’s not uncommon to go from breakfast to dinner with only glimpses of them scurrying with their day camp groups, or after-hours with friends, between the pool and camphouse or some other fun spot. For my youngest, on the cusp of 10, summer has meant endless hunts for frogs and salamanders, and we are told that in the first three weeks of summer the reptiles are enjoying uncommon respite in his absence.
Going back home to day camp, even in our fairly pastoral suburban community, has to be a drag in comparison, and now my wife and I face endless queries about the logistics of additional weekends or even switching counselor jobs for a triumphal return to Monticello. Even a car trip home that ran far into overtime (the buzzer rang at 4:15 on a 100 mile trip) didn’t dissipate the enthusiasm.
Having spent my share of time in the mountains as a kid, I can sympathize with their angst. Thousands of young Jewish men and women have had their first taste of independence in the Catskills, at camps and bungalow colonies, as lifeguards, counselors waiters or other laborers, getting paid next to nothing in exchange for room and board and two months of near 24-7 socializing. But as I’ve seen firsthand, even the most well-intentioned supervisors in such situations find it’s virtually impossible to keep the kind of tabs on teens that they need. That’s why I’ll likely resist my 16-year old son’s efforts.
The mountains have a natural lure for adults, too. If you’re lucky enough to drive upstate during low-traffic hours, you can feel the stress and tension of the work week fade with the amount of concrete visible from the windshield as grey turns to green and blue. There are few problems on Friday that can’t be safely tucked away back in "the city" (a term that applies to every area downstate, even the suburbs, when you are in the mountains) until you get back to the real world on Monday.
The best thing about our little hacienda in Monticello was the structured, ritualized social life that began Friday afternoons with swimming at the pool or lake (men’s only swim from 6-6:30 is a particularly big draw for recent arrivals). Shabbat begins with outdoor mincha and maariv in the circle, and after dinner, a rotating oneg Shabbat that winds it way around the circle. In the morning, haskama minyan followed by a rotating kiddush. After a long, lazy afternoon, there’s a highly popular volleyball game (the best exercise I’ve ever had), followed by pot luck Suedat Shlishit, and later communal havdalah. At night, entertainment at the casino, forays to movies or the occasional bonfire as younger kids gather with their age groups for videos and sleepovers and older kids head into town for movies, bowling or to Wal-Mart.
A summer of such weekends for men, and far more for the women and children who stay all week, can be intoxicating. I can see where there are so many families whose children know nothing else but summer in the mountains, who endure price hike after price hike for the privilege of living in very well-furnished shacks that list to one side and are prone to all manner of insect invasion.
Our stay-home decision this year was based on a combination of factors, some of which beyond our control. The happy result is spending a first summer in our still-new Long Island community, enjoying the full benefits of the backyard for a change, getting to know new neighbors and know older ones better. The ability to spend five or six hours a weekend on other pursuits and not behind the wheel is appealing, as is not coming home to an empty house four nights a week. There are plenty of weekend activities to keep us busy.
But who was I kidding? I miss the mountain air, and everything it surrounds.