Every spring, I flip through the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires’ “Guide to Jewish Summer” to see what’s new for Jews in that fresh, green corner of western Massachusetts.
This season, more than ever, the Berkshires’ smorgasbord of Jewish activities is entwined with its world-class art, music, dance and theater scene, making it a truly singular Jewish destination. From the performers on stage at Tanglewood to the multiple pre-concert Shabbat gatherings on the grassy expanses of the outdoor venue, Jewish arts, culture and learning are flourishing together like never before.
Everyone’s talking about the must-see attraction: MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, where a recently unveiled expansion brings the total footprint to a staggering 250,000 square feet.
This complex of renovated 19th-century manufacturing buildings, sprawling over nearly a third of North Adams’ downtown business district, is now officially one of the largest museums in America.
The sheer enormity of the galleries, with their exposed-brick walls, soaring white ceilings and hardwood floors, has become an integral part of the museum’s multi-sensory experience. It’s an ideal backdrop for large-scale, often mixed-media works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson and the air-and-space magician James Turrell, whose installations are featured in the museum’s newest space.
Jewish music is the highlight of MoCA’s performance series, which draws an eager audience for concerts by acts like My Morning Jacket and the Bang-on-a-Can All Stars. In August, the noted Jewish clarinetist Paul Green, tuba virtuoso Eli Newberger and young members of the local Congregation Knesset Israel pair with gospel singers for “A Summer Celebration of Jewish Music,” a call-and-response honoring the massive installation “Until” by sculptor Nick Cave.
More traditional fare is on view at the venerable Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, where “Picasso: Encounters,” on view through late August, explores the Spaniard’s aesthetic dialogues with other artists through large-scale prints and paintings, many of which are rarely displayed.
An ambitious entrant to the Berkshires cultural scene is Hancock Shaker Village, a living Shaker history museum where a new director is shaking up the traditional crafts with activities like goat yoga and a roots music concert series in a 1910 barn. “Making: Then And Now” is the Village’s contemporary art exhibit, on view through November, exploring connections between the region and some of its noted resident artists: Jenny Holzer, Don Gummer, Maya Lin and others.
Like Hancock Shaker Village, which realized that a rustic barn with views over field and forest is an ideal setting for sublime art experiences, many local institutions take their performances out of doors come July.
Witness the new Garden Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, one of the area’s first-rate theater troupes, where “The Tempest” will inaugurate an intimate, 200-seat outdoor space at dusk.
And Shabbat gatherings have become so popular on the lawn at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home, that multiple local congregations are hosting al fresco Havdalah services there this year. As usual, the Reform Hevreh of South Berkshire will gather a crowd around blue-and-white balloons for a picnic, worship and, naturally, great music.
Pittsfield’s Reform Temple Anshe Amunim will also host a Tanglewood Shabbat — as well as a learning series where you can talk literature over brunch with authors like Geraldine Brooks, or hear the New York Times’ controversial new Jewish op-ed columnist, Bret Stephens.
The arts also flourish outdoors at Jacob’s Pillow, the Berkshires’ iconic home of summer dance, where all ages gather at an outdoor ampitheater for family dance evenings.
Over its 85 seasons, Jacob’s Pillow has become a center for learning as well as watching. Amateurs can attend morning classes in styles as diverse as Zumba, ballet and Pilates, and African dance. Onstage, I can’t remember a season without at least one Israeli dance company — this year, it is Roy Assaf Dance — and the Israeli-born artist Maira Kalman is on the menu for the “Pillow Talks” lecture series.
Jewish writers and performers are regularly featured in the local theater scene, too; what’s notable this year is the prominence of timely political themes. The Williamstown Theatre Festival will premiere two plays with provocative titles in the era of Trump: “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow,” a contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” by Halley Feiffer and “The Model American,” an exploration of the American immigrant dream by Jason Kim of HBO’s “Girls.”
And fans of the political comedy team The Capitol Steps, a favorite on the JCC arts circuit, will happy to hear about the group’s nightly gig this July at the Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Steps have been satirizing Washington in skits and songs since the early ‘80s, but it’s safe to assume that current events have probably reinvigorated the routines (the group’s new album is titled “Orange Is The New Barack”).
In a year when “resist” is a perpetually trending Twitter hashtag, the Jewish Theological Seminary meets the zeitgeist with “Paths of Resistance,” the theme for its Friday summer lectures at Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Lenox. The popular JTS in the Berkshires series will explore Jewish roots of social protest, from rabbinic literature to the Holocaust, in partnership with the local congregation Knesset Israel.
#Resisters will want tickets for the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires’ annual summer fundraiser concert on Aug. 6, which features Jewish a cappella group Six13 and benefits the busier-than-ever Anti-Defamation League.
The apex of Jewish music, however, is mid-July. That’s when “A Summer of Jewish Music: Jews and Jazz” is at Pittsfield’s Berkshire Athenaem, and when the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst hosts its sixth annual “Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music,” four days of concerts, talks and workshops. For many, a highlight will be Frank London’s multimedia performance “A Night at the Old Marketplace,” based on the ambitious but little-performed classic by Yiddish theater great I.L. Peretz. Yidstock describes the work as “a panoramic chronicle of the entirety of the modern Jewish experience.”
Of course some people are looking for an escape from politics and worldly concerns. They can take refuge in pastry at Chabad of the Berkshires in Pittsfield, where a workshop series will have participants wrist-deep in challah, rugelach and babka.
And for many, a good Jewish film festival is an irresistible air-conditioned pastime. The annual Berkshires Jewish Film Festival, sponsored by Knesset Israel, will screen 12 films at Lenox High School’s Duffin Theater with the right amount of variety: post-Holocaust dramas and thoughtful documentaries, films from Holland, Poland and Israel.
There’s even a comedy about Mideast peace resolved through soccer. It’s summer; a little fantasy is in order, right?