Jewish Culture’s Summer Address
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Jewish Culture’s Summer Address

The Inside Out stage at Jacob’s Pillow, the venerable summer dance festival in Becket, Mass. The Pillow is expanding its programs into what used to be the off-season. Courtesy of Berkshires.org
The Inside Out stage at Jacob’s Pillow, the venerable summer dance festival in Becket, Mass. The Pillow is expanding its programs into what used to be the off-season. Courtesy of Berkshires.org

The Berkshires landscape appears timeless: forested hillsides and rolling pastures, dotted with red barns and mossy stone walls.

But this storied region, where the mountains of Western Massachusetts meet Connecticut, is very much on the cutting edge. Like so many summer resorts, the Berkshires have evolved into a year-round destination; Jacob’s Pillow, the venerable summer dance festival, is the latest to expand its campus and programs into what used to be the off-season.

As High Line-inspired parks are sprouting along train trestles in American cities, a network of trails is expanding throughout this countryside. The ambitious Berkshires High Road — modeled after coast-to-coast routes like Spain’s Camino de Santiago — is a work-in-progress initiative of the Berkshires Natural Resources Council to connect lodgings with village downtowns, and farms with farm-to-table eateries.

For Jews who walk everywhere on Shabbat, the new emphasis on practical walkability is particularly welcome. Other popular trails include routes around the campus of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, and around the grounds of the Tanglewood music complex, where in winter it is not uncommon to see cross-country skiers.

The Inside-Outside stage at Jacob’s Pillow. in The Berkshires. Wikimedia Commons

The Berkshires’ vibrant Jewish scene also echoes national trends, as communities ferment innovative ways to express and celebrate Jewishness. A glance at the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires’ handy summer guide (https://jewishberkshires.org/community-events/berkshire-jewish-voice) reveals a plethora of activity to suit every age and inclination — from culinary and literary gatherings to post-denominational worship and plein-air Shabbat services.

There’s certain to be a crowd when the feminist scholar Francine Klagsbrun discusses her National Jewish Book Award-winning biography of Golda Meir, “Lioness,” at the opening night of the Second Annual Berkshire Jewish Festival of Books. Last year’s inaugural event confirmed local enthusiasm for Jewish literature; the 2018 edition, which also features novelist (and fellow NJBA-winner) Rachel Kadish and “Healthy Jewish Kitchen” author Paula Shoyer, takes place on July 26-29 at the Reform Hevreh of Southern Berkshires in Great Barrington.

One of the festival’s supporters is the Agawam, Mass.-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which founded and sponsors the wildly popular PJ Library children’s book program. PJ Library’s Israel outreach is the topic of a talk and kosher lunch next week at Knesset Israel, a Pittsfield Conservative shul known for its lively, musical “Shirei Shabbat” programs.

Jewish dance fans have long flocked to Jacob’s Pillow, the nation’s oldest summer dance festival, to see the latest Israeli choreographers and troupes. This summer is no exception: Madrid-based Compañía Sharon Fridman, led by Israeli-born Fridman, is making its U.S. debut here, while the acclaimed Ohad Naharin is back with Batsheva – The Young Ensemble.

Last winter, as part of Jacob’s Pillow’s year-round expansion into dance research and development, the Israel-born choreographer Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, a resident Pillow Lab choreographer, and her brother, the jazz pianist Ehud Asherie, holed up in the snow to create a new work together. The groundbreaking, New York-based dancemaker, who fuses hip-hop and street styles, has been awarded the inaugural Jacob’s Pillow Fellowship, bringing her vision to the Berkshires as well as to stages around New York.

The Tanglewood lawn on opening night. Flickr CC/Wendy Seltzer

Two Jewish titans of New York’s Jewish cultural heritage, Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, have centennials this year — and both, naturally, are being feted in the Berkshires. At Jacob’s Pillow, Daniel Ulbricht’s Stars of American Ballet will celebrate Robbins’ singular oeuvre in programs and talks from Aug. 22-26.

Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, will celebrate Bernstein’s 100th birthday with several events including talks and a gala Aug. 25 concert featuring members of the Israel Philharmonic alongside greats from the mezzo Susan Graham to the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. On the program are a new work by composer John Williams and part of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, a favorite of Bernstein (and virtually every conductor since).

Like Jacob’s Pillow — which has engaged the Berkshires’ growing community with wintertime social dances and pop-up performances — Tanglewood is also expanding into a year-round space. Music lovers can expect to enjoy its new, multi-season facility, which includes a 150-seat restaurant, beginning in 2019.

One of this summer’s most buzzed-about openings is Tourists, a North Adams resort whose name and “American motor lodge” inspiration are winkingly aimed at the millennial set. Tourists, which is accepting reservations for late July onward, is a walkable compound (with a restaurant planned by a James Beard Award-winning chef) built around a trailhead. Sustainability-minded visitors can spend a vacation here and never have to drive.

Indeed, the great outdoors is increasingly a feature of what were once decidedly indoorsy venues, giving visitors new ways to engage with Berkshires culture.

Garden sculpture exhibits are a highlight at Chesterwood, the Stockbridge estate and studio of American sculptor Daniel Chester French that is now a popular historic site. In the gardens and trails around The Mount in Lenox, the writer Edith Wharton’s summer home, you can go birding with naturalists from the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

The Berkshire Botanical Garden is the latest attraction to become a year-round destination, opening a multi-season gallery in its Center House building. And several of the region’s most famous institutions — including Mass MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Clark Art Institute — are making their world-class collections, and campuses, more accessible with a new ticket policy that allows patrons to return the next day free of charge.

The Berkshires has so much to offer the Jewish traveller in the summer. Wikimedia Commons

With festivals in flower, summer remains the best time to experience the variety of Berkshires Jewish culture. Book groups, klezmer and choir concerts, author lectures and Torah study happen every day at the region’s many temples and theaters.

The Berkshires Jewish Film Festival, sponsored by Knesset Israel, draws July and August crowds to the Lenox Memorial High School theater for an international lineup that includes “The Cakemaker,” an Israeli-German drama about a gay German baker and his deceased lover’s Israeli widow, and a documentary about the Israel Philharmonic maestro Zubin Mehta.

The revival of interest in Yiddish culture has made the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst a summer destination in itself. This year’s edition of Yidstock, the festival of new Yiddish music, takes place July 12-15; an exhibition of Yiddish children’s literature is on view through fall.

The Barrington Stage Company’s production of “On the Town.” This year the Pittsfield theater is performing “West Side Story,” the Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein classic. Courtesy of Berkshires.org

For many, summer in the Berkshires means serious theater. Shakespeare and Company reliably lives up to its name with several productions of The Bard, including “Macbeth,” “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and “As You Like It” under the stars. At The Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, “West Side Story” pays tribute to Bernstein, while the new St. Germain Stage hosts new plays and cabaret nights.

Jewish musical icons are among the summer’s offerings at the Berkshire Theatre Group, which is celebrating 90 years. “Coming Back Like a Song!,” running from June 28 to July 21, is the world premiere of a play by Lee Kalcheim that imagines the 20th-century songwriters Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Heusen swanning around New York together on Christmas Eve.

If all else fails to keep the family amused, here’s a tip for summer 2018: Call the Museum of Dog in North Adams, which opened in April. Request a ride in the “weiner dog” limo. Bring along the family pooch, and peruse the region’s first institution dedicated to canine portraiture, sculptures, books and more. 

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