A Down East Vacation
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A Down East Vacation

From Maine to the Hudson Valley to D.C., an East Coast driving trip uncovers seasonal Jewish treasures.

Snow season is upon us, with the unpredictability of weather threatening to scuttle best-laid travel plans. That’s where the ten-day forecast comes in: Wait for a clear spell, jump in the car and go somewhere that’s easy to reach, yet far enough to offer a refreshing change of scene.

This winter, consider a jaunt down I-95 to our nation’s capital, the top spot to celebrate Washington’s birthday and a hub of Jewish culture. Or venture up the river to the Hudson Valley to see why everyone you know is suddenly moving upstate: it’s not just the cheap real estate; it’s also a sophisticated gallery and nightlife scene with lively Jewish community. For a tranquil getaway, head a little farther to the Berkshires, a favorite Jewish summer resort that’s twice as bucolic in the off-season. Lovers of the cold can keep going until they hit Maine, where a very hip film festival and a plethora of outdoor adventure await the winter traveler.

Washington, D.C.

This public-sector town clears out over the holidays, then roars back with a vengeance in January, making midwinter the ideal time to savor Jewish cultural life in the nation’s capital.

The biggest Jewish cultural event of the year is the Washington Jewish Film Festival, featuring movies from around the world from Feb. 24-March 6. But the Festival screens films year-round, with performances and receptions that make each movie a Jewish social event. And fans of Israeli cinema will want to check out the Festival’s ReelIsraelDC series, held every fourth Wednesday of the month at the Avalon Theater, which showcases contemporary Israeli cinema in collaboration with the Embassy of Israel.

You might not normally think to drop into a Jewish Community Center away from home — but the Washington D.C. JCC, off Dupont Circle, has an arts and cultural lineup that would put many performing-arts centers to shame, as well as one of the city’s few kosher cafés, the Silver Crust.

In a town full of top-notch theaters, the JCC’s Theater J has won a national reputation for its progressive, ambitious programming at the Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts. During the last week of December, Theater J will present “Stars of David: Story to Song,” based on the book by Abigail Pogrebin. Winter musical events at the JCC include the Hadar Noiberg Trio, a group that fuses Israeli and jazz influences, and a “Klezmer Brunch” series.

On a secular note, patriots enjoy visiting Washington for the birthday of its namesake. The nation’s capital celebrates the first president in grand style every February, with a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon; a day-long symposium and party at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, the president’s Virginia hometown; open houses at historic sites throughout Alexandria; a Revolutionary War Reenactment at Fort Worth Park; and a guided Washington walking tour through Alexandria every Sunday in February. Details are at washingtonbirthday.net/events.

Berkshires

While summer in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts can resemble a Jewish intellectual marathon — or a summer camp for incredibly cultured nerds — the off-season offers a peaceful New England respite. The winter landscape is defined by bare tree limbs, red barns and spectacular afternoon sunsets over the hills.

The Jewish calendar goes suddenly quiet after Chanukah, as the weekenders decamp for Florida and the region is muffled by a layer of snowfall. Still, congregations like Ahavath Sholom and Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, Beth Israel in North Adams, and Chabad of the Berkshires keep Jewish life active throughout the darkest months with musical Shabbats, lectures, and Purim parties.

One tempting place to hole up — and make good on those New Year’s resolutions — is the Lenox outpost of Canyon Ranch Resort & Spa. Housed in a stately fin-de-siècle mansion, the luxe resort offers significant savings for winter guests, including a 20 percent discount for first-time guests beginning Jan. 1 and a series of 25 percent-off specials through mid-March.

Most of the region’s celebrated theaters go on hiatus, but there are concerts throughout the winter from the Berkshire Bach Society — including a birthday supper party for the composer, who would have turned 331 this March. The Wailers, a legendary reggae group, are a winter highlight at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, hosted by the Berkshire Theatre Group, while the Israeli cellist Yehuda Hanani oversees monthly classical-music concerts for the arts series “Close Encounters With Music.”

Hudson Valley

With the Hudson Valley an increasingly favored spot for ex-urbanites, the region has a burgeoning arts scene, markets full of artisan goods — and a tradition as the New Year’s Eve weekend destination for New Yorkers who want to get out of town.

In trendy Hudson, winter nightlife revolves around Club Helsinki, a beautifully restored 1863 industrial building that houses a restaurant and nightclub. Once the New Year’s glitter subsides, Helsinki Hudson will host Rosanne Cash, a limited local run of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, and numerous other acts.

By day, there’s always something new to see at the Carrie Haddad Gallery, which was the first fine-art venue in Hudson when it opened in 1991. The lofty space spotlights contemporary talent from the region and beyond; rotating exhibits of painting, sculpture, and photography go far beyond the pastoral clichés found in many resort galleries.

Weekenders will also want to stop by the Rhinebeck Farmers Market, the region’s premiere outlet for regionally grown produce, locally sourced fish, honey, and more. During colder months, the market is held inside the Rhinebeck Town Hall.

The lower Hudson Valley is known for its Orthodox Jewish enclaves — but throughout the Valley, a growing year-round population is diversifying Jewish communal life. The Rhinebeck Jewish Center, which opened this year in a renovated century-old wooden barn, is the newest addition to the scene; when the self-described Modern Orthodox congregation with “chasidic flair” broke ground two years ago, it marked a watershed moment in the growth of upstate Jewry.

Other seasonal highlights: Take a “Winter Wonderland” helicopter tour over the frozen white landscape, daily during January and February; explore “Second Saturdays” in Beacon, citywide arts celebrations with gallery openings, culinary tastings and shops open late; or celebrate George Washington’s birthday at the Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, where the party involves three days of cake and military reenactments.

Maine

Daytime temperatures may be in the single digits, but frozen Maine is actually pretty lively this time of year: Most locals savor the frosty chill and don’t let a few feet of snow cramp their style.

Instead, they embrace it. And for those New Yorkers longing to tap into their Jack London side, Greener Travel LLC is hosting a four-day dog-sledding trip in the Deep Woods of Maine for “Jewish adventurers,” in collaboration with Mahoosuc Guide Service and Vermont-based Rabbi Howard Cohen of Burning Bush Adventures. Based out of Newry, the wilderness trip includes dog walking, cross-country skiing, and guided Jewish meditation.

After the Chanukah lights go out, Maine culture vultures gear up for a winter favorite — the Maine Jewish Film Festival. Held from March 12-19 at venues around the state, the festival attracts a diverse, sophisticated crowd that is justly proud of Portland’s status as the smallest U.S. city to host an independent Jewish film festival.

Fans of historic synagogue architecture will want to check out Etz Chaim on Congress Street in downtown Portland, one of the oldest surviving European-style temples in Northern New England. Since 2010, the restored 1920s synagogue has been home to the Maine Jewish Museum, hosting exhibits like the current annual Menorah Invitational — with a display of more than a dozen contemporary iterations of the seasonal candelabra.

Finally, you probably are aware that the L.L. Bean flagship store is nearby in Freeport — but did you know the headquarters of this iconic brand is much more than a place to shop? Visitors to the store can take part in daily workshops, from courses in snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to demonstrations of knife sharpening, fly fishing and compass navigation. In January, hit the post-holiday sales to find everything you need for that dog-sledding adventure in the North Woods; if you’re lucky, you might even score a considerable markdown on a coveted pair of Bean Boots.

editor@Jewishweek.org

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