Woodbourne, N.Y. — Summer comes to the Catskills like Creation itself, each day a revelation: The Neversink River flows to waterfalls. A moon rises over ice caves. There are salamanders in the grass, bears in the forest, a bald eagle in the sky. In the Sullivan County hamlet of Callicoon, just prior to the solstice, farmers parade 260 tractors. One trucker for Balford Farms, driving along the Delaware River on a June morning, spied a wounded bald eagle in a ditch, saving its life.
“Just to live in the country is a full-time job,” wrote E.B. White. “You don’t have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself.” In that spirit, Jews return each summer to “the country,” where there’s nothing much to do but “living itself.”
And yet, there’s a serpent in the “Garden,” some say. Last October, the Town of Fallsburg passed zoning laws aimed at stifling the bungalows: a colony can now only build on less than 15 percent of its lot; new replacement cabins can’t be larger than the old; there now must be 31 feet of grass between cabins, and 250 feet between the cabins and the road (an increase of 75 feet). Similar codes to Fallsburg’s have been enacted recently across the county, in Liberty, Thompson, Mamakating and Bethel — site of the Woodstock festival, “the garden,” Joni Mitchell called it, made possible by the hospitality of Max Yasgur, a local Jewish dairy farmer.
The Fallsburg zoning legislation is less charming: “It is the intent of the Town of Fallsburg to not promote the expansion of bungalow colonies.”
One Jew, a year-round resident of Fallsburg who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, told The Jewish Week, “There’s a distinct attitude — the town wishes someone else would come.” Someone who isn’t Orthodox. “That’s actually been voiced to me” by people on the town’s planning board. “Without any embarrassment, they say that. I stopped going to the planning board because I’m kind of disgusted.”
Murray Goldwag, who winters in Jerusalem, returns to South Fallsburg every summer, where he is the proprietor of the famous Kosher Sox. “I’ve been schlepping to the mountains for 39 years,” he tells us. “Nothing’s changed. The goyim don’t want the Jewish interference.”
There are 77,547 residents in Sullivan County (roughly 10 percent are Jewish), but in summer the population nearly quadruples — mostly Jews returning to second homes, to the predominantly Orthodox bungalow colonies, and to nearly 100 Orthodox summer camps. The summer population “can reach 300,000 at its peak,” according to the county’s Economic Development Corporation.
One summer directory, an Orthodox yellow pages of sorts, is now almost 500 pages long. Some Catskill hamlets have 15 Orthodox minyans each weekday morning, a new minyan every 20 minutes, and again at night; and at least 11 mikvahs, as well.
On Saturday nights in the hamlet of Woodbourne, every head is covered, other than the fellow pumping gas, or the Orthodox girls, their arms akimbo, their denim skirts grazing pale ankles, watching Woodbourne’s post-Havdalah midnight promenade, the sidewalks illuminated by the glow from kosher food shops.
But Woodbourne empties in winter. In October, Monticello attorney Steve Kurlander, writing in The Huffington Post, threw down the challenge: “Say goodbye to bungalows,” forever. Yes, they contribute to the economy but when the summer folks go home? “Drive down … Woodbourne’s main street,” Kurlander writes, and witness the post-summer residue of “that seasonal bungalow mentality. A decrepit-looking business district that once serviced local residents and tourists alike remains empty of year-round stores, a basic ghost town 10 months a year.”
It would be better to “attract new middle-class families with good, affordable year-round housing,” people who would “commute to New York City instead of just visiting for the summer.” And, say the critics, the wooden bungalows are fire hazards, and hardly aesthetic. “There are enough bungalows in the Catskills as it is,” writes the attorney. “Enough is enough.”
Such antagonism has been noted in recent years by Barry Lewis, editor of the Times Herald-Record, who writes, “summer in Sullivan County must be near. Our mountain air is starting to fill with the sounds of intolerance. You’d have to be practically deaf not to hear the hate. … [The] venom is often aimed at the tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews.”
A few miles away, in Bloomingburg, there’s another zoning fight, not about bungalows but the permanent housing the county supposedly wants. In Bloomingburg, a Jewish developer wants to build 125 homes (some expect that to double) for the Orthodox. Newsweek, sensing that this went beyond the usual zoning dispute, sent a national reporter to the scene.
A non-Jewish resident of the area told Newsweek: “You know what this is all about? All these chasids have their own private places around here. They’ve got their own camps and s—t…. and they pull off their drug deals. And the state police can’t go on the properties because they’re ‘religious.’ That’s where all the f—— deals take place. You know what I’m saying?”
One Fallsburg real estate agent, in defense of Jewish bungalows and housing, told The Jewish Week: In an economically depressed county, “The Orthodox community, that’s who’s buying. They pay taxes, even though they don’t use the schools, or any facilities other than water and sewer. They pay a lot of money into the town, so why give them a hard time?”
Some locals say they only shop on Saturdays, when the Orthodox don’t. On Sundays, the roads are jammed, to everyone’s annoyance, but every driver carries a wallet, to the economy’s delight. Tax revenues swell by more than a million dollars in summer; 18 percent of the workforce is employed in what’s called the “tourism” sector. “People would be surprised by how much Orthodox groups contribute,” the Sullivan County treasurer told the Times Herald-Record. “Yes,” says Goldwag of Kosher Sox, but what Orthodox Jews add to the economy, he tells us, is appreciated “only by the people with a businesses. Many locals couldn’t care less.”
Goldwag has one of the larger emporiums, selling everything from blechs to bathing suits to, well, socks. But “the locals are afraid to come into my store,” says Goldwag. Kosher Sox? “They don’t know what it means.” Goldwag explains, when he first bought the store, decades ago, a new sign cost $900, so he bought a used sign from a kosher store. Goldwag liked “kosher,” and kept it, but “socks” didn’t fit. Goldwag replaced the “c-k-s” with an “x.” And there you have it, he says laughing: “Kosher Sox.”
When talk turns to the local problems, the laughter stops. “Nothing new,” says Goldwag. “Nah, it’s just the standard ‘We hate the Jews who come up here.’ Why? Well, in one shot, you move Williamsburg and Borough Park into the Catskills. They’ll triple-park anywhere, speed through crosswalks, pick up hitchhikers in the middle of the road, make U-turns on Route 42 — chutzpadik and dangerous. People don’t act responsibly. Clearly, many do but others are not respectful of the locals. You can’t say all the people hate the Jews, that’s not true, but there’s a lot of frustration, so you hear [when the season begins], ‘Oh, they’re coming back again.’”
This summer as in recent summers, a notice circulated among the Orthodox: “It is a warm feeling watching the mountains fill up with dear fellow Jews … . Please be aware that there are thousands of people who live here all year-round that are not accustomed to the heimishe [homey] city way of life. They are used to a quiet, country atmosphere, and are not overly excited about the changes that the summer brings. They are not aware of the sweetness of the Torah way, and when they look at us, they have no way of seeing the inner beauty of a Torah Jew… We are quick to be branded as unwelcome intruders… Whether driving, shopping, out at the park … let’s not leave room to be accused of anything improper … . Nobody wants — chas v’sholom [may it never happen] — to make a chillul Hashem [a desecration of God’s name], but without a little precaution it is often automatic … . Sincerely, your fellow Ohave Torah [lover of Torah].”