I was driving through the faded-brick center of Morgantown, W.Va., when I spotted something incongruous: Hebrew lettering. On closer inspection, it turned out to be the West Virginia University Hillel building — hardly a surprising sight in a college town.
Even so, this New Yorker was fascinated to find so much Jewish life in a small, remote Appalachian city. That probably says more about me than it does about Morgantown. But it also points to the unexpected cultural insights available as one drives across this great country, where an ever-evolving diversity challenges East Coast preconceptions.
From time to time, I like to highlight points of interest along one of the classic east-to-west interstates — in this case, I-70, which bisects the country at about its midsection. Morgantown is just a short detour through rolling, forested farmland on Highway 68, making it an ideal stopover for those headed west or north.
My husband Oggi and I were in Morgantown visiting friends who recently settled here to teach at WVU — the state’s pre-eminent university — which attracts a lot of, sorry, buzz for being a “party school.” With a student body of about 30,000 and few places of any size nearby, Mountaineers, as WVU students are known, are nationally famous for the revelry they kick up right on campus, featuring everything from beer to homemade Appalachian moonshine (along with a heavy dose of Mountaineer sports).
Parties aside, few places top Morgantown for visible school spirit. On the weekend I spent there, the goldenrod-yellow of the Mountaineers shone from literally every block: on T-shirts and gym shorts, car bumpers and window dressings, even front-porch trim.
For a place defined by mountains, though, Morgantown is more hills than peaks. Rolling, tree-covered foothills extend in all directions; neighborhoods are full of steep, San Francisco-style roads with often-stunning views at the top. I’m not sure I’d call them mountains, but — shimmering in autumn shades of gold and russet — those hills certainly are scenic.
Fall lingers late in West Virginia; while the New England maples are already bare, the Morgantown countryside still blazes with color. It lies, after all, below the Mason-Dixon line, though this hybrid region identifies more as Appalachian than Southern. Much of this identity owes itself to the long-dominant coal mining industry, which drew many of the area’s first Jewish settlers — 19th-century immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe — and continues to power the local economy.
Jewish life coalesced in Morgantown early in the 20th century, when both the University Hillel and the Tree of Life congregation were established. Now closing in on its first century, Tree of Life is a Reform shul that serves about 120 families, including those from synagogues that closed in nearby Fairmont and Clarksburg. (When school is in session, an ever-greater influx of Jewish college students — many from out of state — more than double the local Jewish population of around 200.)
But even Jewish life has a Mountaineer twist. Theme Shabbats are very popular. At Tree of Life, there’s a Coopers Rock State Forest Shabbat, honoring the nearby scenic overlook, where congregants go picnicking after services. The Chabad Jewish Center at WVU has a theme night each month: Sushi Shabbat, Israeli Shabbat, and for local flavor, Kentucky Fried Shabbat, all featuring free sponsored dinners for students. Chabad, which keeps local Jews in everything from loaned mezuzot to weekly Kabbalah classes, welcomes new students with T-shirts that read “Everyone Loves a Jewish Mountaineer.”
Jewish Mountaineers enjoy the same diversions as non-Jewish Mountaineers: anything outdoors. Even strolling the downtown — a charmingly ungentrified core of prewar red-brick buildings — I was struck by how much pedestrian activity there was on a weekend afternoon, a time when many campus zones are devoid of life. Throngs of students, as well as older locals, strolled past cafés, flower shops and other mom-and-pop stores, with crowds forming around the Dairy Queen.
WVU itself is very pretty, with stately land-grant buildings perched on a rise above the Monongahela River. But when the weather’s fine — and even when it isn’t — most people head to the hills. And aside from Coopers Rock, the most popular hills are the ones that surround the provocatively named Cheat Lake.
Past the city center, an ever-growing sprawl of new condos finally gives way to unspoiled forest, fresh air and vast, shimmering waters. I chuckled a little at the sight of “Cheat Lake Yacht Club,” a modest shack suspended over a dock more suited to rowboats than power cruisers, but ramshackle is definitely part of Cheat Lake’s charm.
Families picnic on benches under the shade of poplar trees; footbridges lead across the lake to wooded trails, while Jet Ski riders fly past, catching sunlight in their wake. Further down the lake, Cheat Lake is known for its whitewater rapids.
Here I have to admit that while I heard all about the terrific sporting opportunities — and even witnessed other people getting wet — yours truly does not actually participate in anything more grueling than a gentle hike. A Mountaineer I’m not, but after a weekend of hilly vistas and Jewish Appalachia, I admit I enjoyed the detour.