When Rabbi Barbara Cohen settled in the Berkshire mountains 34 years ago, the Jewish community was so small that “the joke always was that everybody was related here,” recalled the Long Island native.
But like everything else in this green, rural corner of northwestern Massachusetts — from local theater to fields of organic beets — the Jewish community has grown and flourished. And just as with other seasonal resorts, a shift from brief vacationing toward second-homeownership and year-round residency has nourished an increasingly multifaceted cultural life — one with a distinctly intellectual bent.
Summer, however, remains the most vibrant and exciting season in the Berkshires. It is when tens of thousands of Jewish families from New York and Boston settle into farmhouses and rental condos, lick ice-cream cones on Main Street in Stockbridge and spread blankets on the lawn at Tanglewood for Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts. And it is when the Jewish event calendar grows so jam-packed that it can be hard to remember there are just 4,000 year-round Jewish residents spread out over the 32 Berkshires towns.
Looking for a debate? The Jewish Theological Seminary, in partnership with Congregation Knesset Israel of Pittsfield, is returning this year with its scholarly lecture series, “Great Debates in Judaism,” featuring professors of Bible and Talmud.
How about Broadway? Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” is onstage at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield with the Berkshire Theatre Group. Meanwhile, “The Phantom of the Opera” fans — and they are legion — will line up to see Jeff Keller, an original Phantom on the Great White Way, as he sings his title role alongside Yiddish favorites in “An Evening With The Phantom,” a benefit for Jewish Federation of the Berkshires.
More eclectic Jewish music? The fifth-annual Summer Celebration of Jewish Music is a series with sources as diverse as Korngold, klezmer, Israeli dance and Yiddish cabaret. And don’t forget late July’s Yidstock, the festival of new Yiddish music (yes, it exists!) at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.
In between, you can see Fran Lebowitz crack wise in Great Barrington; sip kosher and mevushal varietals at Spirited, a wine bar in Lenox; and dip a toe into Ladino folk songs at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire.
Cinephiles keep busy: There are not one, but two festivals celebrating Jews and the moving picture this summer — Knesset Israel’s Berkshires Jewish Film Festival, a nearly three-decade-old institution with films throughout July and August, and the Jewish-French Film Series, a look at Jewish themes through a Gallic lens, sponsored by Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.
If it sounds like visiting Jews barely have time to relax, that’s fairly accurate, said Rabbi Cohen, spiritual leader of the Reconstructionist Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Lenox. Reached during a Wednesday “Nosh and Drosh” text-study group, she admitted that Berkshires people, as a general rule, aren’t the type to lie on a beach.
“People come to be stimulated, not to relax,” said the rabbi. “Some people joke that their retirement here is busier than when they were working! In the summer, you can do three things every day” – a schedule made pleasant by the cool breezes and fresh mountain air.
Jewish involvement is also “a kind of instant way to become part of the Berkshires,” Rabbi Cohen added, noting that today it is cultural participation, rather than bloodlines, that unites the community.
Her own summer routine involves stopping by her son Phil’s recently-opened bagel shop in Lenox, Bagel & Brew. By day, it’s the place to pick up a fresh bagel with lox; by evening, it evolves into a spot for sampling local craft beers in a relaxed café atmosphere.
Yes, relaxed. Despite all the intellectual ferment, Berkshires regulars almost invariably refer to the area’s natural beauty when asked what they most love about their region. “One of my favorite things to do is go down to the beach on the lake in Lenox,” said Dara Kaufman, the newly installed executive director of The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, which publishes a handy annual summer guide. “We also love taking walks in Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield.”
For those who want to mix culture, Judaism and the great outdoors, Kaufman recommended the Tanglewood Shabbat series. In July and August, Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, invites worshippers to enjoy a Kabbalat Shabbat service and a picnic dinner on the Tanglewood lawn before settling into concerts by the BSO and the Boston Pops.
There may be more Jewish activity than in decades past, but the rest of the community is growing, too. This summer’s cultural highlight is arguably the grand re-opening of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, one of the nation’s great collections of American art and 19th-century paintings, among other gems.
The Clark’s storied permanent collection — rich with masterworks by Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington, John Singer Sargent, Degas and more — has been travelling the world for the past three years, while its Williamstown, Mass., home has undergone a stunning transformation. The new campus will open on July 4 with an Independence Day party, free admission and an evening concert with fireworks.
Opening day will see the unveiling of an 11,000-square-foot building with two floors of galleries, a café and a new museum store. Outdoors, a one-acre reflecting pool anchors a landscape design that connects the Visitor Center to the reconceived original building, where new gallery space will enhance display of the permanent collection. Much of that collection dates from centuries past, but July 4 also marks the opening of “Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith,” an exhibit showcasing the brilliant modernism of the painter and sculptor.
It’s a fitting museum for a community that, for all its rural beauty, has big-city taste in culture. “And we have mountains, we have lakes, we have woods,” explained Paula Hellman of Stockbridge, who just retired as Hevreh’s education director. “We have it all, really.”