Bernie Sanders, America’s only Jewish socialist senator and lately a presidential candidate, seems to be following my mom around these days.
He turns out to have been the college roommate of Mom’s own college chum. Hours after she realized the connection, there Sanders was on Martha’s Vineyard, zipping around the same hydrangeas as my parents, and savoring the same salty air (while presumably raising money from the 1-percenters for his populist campaign).
My parents, longtime Vineyarders — though sadly, not 1-percenters — have gotten used to Democratic politicians on the ever-popular resort island. Bill and Hillary Clinton generally pop by at some point in August, hanging with their friend Vernon Jordan. And as everyone knows, President Obama and his family are regulars on the South Shore, holing up amid the shrub oaks and blueberry thickets and snarling up island traffic for a week or two.
Democrats here (which is most people) have been seething ever since then-President George W. Bush told a reporter in 2002 that “most Americans don’t sit in Martha’s Vineyard, swilling white wine.” It’s safe to assume that most Americans probably do their swilling elsewhere, but judging from the crowds I saw walking around Edgartown in late June, more visitors than ever seem to be following the Clintons and Obamas to this island off Cape Cod. I’ve rarely seen so many people on the island — and Sanders notwithstanding, Democratic heavyweights have yet to put in an appearance.
There are plenty of reasons for the Vineyard’s enduring popularity, especially for vacationers more interested in raising sandcastles than campaign funds. An awful lot of Vineyarders fit the Bernie Sanders mold — Jewish, retirement age, with roots in New York and New England — and they come for the combination of natural beauty, low-key socializing and a stimulating intellectual and arts scene.
Your neighbors on the beach might well be celebrities, but unlike their peers in the Hamptons, they don’t advertise it. At the twice-weekly West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, sandals and a floppy hat are the uniform for browsers of local snap peas, sweet corn and raspberries.
The prettiest farmhouses in Chilmark are plainly visible over lichen-covered stone walls, not barricaded behind manicured hedges. And when the sun sets over west-facing Menemsha Beach, the nightly beach-chair crowd applauds in sweatshirts — though a fair amount of white wine swilling does go on.
The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center is, as always, a hive of cultural activity for summer learners — a multigenerational, interfaith set that mingles at Friday services, stays for afternoon concerts on the patio and lines up for the venerable Summer Institute, a season-long speaker and film series that tackles weighty issues in depth. Foreign policy, American economic stagnation and the Iran nuclear deal are just a few of those issues to be discussed this year; highlights include Geraldine Brooks and Allegra Goodman on being Jewish novelists, while Yossi Klein Halevi parses the question, “Israel: Jewish State, Democracy or Both?”
More intellectual ferment is evident at the biennial Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, celebrating its tenth anniversary as a showcase for the island’s rich literary heritage. This is a place, after all, where William Styron found inspiration, where David McCullough scratches out his bestsellers and where Judy Blume endowed a room in the local library.
Jewish authors and themes are prominent in the early August lineup, which includes Laurie David, the author of “The Family Cooks”; Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts House member who will read from his new memoir; Sarah Wildman, who unveiled her grandfather’s Holocaust love story in “Paper Love”; and David Kertzer, the Brown University historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book investigating Mussolini, Pope Pius XI and the fate of Italian Jews.
Culture is also the preferred nightlife on the island, where some towns are still officially “dry” (no alcohol is bought or sold). The few Vineyard bars cater more to college-age summer workers than to locals, who on soft summer evenings take their seats in the wood-beamed Chilmark Community Center or the polished pews of the Edgartown Whaling Church to hear the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society. As always, Jewish artists — including Israel-born Yael Weiss of the Weiss-Kaplan-Stumpf Trio — and Jewish composers are well represented in the summer-long program of intimate ensemble work, now in its 45th year.
Vineyarders may cherish their first-class cultural life — but on sunny afternoons, it’s the beach that beckons. Despite the throngs shopping for sundresses and wampum jewelry in town, Vineyard beaches are rarely crowded.
From the dunes of Edgartown’s South Beach, soft and powdery white, you can glimpse the swells popular with surfers; State Beach, a long, sandy stretch hemmed with wild roses, is the choice of families. At dusk, as dogs frolic and fishermen cast their lines, you might even see a few swillers of white wine.
And you can assume they’re Democrats.