Bernie fever has reached such a pitch in the green hills of Vermont that at farmer’s markets around Manchester you can buy Bernie Sandwich Bread, a marble rye that pays homage to the democratic socialist senator’s Brooklyn roots.
“It’s a funny kind of Jewish bread, I guess,” said Oliver Levis, the loaf’s creator and proprietor of Earth Sky Time Organic Farm in Manchester. Of Sanders, he added: “I’m not sure if he likes it or not. But at this point, the Bernie Sandwich has kind of taken on its own thing.”
We Jewish New Yorkers like to think of ourselves as an urban people — but the Sanders phenomenon has cast a fresh spotlight on the rugged, quirky, individualistic tradition of Jewish New Englanders. It’s a tradition epitomized by the Levis clan, whose family owns and operates not only the farm, but also the Wilburton Inn, a grand country estate here in Manchester where art, music, theater and Jewish life coexist in a very “Vermont” fashion.
“There’s an abundance of young Jewish farmers,” Max Levis, Oliver’s younger brother, told me. “Vermont has a legacy of Jewish woodcutters and farmers and Old World pastimes — people in the schmatte trade setting up their little country stores.” Like Sanders, the Levis’ parents, who bought the inn, were among that vanguard of urban-hippie Jews who left the city for Vermont in the 1960s and ’70s. “Nowadays that mythos of Vermont as the greener pastures continues,” said Max.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the New York-born Jewish founders of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream empire, were also part of that first wave, and their Waterbury factory — about two hours north of Manchester — is a place of pilgrimage for many a dessert lover. Visitors to the candy-colored facility can take a 30-minute tour to sample flavors, watch the production process, and hear about the values of sustainability that define both the iconic company and the region.
You might also hear about those values at the beloved Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, where a vast children’s floor invites hours of browsing, and the cozy Spiral Press Café is the perfect stop for coffee or lunch. Spread over several floors in historic Colburn House, which was formerly an inn in the town center, Northshire is a destination as well as the kind of unique, family-owned business that defines a community — a popular spot for book clubs and discussion groups.
When Vermonters aren’t reading or debating politics, they’re likely to be harvesting root vegetables. Fresh crops — as well as honey, baked goods and jams — are a year-round treat at the many area farmers’ markets, as well as the market at Earth Sky Time Organic Farm. While not certified kosher, the farm kitchen is vegetarian, and Oliver Levis performs the bracha over the challah as it is prepared in what he calls “a spiritual process.”
The farm team — which includes wife Bonnie, three children and a dozen crewmembers, many Jewish — also cranks out hundreds of pounds of hummus each week and a popular “Goldburger” veggie patty. In the warmer months, the farm hosts a weekly Wednesday evening al fresco vegetarian buffet, accompanied by live music, “all organic and haimish,” Oliver Levis said. Year-round, Shabbat visitors can join the family’s Friday night sing-along, when friends gather informally to strum banjos and guitars, beat drums and sing songs and liturgy of the family’s own creation.
Up at the Wilburton Inn, Max, big sisters Melissa and Tajlei and their father, Albert, welcome guests into the beautifully restored fin-de-siècle mansion (there are seven additional houses on the estate, which are popular with vacationing families; the Levises will kasher a kitchen on request). “For a lot of Jewish guests, knowing we’re a Jewish family makes people feel very welcome,” said Melissa, noting that the inn offers a Shabbat package that includes challah, local wine and kosher products.
A giant poster of “The Sisters Rosensweig,” the hit Broadway play, is a tribute to the family’s best-known playwright — aunt Wendy Wasserstein — but Melissa and Tajlei, both professional musical-theater writers, write and stage their own plays and host performing events at the inn. It’s part of a vibrant cultural atmosphere that includes several local theaters, the Manchester Music Festival, and numerous art galleries.
The best known of these is the Southern Vermont Arts Center, a century-old institution spread out over 100 acres of rolling forests, lawns and walking trails. Visitors can tour Vermont’s largest sculpture park and an impressive collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art, and enjoy a summertime performing-arts lineup that ranges from jazz concerts to circuses to a film series.
“In the summer, it seems like there is an opening or a concert every night,” said Tajlei Levis. “There’s so much to do here.” Even if you’re not running for president.