In August, even God leaves his palace to go to “the country,” you might say. “The King is in the field,” the mystics teach about God in late summer, when He’s as accessible as the roving bungalow vendors: the knish man, the dress man, or the fellow from “Kosher Sox.” During the year, to meet the King means sitting in pews, formalities, sermons, and gatekeepers. During the High Holy Days, Jews sing “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”); He’s Kingly then, He’s Daddy now.
What the mystics mean is you don’t have to get all dressed up, like on Kol Nidrei night, to speak to Him. Women can approach him in their shvimkleid (modest swim dresses worn to the lake or the bungalow’s pool), and only the oddest of men wear ties. In Elul (which began Aug. 12), the last month before Rosh HaShanah, even the field hand can put down the plow, cool off by the hay, and have a word with the Holy but informal One.
In Sullivan County’s more than 100 Jewish camps, summer is coming to an end, as all children know and dread. The women in the colonies know it, too. Their Friday night candlelighting times keep leap-
frogging counter-clockwise: In June, they were “bentching licht” at 8:19 p.m.; now at 7:37, then 7:26; 7:15; 7:03, with every passing week. The men know it, too. They come to dawn’s minyan at 6:05, some getting rides with the bread or milk trucks, and the sky’s light is different each week. Days are hot, but in Elul comes a chill in the night, autumn’s calling card.
Beginning last Sunday, in a tradition dating back to at least the third century, the shofar is blown every Elul morning except Shabbat and the day before Rosh HaShanah. Every 15 minutes in Woodbourne, a small hamlet in Sullivan County, shofars are blowing at every minyan, and ducks start quacking in the stone-speckled Neversink River that rushes to the waterfall a mile downstream.
“Corn in the field, listen to the rice as the wind blows ’cross the water. King Harvest has surely come,” The Band sang at the Woodstock festival that once encamped in Bethel, along Route 42, to the west. All of us are the King’s harvest, and He’s in the field for non-Jews, too, celebrating season’s end. Ellenville turned indigo for its blueberry festival, streets filled with muffins, cakes, berries in bowls. Grahamsville was readying for its “Little World’s Fair,” with Tilt-A-Whirls, rabbits, cows with swollen udders, and newborn chicks. To the south, onions were growing. In the streets of Monticello, every ethnicity came together last week for the annual bagel festival.
In the town of Mamakating, folk music was in the air at the annual “Grateful We’re Not Dead” concert at Poplar Grove Cemetery. Those who could dance, did.
In neighboring Orange County, a group of Christian farmers, out of the pages of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, were gleaning, tithing, donating sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, and peppers. The King is in their field.
In the Catskills, the new fantasy crop is gambling at the $920 million Las Vegas-style Resorts World Catskills that opened in February. Empire Resorts, owner of the casino, has reported that its slot machines and gaming tables are reaping less than was hoped. According to the Times Herald-Record, the local daily, Empire Resorts, which also owns Monticello Raceway and the casino there (a casino that was losing money even before it was cannibalized by Resorts World), is expected to fall about $25 million short of covering its $75 million annual debt and expenses. Neither the slots nor the tables were taking in what was expected. And the state legislature has yet to approve sports betting for New York’s casinos.
The Talmud says that in every second marriage, four people are in the bed, and Resorts World Casino must coexist with memories of Catskills resorts where the food was kosher, the Adirondack chairs were filled with familiar faces, and the atmosphere was more “heimish” (homey) than Vegas.
But sometimes even the “heimish” is Vegas. The Raleigh Hotel, one of the only surviving classic hotels, dating back to 1937, now caters to an almost entirely yeshivish/charedi clientele. Nevertheless, the Raleigh gives away its age; advertising suites are still called “The Kennedy,” “The Sammy Davis,” and “The Vegas.” On the other hand, Orange County’s Satmar village is changing its name from Kiryas Joel to Palm Tree (the translation of Teitelbaum, the surname of Satmar Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum).
Up in Liberty, in the first week of August, Grossinger’s, after so many Augusts, is concluding its long goodbye. (It’s been closed, ghostly, since 1986). Bulldozers and hard-hats are finally demolishing the “Jenny G” building, the indoor pool, the ice rink, and the rest.
At the Birchwood bungalow in Monticello, morning shofars stirred the mountain folk to wonder what the new year will bring, but the old year hasn’t finished doing what was inscribed last Yom Kippur.
On the evening of Aug. 9, Shmuel Gelis, 4 years old, was run over by an ice cream van. He was buried the next morning.
Online, one person wrote, “A Yiddishe child was taken on Yom Kippur Katan [a mini-Yom Kippur preceding] Elul. Oy vey! The parents, oy nebech! The driver…May Hashem have rachmanus (mercy) on them all. May the new month bring only blessing to all Yidden.”
There was plenty of blame to go around, but another wrote: “Stop the blaming, don’t you believe Hashem runs the world? Or is [belief] also on vacation in the summer?”
At night in the Woodbourne Shul, evening services kept attracting impromptu minyans every few minutes. Rabbi Mordechai Jungreis, the Nikolsburger rebbe, has a winter shul in Brooklyn, and this legendary shul in the summer. Legends run deep. In the 16th century, the Czech town of Nikolsburg was led by the Maharal, the rebbe who then moved to Prague where he created the famous Golem.
The Woodbourne Shul on Route 52 is a steep-roofed, narrow, two-story wooden building built in 1922 (listed on the National Registry of Historic Places). The place was empty and creaking until Jungreis arrived in 2010 and put up a sign outside, “Everyone Is Welcome.”
It was a shul without schedules. But when was davening? When was the kiddush? When were the classes? Whenever people showed up. There was never a right time or a wrong time, so people came any time — by the tens of thousands, says the rabbi, and to see it is to believe it — from dawn to after midnight, to catch a minyan, say Kaddish, learn a daf (page), get a coffee or Coke; or have a sponge cake or even a bowl of chulent with the rebbe, or just get the rebbe’s blessing. Jungreis starts serving his famous chulent (Shabbos stew) on Thursday nights.
There are minyans around the clock, every 15 minutes. If the shul is filled, the next minyan starts on the lawn.
After midnight the shul is locked, but the lawn’s chairs and tables are at the ready. Well, around 2 a.m. the minyans get few and far between, but at the break of dawn services start anew, even if tefillin has to wait, tradition says, until it is light enough to recognize an acquaintance several feet away. On the streets of Woodbourne, some are sleepless, disturbed by illness and circumstance. Not everyone wants to go back to the city and the answers of autumn.
In the field’s half-light, by the hay, King Harvest has surely come.
Jonathan Mark is associate editor at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.