That Country Air

That Country Air
By: Larry Gordon
Published: Thursday, June 19, 2008

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Summer weather is here, and that’s a sure indication that the real thing—that is, summer itself—cannot be too far away. In fact, summer is not just sneaking up on us as we read these words, but lo and behold, before any of us knows it, we will be smack dab in the middle of those hot and sultry summer days.

I’ve carefully checked out my air-conditioning units, like a responsible captain of a ship or a 747 must do to make certain that all is in tip-top shape and perfect working order. After all, how would any of us survive without that miraculous cool air descending on our heads from our vented ceilings (in older homes) or blowing up at us toward our chins from the floor (in newer homes) to keep us cool.

Amongst the many lost arts that modern man need no longer interface with is the ability to suffer through hot weather without relief. Once upon a time when summer arrived and it was hot outside, it was just hot inside, too. My grandmother used to tell me about how in the Bronx—I guess it was in the 1930s or so—in order to stay cool in the high heat of summer they used to purchase a large block of ice, which, I guess, if placed in a room where it was a hundred degrees managed to bring the temperature down a bit. I guess the lost art I’m talking about here is sweating, though in its place we’ve seemed to create other ways to sweat things out.

No question that for many growing up in the ’60s and ’70s having air conditioning was new and innovative technology. In our case, the big step up was when my parents installed an air conditioner in the window of their bedroom. At around the same time, and perhaps to placate us so that we did not become too restless in the heat, my father also installed an exhaust fan in our kitchen window. It wasn’t real air conditioning, but it did contribute something to help alleviate the excessive heat we had to deal with.

The way it was explained to me was that the fan—which made lots of noise—managed to scientifically pull out the hot air from inside the house and somehow send cool air in through the other windows. Of course, those other windows had to be opened at least slightly so that the alleged air could come sailing through. Add to that the fact that in the 1960s and 70s leaving windows slightly open in Crown Heights created an assortment of additional problems. Those were tough and changing times; the very fabric of society as it had been known was being redefined. As a result, a slightly open window on the first floor of a home in those days was the equivalent to an invitation to whoever came across that window to climb through and help themselves as they deemed rightful and appropriate.

So if we kept the windows open on those hot nights, it was only slightly—and at our own risk.

That was until summer arrived and we got to go on our summer vacation to the Catskills. In those days, there was no need for air conditioning in bungalows or “summer homes” (as they are now known). The entire effort of uprooting ourselves from the streets and climate of Brooklyn was to enjoy and benefit from the cool and crisp mountain air, which meant that owning an air conditioner up there was a contradiction of sorts to the entire concept of going to “the country.”

The story of the mostly Orthodox Jewish migration to the Catskills is historically rooted in the fear associated with an outbreak of tuberculosis in inner-city communities in the early part of the 20th century. It did not take long for the annual trek to catch on, as the summertime communities grew there, even while simultaneously almost everything else about those areas of upstate New York deteriorated. That took a while, but today the old Catskills is a very poor shadow of what it once was.

Perhaps today it’s because of global warming—that is, if it actually exists—that the difference in the daily temperatures between the city environs and the country is not that great. It can be 99 degrees here and 96 upstate. The difference can only really be felt in the evenings, when it can get considerably colder up there than it does here and then still get extremely warm during the following day.

The Catskills also serve an important emotional purpose that helps facilitate the flow of the mostly beautiful days of summer. Being away at a summer home or (here we go again) a bungalow means that you spend most of the summer either arriving from or getting ready to go back upstate to that temporary non-sukkah dwelling. When my kids were very young and we relocated ourselves to Ferndale, New York, every summer for about a decade, the traveling to and from was the essence and most memorable aspect of those summers. There was always something very liberating about that moment on Thursday afternoon when all was done and you could point your car in the direction of the George Washington Bridge. There was an unspoken and unexpressed camaraderie between the men and sometimes women in the other cars on these superhighways, which may have been created for the sole purpose of allowing large numbers of Jews to enjoy an aspect of the fantastic material world in one of G-d’s greatest gifts—the season of summer.

Now, for many, the vibrancy that life in the Catskills once was is mostly gone but still making a valiant and gallant effort to hang on. The massive hotel structures like Grossinger’s and the Concord have long been vacant and desolate, though businesspeople still have hope for the future—and if not the future, then at least the real-estate market up there—that things will turn around. They are making a noble effort to keep the Catskills from going under and are no doubt driven by elements of sentimentality and the hope of massive economic profits.

The hotel business that once thrived over Shabbos, yom tov, and just general vacation times is now frail and teetering, though no “do not resuscitate” orders have been left. To that end, every now and then there arises someone with an astigmatic vision who sees hope and possibilities in revitalizing Jewish life up there. Who knows—with travel becoming so expensive, perhaps some day the Catskills will once again become an option.

Today clusters or communities of Jews in the Catskills are analyzed for their economics and tax base implications for different small towns and entire counties. ShopRite and Wal-Mart can’t wait for the population to swell over the summer, because of the significant way in which it bumps up their business. Some communities otherwise known as bungalow colonies are being incorporated as shuls or yeshivas and as a result are being removed from the tax rolls.

That may in fact be legal and proper, but it also causes consternation and creates criticism that does not cast a favorable light on us.

And to think that this all started because we were overheated and cramped and looking for a little fresh air and a country road without stoplights on which we could take a leisurely morning or evening stroll and feel free, if only for a fleeting few moments.
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