A Sense Of Place


The Woodstock locals told us the old place wasn’t even pink anymore, but we pressed on. We were pilgrims in search of a shrine, a landmark that would help us remember who we were and mark the passage of time. So in the fading light of a late August day we headed up the side of Overlook Mountain into West Saugerties looking for Big Pink.

It was there, in the basement of a pink split level in the Catskills, where the counterculture rock music of the late ’60s, perhaps for the first time, dug into the American soil for its stories. Those stories, told by a group named, humbly, The Band, seemed timeless, even biblical. The wounds of the Civil War were still fresh in those songs, as were the struggles of union workers in the cornfields, and there were medicine shows and carnivals on the edge of town. They pulled into Nazareth in those songs, where, if you were heavy-laden, a friend might shoulder your load, and grandchildren sat upon their grandpa’s knee in those songs, ready to receive the wisdom that comes only from experience. It was an endless highway they walked, the long road linking the America that was to the one that is.

Was the trek to Big Pink a Jewish pilgrimage? Well, The Band backed up a grandson of Jewish immigrants from Odessa and Lithuania who grew up on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota (he morphed into Bob Dylan), and the group’s lead songwriter and guitarist had a Jewish father and a Mohawk Indian mother (she was affectionately known by the group as “Mama Kosh” for the food she bought for them at a Toronto kosher deli). And like students of Jewish tradition the group sensed the power of memory and the command to remember. They had a deep sense of the past’s claim on the present, of the tug of war between the ancient and the modern. And they understood the arithmetic of gain and loss as the years pile up and progress trudges on. “Pulling that eternal plough,” The Band sang, “We got to find a sharper blade, or have a new one made.”

The past and the present, and the old and the new collide in this year’s edition of our annual Directions section. In a bid to identify some Jewish landmarks in New York City, we sent some of our staff writers and favorite freelancers out on a few pilgrimages of their own; they set out to find the places where their sense of Jewish heritage was most resonant, and to find the links between what was and what is in the Jewish community. It was an experiment to chart the kind of emotional pull a sense of place exerts on us. A lot, it turns out, though some of the places are there more in memory than reality.

Ari Goldman returns to the Lower East Side of his youth, though few of the sights and smells he remembered remain. But the subway station at Delancey and Essex, his landmark, still stands, even as newer immigrants flow through its turnstiles onto the once-Jewish streets. A nondescript apartment building on the Upper West Side is Rokhl Kafrissen’s landmark because one of its units was home base, for a short, lovely time, to a salon full of young people who were keeping a supposedly dead Yiddish language alive, if for but an instant. Ted Merwin uses the statue of the yarmulke-clad tailor on Seventh Avenue to chronicle the Jewish ties to the Garment District, then and now. Our writers take us to Crown Heights before it was all Orthodox, to the castle-like Jewish Theological Seminary, to a historic shul on Broome Street with a heart on the Lower East Side and a soul in Greece, and to the Plaza Community Chapel, where holy work is carried out quietly, even serenely, in a noisy, unholy city.

We let two larger-than-life figures into the Jewish landmarks club — Ed Koch and Woody Allen. How could we not? And Helen Chernikoff lunches at the Edison Café, where the comfort food and the Theater District vibe stick to the Jewish ribs and are good for what ails you.

Getting closer to Big Pink as a late-summer chill came over the Catskills, we hit Glasco Turnpike, turned off onto the steep Goat Hill Road, followed its swoops and curves to Stoll Road. We were deep in the forest now, the crisp air and the sweet scent of the mountains filling up the car. Stoll Road brought more curves and swoops. Up a rise and down a slope, and at the foot of a decline, there it was: Parnassus Lane, a narrow, rutted dirt road lined by tall trees. Mount Parnassus, according to the Greeks, loomed over the city of Delphi and was home to the Muses. It was a fitting name for the road leading to the home of five rock oracles touched by those Muses.

Just as we hung a right into the lane we noticed it — a No Trespassing sign tacked menacingly to a tree. My wife and I looked at each other. If we hadn’t had the kid with us, we might have raced down that lane to catch a glimpse of the old place.

Just as well, perhaps. For us, the place is still pink, and, in the way that the Jewish ghosts of the Lower East Side speak to us yet today, the Muses still dwell on Parnassus Lane. It was dusk now, and we headed south on the Thruway, the “Music from Big Pink” CD carrying us home.