Always havens for warm-weather culture, the artsy towns of the Berkshires — from Stockbridge and Great Barrington to Pittsfield and North Adams — have developed a distinctly bookish identity of late. This summer’s lineup of lectures, book groups, film screenings and classes might have you wondering if you’re really vacationing in the mountains — or on a college campus.
Such a scholarly bent is perhaps inevitable in the summer retreat of Bostonians, denizens of the nation’s premier college town. It is also characteristic of Jewish life in bucolic northwest Massachusetts, where the liberal arts flourish alongside farm stands.
Fitting, then, that the page-turner everyone is talking about this year is called “People of the Book.” A work of historical fiction chronicling the movement of a Sephardic Haggadah across Southern Europe, the novel by Geraldine Brooks will be among the highlights of this year’s weekly Jewish summer book group at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.
Even the Jewish Theological Seminary is in the Berkshires this summer. The new JTS Context program, an outreach for serious adult learners, offers summer courses for those willing to commit to weekly readings on Yiddish short stories, Jewish bioethics and Maimonides.
Many rabbis come to the Berkshires for their own vacations — but in a classic example of busman’s holiday, the rabbis are increasingly on duty in these hills. You can find them on Wednesday afternoons at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, a four-decade-old Reform congregation in Great Barrington that has grown to nearly 400 members (and two in-house rabbis if its own). Throughout summer, visiting Jewish scholars will discuss texts on topics from mysticism to health over brown-bag lunches. (A full schedule of Berkshires Jewish summer events is at jewishberkshires.org.)
Arguably the most highbrow place to daven this summer is Tanglewood Shabbat — services Hevreh hosts several times each season, just before an evening of Beethoven or Ravel. You pack a picnic to enjoy on that famous lawn, bask in the waning sunlight, then worship under the rising moon with a crowd of fellow music-loving Jews.
Tanglewood, the august summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has plenty of novelty on offer. The big item is BSO’s newly appointed music director, Latvian-born Andris Nelson, who replaces James Levine as only the 15th man to hold the job since 1881. The BSO also just announced plans to spend $30 million over the next few years to upgrade the beloved but aging Lenox campus; some structures, it turns out, date back to pre-Civil War days.
Want to learn more? Tanglewood’s volunteer association gives free hour-long tours of the venerable campus, where you can feel the ghosts of concerts past at the Koussevitsky Music Shed and learn about the resort’s storied history. After an unusually busy pre-season, the festival opens on July with the BSO and American Jewish violinist Joshua Bell in an all-Tchaikovsky concert.
The richness and diversity of American Jewish music is a focus of this season’s concert schedule across the region. At “Challahpalooza,” Chabad of the Berkshires’ annual Jewish summer festival, the singer-songwriter Sam Glaser will entertain with his original take on American Jewish pop.
American Jewish music is also the highlight of an Aug. 4 concert at Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield, where Newton, Mass.-based Cantor Elias Rosenberg will sing contemporary and traditional Jewish melodies alongside Jewish-penned Broadway hits. And on July 30, Rabbi Deborah Zecher — an accomplished cabaret singer — will perform the music of Gershwin and Jerome Kern alongside son Joshua Zecher-Ross in the annual summer concert at Hevreh, where she is senior rabbi and music director.
The ubiquitous Paul Green, a clarinetist who has popularized the Jewish jazz-fusion genre, is overseeing the annual fundraising concert sponsored by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. “A Celebration of Jewish Music in America” features the local musical talents of rabbis and cantors in a program that explores a vivid century of American-Jewish music.
Paul Green and his Jewish Jazz Project are also among the performers at one of the Berkshires’ coolest new venues — Mr. Finn’s Cabaret, an intimate performance space of the Barrington Stage Company. Located within the Sybelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield, the Cabaret is this summer’s ticket for after-hours wine and song.
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Smaller is also in vogue at the Berkshire Theatre Group, which this year debuts its newest venue, The Garage. Housed within the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, The Garage was an actual garage when it was built nearly a century ago. Today the vintage façade conceals a state-of-the art interior, newly renovated to host (mostly free) concerts for smaller audiences.
These rustic, small-town venues are typical of what lures New Yorkers three hours north into the woods: urbane pleasures without the urban stress. Why else would the Berkshires Jewish Film Festival open with “Koch,” the new documentary about our recently departed mayor? And why else would the main-stage highlights at the Barrington Stage Company be “The Chosen,” a theatrical version of the Chaim Potok novel about Brooklyn Jewish families, and “On the Town,” Leonard Bernstein’s iconic New York musical?
Should your goal be to actually leave the city behind, though, I recommend a visit to the landscapes on display at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. “Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History” is a major show that brings together the Clark’s first-rate collection of Homer paintings and drawings with loans from other American institutions (there is even a rarely-seen series of the artist’s wooden engravings).
Sun-dappled bridal paths, rocky ocean cliffs, summer squalls and farm scenes: Homer was a loving observer of his rural American surroundings. The Berkshires may be a resort for culture vultures — but Homer’s glorious landscapes will inspire even the most bookish to venture outdoors.