Most of us have never contemplated a Van Gogh and immediately thought of Western Massachusetts. But the undulating green hills of the Berkshires region bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Provence — at least as rendered by the artist in a series of works on view in “Van Gogh and Nature,” the summer blockbuster at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.
And just as Van Gogh found inspiration in the landscapes of Arles and St.-Rémy, Jewish vacationers come to the bucolic towns of the Berkshires to be inspired in myriad ways, by everything from museums and theater to Jacob’s Pillow, the cradle of modern dance — not to mention a smorgasbord of Jewish activity that has little equal at summer resorts. Depending on your mood, you can easily fill summer days with intensive Torah study, practice your conversational Yiddish, learn to bake rugelach, immerse yourself in a Jewish literary scene and spend your nights listening to Jewish music from klezmer to Mendelssohn.
Lodging options have expanded accordingly, with new and restored properties ready to welcome the summer influx. The latest addition to the scene is Hotel on North in Pittsfield, a boutique hotel and restaurant that recently opened in a pair of 19th-century buildings.
Several historic properties offer incentives for visitors willing to book outside of the popular weekends. The Apple Tree Inn in Lenox offers a 20 percent midweek discount at its rolling, 22-acre estate, just a short walk uphill from Tanglewood. The Cranwell Spa and Golf Resort — another Lenox compound from the Gilded Age — offers specials that include a midweek Tanglewood package with two lawn concert tickets, a parking pass and a souvenir album. And the venerable Inn at Stockbridge, a gracious white mansion with rolling lawns, has a midweek deal that includes in-room massages and afternoon wine and cheese.
Generations of youngsters have lodged in considerably more rustic surroundings at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, a local bulwark of the Conservative movement’s iconic summer camp. Many Berkshires visitors began summering here in the bunks at Ramah; there’s an entire website devoted to Ramah marriages, along with an annual alumni reunion, for those who haven’t already run into each other over lox and coffee at the Great Barrington Bagel Company.
Or former campers might meet up at the Berkshires’ grown-up outpost of Conservative Judaism — JTS in the Berkshires, a lecture series on alternate Fridays at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. This summer, scholars from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America will address the theme of “Hidden Histories,” with topics ranging from Jezebel to Jewish marriage.
The seminary isn’t the only institution moving out of doors. All summer long, Hevreh of Southern Berkshires, a Reform congregation in Great Barrington, takes worship into some of the area’s prettiest settings. Hevreh hosts a series of Tanglewood Shabbats; follow the blue and white balloons to an evening Kabbalat Shabbat and pre-concert picnic on the lawn, or a family morning Shabbat picnic before the matinée. There are also outdoor Havdalah services, including one for returning campers and their nostalgic parents that features a campfire, s’mores and a singalong.
Those looking for a daily minyan will find it at “Minyan in the Berkshires,” hosted by Chabad of the Berkshires. From now through August, there’s a weekday minyan in Pittsfield and a Shabbat minyan in Lenox, along with kabbalah workshops and classes in Yiddish and Hebrew.
Between Jewish book clubs, Talmud and lunch-and-learn study groups, and scholarly roundtables on topical issues, many spend the entire summer deep in conversation. (What could be more Jewish, really?) There is certainly plenty to discuss, as always — everything from Judaism’s changing demographics and America-Israel relations to the Shabbat ritual. A full listing of summer programs, available in PDF format from the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, is online at jewishberkshires.org — but one highlight worth noting is the popular Jewish book discussion group at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.
Come evening, it’s time to settle in for some of America’s top theater and classical music. James Levine no longer presides over the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — but there are plenty of Jewish artists on the roster at Tanglewood, where Levine’s successor, Andris Nelson, is fresh off his inaugural season with the orchestra. From stalwarts like violinist Pinchas Zukerman and the pianists Emanuel Ax and Leon Fleisher to Vadim Gluzman, the young Soviet-born violin sensation, Tanglewood is a showcase for Jewish musicianship.
Lighter fare is the Jewish highlight of this summer’s theater. The Comden and Green classic “Bells Are Ringing,” with music by Jule Styne, ushers in the season at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, with performances at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. The comedian Robert Klein also performs at the Colonial, while Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap” is at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s main stage in Stockbridge. And New York humor is once again the feature in Pittsfield, where Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” is on the lineup at the Barrington Stage Company.
In between shows, relax amid the hills with world-class art. The Clark, which turns 60 this year, just completed the final phase of an award-winning campus expansion that has transformed the museum into one of the Berkshires’ prettiest spots. With reflecting pools, floor-to-ceiling windows and views over the mountains, the Clark offers visual splendor even before you step inside one of America’s finest collections, with particularly strong holdings in American art.
Americana is the calling card at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum, of course — but this summer, the Rockwell takes on a decidedly Brooklyn slant with “Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs,” on view through October. Chast, whose ironic eye has come to epitomize a certain New York Jewish outlook, has legions of fans from her longtime association with The New Yorker, and is enjoying a high profile after the success of last year’s graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”
Chast would appreciate the irony of so many Jewish New Yorkers escaping to the New England countryside, only to seek out the biting wit, Brooklyn accents and restless intellectualism of their hometown. But that combination of rustic and cosmopolitan has always been the Berkshires’ calling card — and this summer, there are more ways than ever to answer it.