In The Cool Berkshires, Jewish Culture Heats Up


Summer in the Berkshires starts this week for hundreds of children at Camp Ramah, the iconic Jewish retreat that is a cornerstone of the American Conservative movement.

From third graders just dipping their toes into away-from-home camping to high school students and counselors fielding Color War, Ramah campers are among the youngest to participate in a storied tradition — a summer immersed in Jewish culture, learning and community amid the cool green hills of Western Massachusetts (Ramah is actually on the eastern border of New York State, the Berkshires’ western fringe).

At every age, the Berkshires beckon with lively Jewish intellectual ferment and a stimulating cultural scene. From now through Labor Day, there’s virtually no area of Jewish interest you can’t indulge here — from Israeli cooking to kabbalah, Sephardic music to organic gardening, and scholarly talks on subjects as disparate as medicine, film, or Israel. Klezmer, a cappella, cantorial and classical music all resound with a Jewish lilt.

The Tanglewood Campus. Wikimedia Commons.

Even the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York’s Conservative institution, decamps to the hills, bringing erudition along. The 2016 “JTS in the Berkshires” lecture series, which runs through July and August at the Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, focuses on “The Other in Jewish Texts and Traditions,” from Maimonides to Spinoza. (New this year: JTS participants can get a 20 percent discount on a stay of two nights or more at the Canyon Ranch spa and resort in Lenox.)

Alongside a range of weekly worship options, the region’s daily minyan is organized by Chabad of the Berkshires (use the “Minyan Maker” app on its website to find out exactly when, where and who else is joining). Some congregations, such as the Reform Hevreh of Southern Berkshires, move Shabbat worship outside on summer evenings.

Yiddish also flourishes in rural Massachusetts. The college town of Amherst is home to the Yiddish Book Center, a cultural and scholarly mecca for the Ashkenazic tongue and a resource for language workshops, cultural programs, exhibits, and “Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music,” held in mid-July.

View over the Berkshires from Williamstown. Wikimedia Commons

But the Berkshires are about more than Jewish learning. For many vacationers, a highlight of the summer is the opportunity to experience Manhattan-level visual and performing arts along with fresh air and plenty of parking.

Theater is the region’s traditional strength, attracting such luminaries this year as Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Jane Kaczmarek, and Rita Rudner. The Williamstown Theatre Festival, headquartered in the eponymous town, has a star-studded lineup of seven productions, including Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter,” alongside a series of talks, parties and tours.

The other theater heavyweight — the Berkshire Theatre Group — has a season heavy on musicals, from “Beauty and the Beast” to “Fiorello!” a lesser-known gem from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick of “Fiddler” fame. Comedy nights, workshops and other events take place all summer at two stages in Stockbridge and the historic Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.

For legions of classical music fans, the Berkshires are synonymous with Tanglewood, the music festival and summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra where New York’s own James Levine reigned for decades as music director. Now firmly into the Andris Nelson era, the festival is, as always, studded with Jewish talent; Tanglewood may be the best place this summer to witness a dazzling array of Europe-born Jewish and Israeli piano virtuosity, from the venerable artists Menachem Pressler, Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax to the young guard — Igor Levit, Daniil Trifonov, and others who came of age in the post-Soviet era.

Tanglewood is more than just a concert venue; it’s the linchpin of many a Berkshires gathering. These include Hevreh of Southern Berkshires’ “Tanglewood” Shabbat series, held on the festival lawn — pray, picnic, listen, dessert, and repeat throughout the summer. Also popular is the Tanglewood package at Cranwell Spa and Golf Resort, an elegant fin-de-siècle estate in Lenox that offers lawn concert tickets, parking and a picnic box with selected midweek bookings.

If Tanglewood is the best-known musical event here, it has a close runner-up in the Berkshire Choral Festival. Among the world’s most prestigious events of its kind, the Choral Festival has locations in Europe and California, but its headquarters are in bucolic Sheffield, Mass. Passionate choristers come from around the country to participate in three week-long sessions and a series of public concerts. This year’s highlight is a program featuring Stephen Paulus’s Holocaust oratorio, “To Be Certain Of The Dawn,” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.”

The performing arts may have more history here, but museums claim an increasingly large share of the region’s prestige – and summer attention.

A longtime player on the museum scene, the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge works hard to give visitors a reason to come back each year. This year it succeeds with its exhibition, “Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World,” which takes a direct look at the contrast between the illustrator’s sentimental style and the cerebral abstractionism that defined his era. The contrast will be explored by placing works by Rockwell, Wyeth, and Warhol side by side with Pollock, Calder, Johns, and over 40 other artists.

The museum is also participating in an online exhibit, “Norman Rockwell in the Age of the Civil Rights Movement,” a Google-sponsored project that feels particularly timely in a year when human rights issues of all kinds have made headlines — from the Black Lives Matter movement to the migrants in Europe. Indeed, Rockwell’s generous humanism and appeal for pluralistic tolerance — his images of Orthodox Jews, Hindus, African-Americans, and Catholic church-goers side by side — feel more relevant than ever.

American art of all kinds is the specialty of Berkshires museums — an impressive lot that also includes the recently expanded Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, classic paintings at the Williams College Museum of Art, and more recent fare at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (known as MassMoCA) in North Adams.

And then there is the Pop Art Rabbi. The Australian-American Chabad Rabbi Yitzhak Moully brings a Warhol aesthetic to iconic chasidic imagery – think black hats against neon yellow. Chabad of the Berkshires is sponsoring a July 3 artist reception for Rabbi Moully at the Lenox Community Center, where his works will be on view. It’s quintessential Berkshires: very Jewish, very artsy, and a lot of fun.

Clarification, June 22: A previous version of this article failed to note that the exhibit, “Norman Rockwell in the Age of the Civil Rights Movement,” can be viewed online, not at the museum itself.