Yiddishkeit In The North Country


When I was a kid, a lot of cars would come back from summer vacation with a “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” sticker on the bumper.

That mountain is no joke. On an average month, it gets a foot of snow. It is below freezing most of the year, and as of this writing, the weekend forecast calls for “near-hurricane force winds,” perhaps not a surprise when you consider the record wind speed for a non-cyclone — a brisk 231 miles per hour — was recorded at its summit in 1934.

The highest point east of the Mississippi, located in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, remains as enticing as ever: From its 6,288-foot peak, you can actually see all the way to Quebec, New York State and the Atlantic Ocean.

Every summer, hikers along the Appalachian Trail cross its summit; thousands more follow well-appointed paths, with backcountry huts and lodges at regular intervals, through the surrounding terrain, including 60-acre Mount Washington State Park. The Mount Washington Observatory hosts an annual July Hike-A-Thon, as well as a weekly summer lecture series on the regional climate and geography.

Of course, you can always take the car. The Mount Washington Auto Road runs eastward to the summit. The Mount Washington Cog Railway, meanwhile, is a three-hour ride up the western slope on an old-fashioned train, letting you stare out the window rather than test your brakes.

It’s all so remote, so rugged, so outdoorsy, that you might not expect to find so much Yiddishkeit up in New Hampshire’s North Country. But you’d be wrong! There are several thriving congregations and minyanim, a Jewish film festival, even — wait for it — a kosher resort.

The new Arlington Hotel (to be distinguished from its predecessor of the same name, in a different spot nearby) opened a few years ago in the town of Bethlehem, promising a glatt-kosher kitchen and a full-service Jewish experience. It has terraces overlooking the forest, a pool with hours set aside for single-sex swimming, and both a mikvah and an Orthodox synagogue on campus.

Popular holiday packages feature rabbinic lectures, traditional meals and communal song, with plenty of kids’ activities for the families that are its target audience. Observant Jews, after all, have been schlepping up to the North Country for decades — Bethlehem is roughly 5 1/2 hours from Brooklyn — for a respite from city life.

Down the road from the Arlington Hotel is the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation, founded in 1920 and still going strong. Befitting a region whose denizens are often described as cranky individualists, the Hebrew Congregation is egalitarian and non-denominational. In July, it hosts the White Mountain Jewish Film Festival, screening an eclectic half-dozen films — recent and vintage — along with guest speakers.

There’s also the Mount Washington Valley Jewish Community, a chavurah that holds monthly services and potluck Shabbat dinners.

What entices these Members of the Tribe to settle in a place so far-flung? Actually, there’s a surprising amount to do here, even if you’re not sporty.

Theater, for instance. In downtown Keene, the circa-1924 Colonial Theatre is a popular destination; this summer, Arlo Guthrie and Mary Chapin Carpenter are among those who will play amid the gilt sunbursts and marble columns of its vintage auditorium.

In Lincoln, the heart of the mountains, Jean’s Playhouse was built a few years ago as the area’s cultural hub, replacing an old papermill-turned-theater that was torn down. The Playhouse now hosts several local troupes; this summer’s lineup features “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Beauty and the Beast,” along with chamber music and stand-up comedy.

Franconia Notch State Park, just west of Mount Washington, offers several low-impact outdoor thrills for summer visitors. Ride the aerial tram up Cannon Mountain, then visit the Flume Gorge, a natural granite gorge at the base of Mount Liberty (pro tip: buy a combination ticket for both attractions).

The full gorge hike is a two-mile loop along wooden footpaths (and a few covered bridges) surrounded by moss-covered, 90-foot walls of granite. The path wends by towering waterfalls and glacial pools teeming with wildlife, deep in the humid forest; you can also opt for a shorter, half-mile walk that goes straight to the gorge.

There is even a beach. At 2,000 feet above sea level, with views over Cannon Mountain, visitors can swim or rent a paddle boat at Echo Lake. With a sandy beach, gentle waters and one of the most spectacular settings where you will ever spread a towel, it’s a summer reward for climbing all the way … to Mount Washington, maybe, or just to the North Country.