Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Two-wheeled Mikvah

Mrs. V and I paid a visit to my parents this weekend, at their small weekend home in the southern Catskill mountains of New York State. For one reason and another, I haven't been there in almost ten years. Beautiful weather, visits with family friends I haven't seen in ages, lovely little towns and scenery everywhere. And, on Saturday morning, I got to ride there for the first time.

My father, a dubious and cautious fellow, laid out a small route for me, warning me of dangers and dismissing my requests for more distance. As it turned out, I missed some turns anyway, and ended up adding ten or so miles, for a modest 33 total, though the 2500 feet of climbing was a nice challenge, including one hill of about three miles at seven to eight percent. (Of course, I was attacked by dogs about 70% of the way up, and had to "sprint" while I was heaving for breath... the authentic rural experience. I almost tossed my breakfast.)

By far the best part, though, was cycling through the land of my forebears. Well, okay, right... I wasn't riding in Israel, exactly. But the next best thing: the Catskills were a summer retreat for New York City Jews for most of the 20th Century, and there are still remnants of that culture everywhere.

First, I ran across an ancient, abandoned summer resort (called a "camp" in those days) that looked like a little like a ghost town. The first thing I noticed that set this abandoned resort apart from just any old abandoned resort was the tennis court, which featured a handball wall right beside it. If you're not Jewish, you might never have noticed it, but handball was a very popular sport with Jews of a few generations ago (one of my grandfathers was a pretty avid player). As I rolled a little further down the road, I saw the simple bunk buildings lined up, quietly dilapidating in the June sun:

Can you visualize the little kids in yarmulkes running about?

In my imagination, I could hear Yiddish being shouted back and forth, the laughter of little children, perhaps a ball game on a radio. Then I stopped still on the road: A genuine shul (synagogue) stood right out on the road, smack beside the very entrance to the camp.

Note the Star of David set in simple metalwork over the doors.

Now, Ulster County these days isn't nearly what it was back then; one gets used to seeing pretty mainstream American houses, maybe a flag flying in front, cars rotting in side yards, ATVs parked out there, and so on. The shul was a jolt back to another era, when this area literally crawled with Jews, many in traditional formal black clothing, and no one felt the need to set a temple back from the road to make it perhaps a little more unassuming. You took for granted that, if the person you saw walking down the road wasn't Jewish, he was at least comfortable with Jews. He had to be.

More evidence of this culture came throughout the ride, as I rode past street signs like "Synagogue Street" and "Abromowitz Road." You just don't get to see signs like that in rural places in the United States. It was a sweet reminder of another time, when my people had a stronger sense of identity and unity. Of course that came at the price of (and to some extent, as a result of) some pretty painful discrimination and oppression, even here in the good ol' Land of the Free.

All thoughts of lineage, identity, and history began to vanish as I worked my way up the seven-mile hill into Grahamsville, replaced by ragged breath and a burning in my quads. I like to think some of my ancestors would have understood my personal ritual of purification: Cycling, a mikvah of perspiration and fresh air.


Suitcase of Courage said...

I really enjoyed this post - very evocative. I'm not Jewish, but your description of a past time and place certainly resonates with all cultures.

And we've ALL had our Mikvahs, eh?

Velosopher said...

Thanks, Suitcase. I agree: If someone's imagination tends to be caught by history, it doesn't matter whose it is or when it was -- it's still interesting. We all have lineage.

Velosopher said...

And, to paraphrase the old Arnold's Bread Commercial, "You don't have to be Jewish to have a two-wheeled mikvah."