Visiting the Berkshires & the National Yiddish Book Center - The Jewish Voice
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Visiting the Berkshires & the National Yiddish Book Center

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A historical, intellectual and visual trip with friends and family

By: Ethel G. Hofman

It’s been a scorcher of a summer, so when a friend suggested a trip to the Berkshire Mountains, this Northeasterner was ready for some cooler weather. Not quite a “staycation” (it was about a five-hour drive during less trafficked hours), it was far less expensive than flying right now.

The Berkshires in Western Massachusetts is rustic and rural, offering the feeling of really getting away from it all. Little towns and villages are nestled in the mountains, a skier’s attraction come wintertime. In July, verdant greenery and clean air—coupled with thriving arts and cultural history—draw thousands of visitors.

The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. Credit: John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons.

For my particular group of travelers, the highlight of our mini-vacation was a visit to the National Yiddish Book Center, about an hour away. On the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, the center was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, a 24-year-old graduate student of Yiddish literature. Unable to find such books to study, he launched a campaign to save the world’s remaining Yiddish books. Along with like-minded volunteers, they picked up texts from the homes of Holocaust survivors throughout North America, even rescuing volumes tossed in dumpsters on the streets of New York City.

I stood in awe in front of the sprawling 49,000-square-foot complex. The low wooden roof echoes the lines of a European shtetl, albeit clean and trim. Inside a building filled with natural light are stories, powerfully documented, showing how so many of our ancestors braved the unknown in search of a better life for their children so that visitors like me could live in a free country filled with opportunity. One room is dedicated to a collection of early 20th-century postcards and illustrations of the destroyed synagogues of Europe—the only remnants of once-vibrant Jewish communities. An interactive exhibit celebrates Jewish identity through personal stories and photographs. The Yiddish press was crucial to immigrants who only spoke that language. A recreated Yiddish print shop houses a Yiddish linotype machine. In 1997, with a grant from the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library digitized and cataloged more than 12,000 Yiddish titles. And they’re still discovering more. Just recently, a wrinkled brown paper bag filled with hand-written recipes in Yiddish and English was found in a corner of a storage closet at the center. Excited to know more, I’ll be going back.

The gilt edge of our stay was as guests of longtime friend Lisa Ekus, who is the foundering partner of the Ekus Group, a full-service culinary Literary and Talent agency now run by her daughter, Sally, who grew up in the business. Lisa has now turned her many talents to create the Cooks Chateau, a sparkling, comfy, well-appointed Airbnb attached to a 250-year-old farmhouse. Stocked with everything one could possibly desire, guests can cook, relax, write or meander through her gardens and down the local country roads, where you might come upon a farmers market. After only six months instead of the usual 12 months, the Cook’s Chateau was awarded Super Host status.

The Norman Rockwell Museum houses the largest collection of his work. His paintings, created for The Saturday Evening Post, reflect American culture as it happened for nearly five decades. Photo Credit: wikiepedia.org

Towns are only a few miles apart, so you can be in Lenox or Amherst in minutes. We mingled with families at the Norman Rockwell Museum, which houses the largest collection of his work. His paintings, created for The Saturday Evening Post, reflect American culture as it happened for nearly five decades. I was drawn to the home of Edith Wharton, the American Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction writing, who with insider’s knowledge of the upper class described the lives of the Gilded Age. The saying “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to her socially prominent Jones family, who made their money in real estate. Which brings me to Naumkeag (pronounced Nomkeeg), one of the Berkshires’ hidden jewels. The 44-room “cottage” set on 48 acres served as a summer retreat for New York City lawyer Joseph Hodges Choate and his wife, Caroline, a women’s activist, and their five children. In 1894, he argued that the Supreme Court strike down the income-tax law—and won! Although 15 years later, it was overturned.

And wherever I go, there’s always the quest for good food. Nudel, a tiny, unpretentious restaurant at 37 Church St. in Lenox, is worth the wait. Two young talented chefs, work out of an open kitchen. Nabbing two ringside seats, we watched as fresh, local ingredients were transformed into irresistible dishes, deftly cooked with care and dished up with flair. They wouldn’t part with their chocolate-pudding recipe, except to say it’s made with the very best chocolate. Inspired and recreated in my kitchen, the recipe below is close. And under clouds of softly whipped cream or raspberries, what can be bad?

On the way home, we loaded up with mushrooms, corn and blueberries. Fresh white mushrooms, browned in butter and topped with a fried egg, were my day-after-trip breakfast. Soup, prepared with summertime corn, is sweet and creamy, and delicious whether served warm, chilled or at room temperature. And there’s no reason not to combine summer fruits and vegetables in a salad as in the suggestions below. Serve as a starter or dessert, and use whatever is freshest. Memories of picking buckets of blueberries in Michigan, at Grand Beach along the lake, bring to mind Aunt Hanni’s Blueberry Torte—berries bursting with sweetness spooned over a melt-in-the-mouth Muerbe Teig, a European buttery crust (originally published in my own The Art of Cooking). – JNS.org

A Norman Rockwell cover from the Saturday Evening Post

 

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