The Catskills are full of ghosts. These speak Yiddish.
Middle-aged men in white shorts, dark socks and spindly legs materialize in the steep, densely forested granite hills that hug the Hudson; hills which the Dutch, newly arrived from their flat land home, called mountains.
The men walk and talk, they stroll, in pairs. Some have young children on their shoulders. The fathers bend low under branches that reach out, like good Jewish trees, to stroke the the kids. While they walk they argue— about life, socialism, history (of which they had seen plenty).
From hill-top to hill-top the ball bounces between them. Generations ago they might have been young scholars arguing over every point in the Talmud. Here in the Hudson Valley the dialectic instinct still drives them on.
Point, counterpoint. Statement, rebuttal.
“Yes, you see?” “Not so fast.” “It was proven.” “It was not.”
“Walter Benjamin said…”
“Pfff, Walter Benjamin. Now Gershom Scholem maintains…”
“You are forgetting Hegel.”
They seek edge and clarity in the dark hills. Or just the pleasure of interrogation and argument. The dialectic is how society moves ahead step by step, even in the Catskills.
Occasionally the sun breaches the phalanx of trees that reach straight up to the sky, throwing spangles of light and revealing the forest floor. Now it picks out a clump of poison ivy. There was none in the old country. They pause to discuss. Everything is up for discussion
“If it be three, let it be” one intones, in English, counting the leaves.
“Pah. An old wives tale,” says his companion, bending down, reaching out. Then changes his mind.
Secular socialists, these ghosts practice words, not religion. Words are real because they don’t just carry ideas, they create the world.
After all, in the beginning was The Word.
Having survived the world war they now pursue the millennium, or at least a better and more just world. How to get there?
Onward they amble, like History, like the old 20th Century idea of Progress, which to them is the same thing. Puffing cigars, stopping to expound, make a point, refuting the point, enlightening the other; their hands, eyes, expressions and mouth all talk at once.
The sound of Yiddish, a 10th Century concoction of ancient languages infused with Middle High German, rises amidst chatter of native birds and untouched trees. But the heavy spell of the forest and the ever-winding Hudson below go unnoticed. These men see with their heads, not their eyes. They see ideas. They see the future. They see utopia. They see an America full of wonderful things—like Calamine lotion.
One day, and it will be soon, they will start to see themselves as Americans. And argue about the Yankees. What they do not see now is the storm rolling in across the Catskills, announced for the last 10 minutes by approaching thunder. When the rain hits them in great waves, they are surprised.
Meanwhile, looking down on our mid-century spirits are even older ones: hundreds of years older. And these ghosts speak Dutch. This is Rip Van Winkle country.
Here is Fishkill and Peekskill and any kill you like. Before this land was American it was British and before that it belonged to Hollanders. (And before that it was the Iroquois’ land: the Mahicans, who called the great river Mahicanituck, the Mohawks to the north and west and and the Lenni Lenapes, also called the Delaware, to the south.)
But if names are anything to go by, it is still pretty much Dutch. The bridge across the river a few miles south is The Tappan Zee, positioned by meshuganah New York politics (money of course) at the Hudson’s widest point. Rhinebeck is up the river as are the Roosevelts of Hyde Park. Hamilton Fish IV (Hamilton Fish I was named for Alexander Hamilton, a family friend), from a long line of New York governors and congressmen, is actually Hamilton Stuyvesant Fish, to also honor the last Dutch governor of Nieuw Amsterdam (and the only one anyone can remember).
The rolling beauty of the Hudson Highlands is deceptive. Thunderous storms spring up and in moments darken the brilliant sky a nightmare blue. The already dark woods darken the mind. Things come alive. Eden can never be taken for granted.
Near Tarrytown Washington Irving saw a headless horseman ride out into the wind.
The thunder of Catskill storms is unlike anywhere else. It rocks and rolls from river bank to river bank, as if the storm is making up its mind which way to go. This isn’t normal thunder, the shockwave produced by the sudden increase in pressure and temperature and expansion of air in and around a bolt of lightning. This is thunder made by old Dutchmen, clay pipes clenched in their teeth enjoying a game of bowls in the Hudson heavens.
Sometimes you can see the ball roll across the sky on top of the clouds, leaving a path of fire, the growing growl of a celestial sub-woofer. And when a Dutchman bowls down all the pins the mountains rattle and shake from West Point to Beacon. The wind comes up, trees kiss the ground in prayer. For a moment the entire sky lights up, a pinball machine hitting the jackpot. God has turned on the lights. Storm King Mountain, across from West Point, did not get its name for nothing.
This is not the schmaltzy Borscht Belt Catskills where comedians like Milton Berle, Alan King and Woody Allen practiced their art. This the Hudson Highlands where Routes 9 and 9A snake around huge and austere granite escarpments. High up and dream-like 19th century railroad barons built stone castles out of Sir Walter Scott, all turrets and battlements, to both broadcast their success and ensure their privacy.
The Jewish ghosts, like those robber barons of the Gilded Age, also seek a haven along the Hudson. Only 50 miles from New York City but far enough from the Europe they had recently escaped and the lower east side from which they had not. Not yet anyway.
In this place which bewitched the first American landscape painters is the old river town of Cold Spring. It sits at the deepest point of the Hudson. New York Central Railroad trains from Grand Central Station, having switched diesel engines for steam at Croton, stop by the band box at the bottom of a Main Street lined with Federal-style houses. Up the hill and seven miles miles east of here the ghosts found their Eden.
Ever since the end of the war, they gathered: for a week, two weeks in the summer; some of the children even for the 8-week summer camp. Some came alone. Some were reunited with friends and relatives as one by one and two by two, people left the war behind.
On luminescent Friday summer evenings the adults watched in wonder as the children—the kinder—marched into the dining hall dressed in whites, whites which would soon bear the marks of roast chicken-smeared fingers. Then concerts in the big hall or lectures in the garden by the statue of Eugene Debs.
Afterwards everyone would rise and sing the Internationale, the Socialist anthem.
On long lazy afternoons full of dragon flies and buzzing yellow jackets, you could play shuffleboard or fish for sunnies in the cold mountain lake. All you needed was a pole and some string and a piece of bread for the hook. These were not smart fish.
You could walk around without the need to cover up the purple number on your forearm.
Healing was in the air, and transformation.
Not far from this spot Rip Van Winkle woke from his 20-year sleep and found a new world. The colony of New York had become the republic of America. The picture of King George III on the local hostelry had changed. With a few strokes of the brush of a local sign painter King George had become President Washington.
So no big surprise that people who here came as refugees left as soon-to-be Americans.
If Eden is where the world began, Camp Eden is where, for these ghosts, it began again.