The Catskills are full of ghosts. These particular ones speak Yiddish.
Middle-aged men in white shorts, dark socks and spindly legs materialize in the deeply forested mountains. They walk and talk, they stroll, in pairs. Some have young children on their shoulders. The fathers bend down under low branches that reach out to stroke the backs of the children. While they walk they argue— about life, socialism, history (of which they have plenty). From hill-top top to hill-top the ball bounces between them. Generations ago they might have been young scholars in the Old World, arguing over the Talmud. Here, in the Hudson Valley, the dialectic 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 to illuminate points in the dark hills. Or just the pleasure of argument, keeping their brains sharp.
Occasionally the sky breaches the phalanx of trees overhead, throwing spangles of light, 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 knowlingly, in heavily accented English, counting the leaves.
“An old wives tale,” says his companion, bending down, reaching. Then changes his mind.
These ghosts are secular socialists. They practice words, not religion. Words are real because they don’t just carry ideas; with words these men create their world. And keep it alive.
Having survived the 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 20thCentury notion of Progress, which to them is the same thing. Puffing cigars, stopping to expound, make a point, refuting the point, enlightening the other; hands, eyes, and mouth all talk at once.
The sound of Yiddish, a 16thcentury bastardized German, rises amidst chatter of native Hudson Valley birds and ancient 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 America as a place where they are about to discover wonderful things, like freedom and baseball, like Calamine lotion.
One day, and it will be soon, they will start to see themselves as Americans. The state of the Joe Dimaggio and the American League will replace Karl Marx and dialectical materialism. What they do not now see is the storm rolling in down the Catskills, announced for the last 10 minutes by muffled but steadily ominous thunder.
When the rain explodes in great waves, they are surprised.
Meanwhile, looking down on these mid-century spirits are even older ones. And they speak Dutch. This is Rip Van Winkle country.
Here is Fishkill and Peekskill and any kill you like. The bridge across the river a few miles south is The Tappan Zee, astoundingly positioned by New York politicos (there was money involved, of course) at the Hudson’s widest point. Rhinebeck is up the river as are the Roosevelts of Hyde Park. Hamilton Fish IV (the first being named for Alexander Hamilton, a family friend) is actually Hamilton Stuyvesant Fish, to honor the last Dutch governor of Nieuw Amsterdam (and the only one anyone can remember).
Before this land was American it was a British and before that it belonged to Hollanders. In many names and the spirit of toleration, it still does. But the rolling beauty of the Hudson Highlands is deceptive. Eden is can also give birth to nightmares. These thunderous storms spring up and in moments and darken the brilliant sky a nightmare blue. The dark woods darken the mind. In the daek dark spirits come alive. Just down the river, at Sleepy Hollow near Tarrytown, Washington Irving saw a headless horseman ride out into the wind.
The thunder of Catskill storms is unlike anywhere else. It shakes the ground. 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 made by clashing air masses. This is 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. And when an old Dutchman bowls down all the pins the mountains 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. Dutch fireworks: God has turned on the lights. Storm King Mountain, across from West Point, did not get its name for nothing.
This is not the Borscht Belt Catskills where comedians from Alan King to Woody Allen honed their art. This the Hudson Highlands where Routes 9 and 9A snake around huge granite escarpments. High up 19thcentury 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 the 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 they would soon make their escape.
In this place, which bewitched the first American landscape painters, is Cold Spring. New York Central Railroad trains, having switched diesel engines for steam at Croton, stop by the band box on the river. Here, at the deepest and coldest point in the Hudson, they supplied the Union with munitions for the Civil War. Seven miles east, the Yiddish ghosts found their own Eden. Camp Eden.
Ever since the end of the war, they have gathered: for a week, two weeks; 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. Survivors all.
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, a hook and some string. 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.
When Rip Van Winkle woke from his 20-year sleep he found the world transformed. The colony of New York had become the republic of America. The image of King George on the local hostelry had changed, with a few strokes of a local sign painter, into George 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.
The people of the town made them feel welcome. Lask, the Scandinavian, policeman would stop by to see that everything was all right. Dr Clark, for whom the new wing of the hospital would be named, came to treat you. If you couldn’t afford to pay, he still came. He delivered my sister, Marcia, on July 24th1946, and a few years later my mother’s tumor…