Hasidic Masses Head for the Country

This weekend marks that time of the year once more: country time. Thousands of hasidic families pack up all their goods and relocate from New York City to the Catskills country for about nine weeks starting with the first weekend of July and ending with the last weekend before labor day. By convention Thursday (June 29, 2017 on this year) is the day hasidim first leave for the country and Sunday is the final day. In the intervening weeks, men return to the city every Sunday evening and are back in the country Thursday evening (or Friday morning) to spend the weekend with their wife and family.

The summer “country” is a tradition among hasidic Jews that has by now outlived its original purpose, and yet has found a new function to keep it alive.

It harkens back to before WWII when New York City Jews from a previous non-hasidic immigration wave sought to escape the sweltering heat of the summer in an era when air conditioning had yet to be invented. Apart from the mountainside coolness of the Catskills, bungalow colonies also offered plenty of recreational activities and entertainment, including comedy events, racquetball courts, hiking, and of course, water pools. The custom back then was for the entire family to uproot itself for the duration of the summer vacation; there was no commuting back and forth by a husband who maintained a summertime job in the city. Many of the Jews were, for instance, public school teachers and so were at leave from work for the summer.

Hasidic Jews who arrived in America after the war generally adopted many of the customs that had been established by their predecessor coreligionists, so long as they did not violate the core tenets of haredi doctrine, e.g. gender mixing, violation of the shabbos, and the like. This is how the country-going practice first insinuated itself in the hasidic sector in 1960’s. Comedy halls could easily be converted to synagogues and a fence erected around the pools to keep prying lascivious eyes out when the women are there.

With the advent of indoor air conditioning, with summer time work, and with the widening gap between the convenience of modern housing and the dilapidated state of the bungalows, we would have expected the demise of the custom in modern times. But, far from petering out, the custom is undergoing a resurgence in recent years: up to 90% of young hasidic families in Borough Park and Williamsburg attend bungalow colonies for at least “half” the summer. Moreover, whereas past bungalows were rented and poorly maintained, the inchoate trend nowadays is for people to purchase their own bungalows and install better facilities and amenities, e.g. three bedrooms instead of the classical one, central A.C. instead of a mobile unit in the bedroom at best, and proper insulation and pest control.

Dozens of hasidic bungalow colonies dot the Catskills landscape, each of which accommodates around 50 families. Hasidic entrepreneurs operate those colonies as a full-time occupation and charge around 7 thousand dollars for a full summer’s stay that includes utilities and barbones educational programming for kids under ten years of age; (older kids are not with their families — they attend sleepover summer camps).

Alpine Acres is one of a handful of new bungalows-for-sale developments in recent years. It is larger than the typical colony, comprising 120 housing units of up to three bedrooms each. The condominiums, with a price tag of around $220,000, are better built, equipped and maintained than the classical bungalow and their owners use them sporadically year round, e.g. on a “nice shabbos” and on shavuos. Other new developments are Swan Manors, developments by Mr. Greenfield, one in Monticello and one in Mountain Dale.

With the high cost of the bungalow colony practice and with the new for-sale developments being substantially equivalent to their dwellers’ city residences, what explains the enduring and compelling motive for hasidim to continue to “go to the country” these days?

The force of tradition coupled with peer pressure would be the obvious explanation. But critics suggest that there is another dynamic at play here, though few would admit it frankly: domestic harmony. Unlike mainstream marriages, which are voluntary, initiated by the principals, and are the culmination of a protracted period of courtship, hasidic marriages are largely forced and automatic. The spouses do not choose each other, nor the time or age of their marriage, nor the timing of intercourse, nor the romantic activities that they engage in together as a couple. All are tightly prescribed or proscribed by community norms that nobody dares question. Consequently, if a man wants to kick back and enjoy a movie, he is wary of doing so with his wife or even with her knowledge thereof. The ideal time for it, rather, is when she is not around altogether, i.e. during a summer midweek when the wife and family are in the country while he occupies the Brooklyn apartment all by himself. Ironically, it is a safer bet to confide or even share an illicit movie-watching activity with a male buddy than with his wife. His wife is merely a procreative roommate. Even a mid-week Las Vegas gambling excursion might be surreptitiously had without the bungalow-sequestered wife ever finding out about it.

Women are likewise content to be apart from their husbands. They get to spend copious amounts of time kibitzing with fellow women members of the colony; their cooking-for-the-husband-and-kids chore is suspended; and they need not dress up (e.g. blouse and dress, and wig) before going out, as the entire colony is considered one big communal home. Some even relax modesty strictures, something they wouldn’t dare do in the presence of their husbands.

For both man and woman, mutual separation allows them the latitude to engage in a “vacation”, that, ironically, they could not have had whilst together. And the family is willing to chalk up the high price for this “vacation by dint of separation” under the ruse of “we’re doing it for the kids”.

The kids indeed do enjoy and look forward to going to the country. For one, they have very little school in the summer –only about three hours of light learning in the morning arranged by the colony management. Secondly they get to engage is “sports” that their parents won’t allow them to do year round in the city. We’re not talking ball-playing here; that isn’t tolerated no matter when and where. But bicycle riding is now permitted — the same bicycle that is disparagingly called a “shaigetz (abominable) bike” in the city, is now kosher for use. Urban public parks and swimming pools are also shunned by most Williamsburg folk but such facilities can be enjoyed in a kosher manner in a bungalow colony (pools there have separate hours for men and women, to keep the genders segregated).

But the primary beneficiaries of the bungalow colony are the husband and wife who recharge and rejuvenate by not being together.


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