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Baumel Joseph: When livin’ was easy and life was good

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“Summertime and the livin’ is easy,” or so goes the prized song. Certainly, the warm weather, extended daylight and numerous vacation breaks make this season a popular one. It’s a time in which many of our peers and neighbours seem more serene, more open.

On Aug. 1, fliers appear with back to school deals, quickly cutting our summer in half. Oy. We need to extend the sweet warm months, as they seem to bring a camaraderie, a sense of community and friendship that the cold climate shuts down and closes off.

Perhaps warmer climates exhibit friendlier communal patterns all year round, but I doubt it. Nonetheless, we can document the effect of warm environments on human interactions in cold climates. Look around as you walk down a street in the early evening in the summer. People actually smile.

One unambiguous example of the evanescent communal experiences of summers long ago were the bungalow colonies of my youth. What sheer joy for kids, mothers and weekend dads. In North America, Jews escaped the city if they could. If the whole family could not get away, some members were sent to the countryside or seashore. Any excuse to allow them to get away and breath cooler, cleaner air. These escapes were especially significant during the mid-century polio epidemic, but they continued afterward. Summertime was escape time – time for country and freedom.

Recently, Jenna Weissman Joselit wrote an article in Tablet, detailing the early 20th-century pattern of these summer getaways. The descriptions brought back great memories, but also laughter, as she described rabbinic attempts to keep American Jews ritually on track. Their fear that their congregants were up to no good was, of course, well founded: women dressed with elbows and knees showing, men played cards even on Shabbat (as did the women).

There was a general ritual laxity that fit the easy lifestyle of summer in a bungalow. Kids ran all over the place, just as kids are supposed to, sharing and shouting, learning group behaviour and self-help. Shabbat was still the Sabbath, but prayers may have been truncated. (And who is to say that is a bad thing?) The tradition of forgoing the sermons during the summertime that developed is still practiced at many synagogues today.

But the obvious element was the openness to friendship and communal living that people displayed. American Jews were developing new patterns of being both American and Jewish. Eventually, all the denominations developed synagogues in the larger vacation spots, which helped congregants keep a semblance of ritual praxis. All had rabbis who were essentially willing to give up their vacations by serving at these retreats. Many of those shuls are still operational.

READ: BAUMEL JOSEPH: THE MANY BENEFITS OF JEWISH SUMMER CAMP

Jews liked their summer vacations and eagerly shifted ritual patterns to suit the warm, welcoming countryside. Freed from city life, Jews were eager to enjoy being American in this new environment. They did not automatically become nature enthusiasts, but they enjoyed nature. They relished the clean air, the water, the green trees, even the sand. It was different from the tenements and the tall buildings. Friends were next door and the doors were open. Livin’ was easy and life was good.

Joselit ends her piece with a worthy insight:

“Reconciling the carefree with the custodial, the looser rhythm of summer with the weight of tradition, was not easy for earlier generations of vacationing American Jews. Some spelled it out, others muddled through and still others didn’t give it much thought.”

Sound familiar? The notion that summer should be a “time for deepening rather than weakening religious life,” as Joselit put it, remains as much of a challenge for contemporary American Jews as it did a century or so ago – a constant, like the seasons.

Jewish vacation patterns have changed. But the challenge remains: how do we keep up with the easier lifestyle and our Jewish livin’?

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