Once, early in our marriage, Shelley and I visited the area of San Diego, where I had lived not long before. I expected little change as I attempted to show her my old apartment. Yet, there was a great degree of cognitive dissonance, and confusion. There was so much new building, that even the streets were changed. All I could do was point vaguely in what I supposed to be the right direction, telling her, “I lived somewhere over there.”
It was, then, perhaps somewhat comforting to find that Croton has changed so little. It suggests that there is some stability in a complex and fast moving world. Indeed, even the attendees at my lecture at the still familiar Reform Temple Israel, were for the most part the adults of my childhood, though granted they are much older today and many faces were absent. (Strangely more than 35 years ago when I first met them I thought that they were already old.)
Only an hour from New York up the Hudson train line, Croton was small but never boring. Artists, opera singers and communists all made (past or present) their homes there. Some even had left their mark. My paper route included the former homes (some palatial) of Joseph Kennedy’s mistress, and John Reed (Author of Ten Days that Shook the World) of “Reds” fame. It also included the home of Allen Funt, of Candid Camera fame. This was later the home serially of Opera stars Jessie Norman and Brenda Boozer. They were not the first stars of the Met to live in Croton. Nordica, the early 20th century American diva, not only lived in Croton, but also gave her moniker to Nordica Drive. (I wonder how many Crotonites know the origin of that name. I certainly didn’t.)
Indeed, so many communists lived on Mount Airy, that it became known as Commie Hill (or more unfortunately as Jew Hill, referring to many of the same people). These designations were strengthened by the communist (it is now remembered as progressive) Hessian Hill School, which now is the home of the Reform synagogue. Strangely, the school was private, not necessarily a concept one connects with socialism.
My parent’s home, over looking the former school, was its dormitory, with its own interesting history. One of Mount Airy’s two beautiful Bauhaus homes (an early twenties Continental architectural style originated by Walter Gropius), it had been built by a German Nazi, who returned to Europe to support Hitler. I suspect the subsequent owners of his house would have horrified him. Though it was reputed to have a secret room where he hid his radio equipment, it was never found (by my brothers and I) even after what seemed like long years of diligent search).
The Hill also had another (similarly uncomplimentary) name, Hessian Hill, which reflected a much earlier stratum of Croton’s history. The Hessians were hated mercenaries brought in by the British to fight in the American Revolution. Tradition has it that they encamped on Mount Airy – a belief strengthened by the occasional cannonball and powder horn discovered in the woods.
Indeed, the woods were filled with buildings, walls and ruins reflecting a long history of occupation. There were shell middens, created by the first people long before the Dutch and British came to North America, abutting farmhouses from before the revolutionary war. Everywhere there were walls demarking the long gone fields (now filled with seemingly ancient trees) of colonial farmers, and most amazingly there were the ruins of a 1920’s golf club, filled with elaborate staircases, foundations of long gone buildings and extensive verandas. Everything was there for us as we imagined ourselves as explorers and adventurers.
The golf club wasn’t the only relic of the roaring twenties. During Prohibition Croton had been a hotbed of sin, with a racetrack (now long gone) and at least two speakeasies, patronized by silent movie stars, and other escapees from New York. Coincidentally two had very appropriate names, considering the nature of my Blog. One was the Nikko Inn, modeled on a Japanese teahouse – with all the appropriate ancillary activities, while another was called the Mikado Inn. (For more modern aficionados of sin we even have our own Watergate Hotel, of dubious reputation).
Growing Up, Croton even had its own matsuri(s). Each year the Memorial Day parade, was led by the school bands. I remember these well, as I was in the first rank, as a fairly poor trombonist – I also was photographed for the local rag, sadly out of step! It wound noisily down Grand (Army of the Republic) Street to the patriotic stanzas of “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the “Liberty Bell March”, ending at the cenotaph, by the cemetery and small Dutch Church (reputedly visited by Washington), for wreath laying and dull political cant. A similar route was followed by the Fireman’s Parade, though this one ended more excitingly at JFK field, which was filled with carnival rides and yatai (fair food booths). The smaller Library Book Sale and Temple Bazar (or is it Bizarre) were also great places to pick up an old book, or some useless junk. We generally would buy back the books my mother tried unsuccessfully to remove from the house.
In the 60’s and 70’s there was also a dark side to Croton. Black Rock, a popular private swimming hole, was segregated, and did not allow African American members until after it was taken over by the Village. Croton was also not particularly racially diverse, and (at least in my memory) early on, most of the very few black residents lived in a rundown neighborhood that radiated down towards the river.
While the Croton Dam (reputed to be one of the largest structures built of hand hewn stone) and the Colonial Mansion Van Cortland Manor, are well known attractions, this trip I sought out a more private memory. Early Wednesday morning, I got up to run/jog the 4.5-mile loop around the reservoir, a run that I hadn’t done for nearly 30 years. Except for a bit more traffic, it hadn’t changed. The woods, houses and old church were much the same. There were still cardinals in the trees, deer grazing just off the road, and even a few turkeys that flew across my path. In the early morning it was still quiet and peaceful.
Yet, though beautiful, these were not what I looked forward to with some trepidation. Towards the end of the loop (if a loop can be said to have an end) there were two (relatively) ancient pictographs (or is it graffiti), for which I looked, and luckily not in vain – a fire breathing dragon (most likely Smaug), and an image of the “Lonely Mountain.” As a kid I always looked forward to these, both as a Tolkien enthusiast, and because they demarcated the end of the run. Were they still there, or had they weathered away, or been cleaned in some misguided act of the restoration of nature? Some things are lasting, thank God. There they were, and even brighter and more vivid than I remembered. I don’t know who painted them (there was a rumor that they were the creations of the rabbi’s son Joel), but I do know that they have been there at least 40 years. As I looked I wondered at their fresh appearance. Was my memory false, or have they been touched up over the years. I don’t think I will ever know. But I am glad that they persist, and not only in memory.
The process of renewal is a reflection of the temporary aspect of most human creations. Even the Great Wall of China has been substantially restored, and the Pyramids of Giza, though awesome, now lack the marble surface that covered them in antiquity. Indeed there are sites of ancient holiness where restoration or even complete rebuilding are a regular occurrence. In England, for example, villagers, following long tradition, regularly cut the turf around the great chalk figures that are found throughout the south, while in Japan the Great Imperial Shrine at Ise – perhaps the holiest in the nation – is completely rebuilt every 20 years. Even the seemingly most permanent of human creations, such as the Great Wall of China or the Croton Dam need constant repair.
In Judaism permanence is the provenance of the divine. The Human condition brief and temporary is always contrasted to the infinite nature of God. In the words of Psalm 144 – “O LORD, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You think of him? Man is like a mere breath; His days are like a passing shadow.” Yet, though given only a brief span, we can also be God’s partners in the perfection of the world. Just as the rock face was beautiful, but was also enhanced by the addition of the dragon, so to do the pyramids and even the Croton Dam enhance the world. Even more, however, is the world enhanced when our actions are the beauty that we create. When we think of others and work on their behalf – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and bringing peace and justice to the world – then though fleeting, do we transcend our brief span, creating soothing lasting and meaningful.
In Nepal we now see tragedies unfolding, as a horrible earthquake devastated that nation. Age old beautiful and historic buildings and monuments have been destroyed, and countless people killed and injured. The buildings, works of human hands, enhanced God’s creation. But even more, the simple lives of the people expressed God’s creative power. The buildings can be rebuilt, but the lost lives can never be repaired. Yet, here we have the real power to enhance the world as we reach out to help this devastated land. We can touch real people, as through our help we enable them to rebuild their homes and their lives. Next week the media will focus on some other tragedy or issue, but in Nepal the suffering will continue. We need to reach out and act now and continue to work in the weeks to come. If not now, when?
The JDC is actively working in Japan, as are many other NGO’s. Please check out this links, and be generous as we through our actions make a more beautiful world.