Academic journal article Communal Societies

The Sholem Community: Reimagining a Jewish Agricultural Community as the First Jewish Resort in the Catskill Mountains

Academic journal article Communal Societies

The Sholem Community: Reimagining a Jewish Agricultural Community as the First Jewish Resort in the Catskill Mountains

Article excerpt

In the last hundred years, much has been written about a group of New York City Jews who left their urban homes in 1837 and established a village in Wawarsing, Ulster County, New York, at the southern tip of the Catskill Mountains. According to prevailing scholarship, this village, called Sholem, was an early Jewish agricultural colony. (1) These pioneers are recognized for attempting what would become more popular in the 1880s, when Eastern European Jews began immigrating to America and settling on farms, but an air of mystery surrounds this inceptive Jewish colony. Scholars generally agree that a group of early nineteenth-century Jews forsook the city and returned to their agricultural roots, emulating the Jewish patriarchs and participating in America's predominantly agrarian society. Yet this interpretation of the group's intent contains several incongruities, leading scholars to refer to the group, paradoxically, as sagacious men without foresight; shrewd businessmen induced to make a bad deal; brave and intelligent, but desperate and foolish, Jews; and naive, idealistic, pathetic immigrants. (2)

Alternate interpretations of the founders' intentions began to emerge at the end of the twentieth century. Several scholars placed the community within the genealogy of communal experiments of the early nineteenth century, suggesting that Sholem was a response to disenfranchisement caused by urbanization and a deliberate choice to form an inclusive religious society (.3) However, as Tobias Brinkmann points out, Jewish groups "should be clearly distinguished from Christian, proto-Socialist or other utopian colonization projects in the American context," in part because the Jewish goal of enhancing integration into society is at odds with the utopian notion of separating from society. (4) Furthermore, the founding of many new Ashkenazi synagogues during this time period contradicts the need to leave the well-established Jewish community in New York City merely to express another variation of Judaism. While agriculture, communitarianism, and religious innovation are evident in the structuring of the village, each plays only a secondary role in Sholem's primary purpose.

Reframing the role of agriculture as a means to a financial end and a necessity for survival in rural America creates room to expand the interpretation of Sholem's purpose and resolve the incongruities associated with previous interpretations. The acceptance of social experimentation in 1830s America provided an opportunity for communitarian innovation that encouraged the formation of the new village. Creating a synagogue community was necessary for this group of observant Jews and offered a much-needed haven for itinerant peddlers on the Sabbath in such a remote environment. But the remarkable location of this village points to its primary purpose. Before the mid-nineteenth century, most Jews moved individually from crowded East Coast cities to western frontier cities to ply their urban trades, eventually forming a synagogue community when a minyan was present. In contrast to this migration trend, the Sholem Jews moved en masse northward to the iconic Catskill Mountains and built a village with an inn, a museum, and an art exhibition. Sholem was more than an agricultural colony; it was the first Jewish resort in the Catskill Mountains.

Donald Pitzer notes that studying a close-knit, intentional community like Sholem "may more vividly highlight issues easily overlooked when studying more conventional movements [and] suggest new perspectives on the distinctive character of American religion, ethnicity, and social reform, as well as on our particular sense of national mission." (5) Expanding the interpretation of Sholem beyond the traditional bounds of the Jewish agricultural movement reveals a new dimension to the venture that has been unexplored. By situating Sholem within the history of Catskill Mountain tourism, the 1837 relocation of Jewish merchants, craftsmen, and peddlers from New York City to the remote mountains of Ulster County becomes a prescient speculation in the emerging middleclass tourist industry. …

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