Hiking with the hassidim - opinion

My new hassidic friends and I became members of the Jewish people again, a people continuously redeeming itself from the petty bigotries of our righteous ignorance.

MEN SEARCH the cloak room for their jackets at a mass gathering of Satmar Hassidim in New York (photo credit: REUTERS)
MEN SEARCH the cloak room for their jackets at a mass gathering of Satmar Hassidim in New York
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The Kaaterskill Clove, a million-year-old gorge that reaches depths of 760 meters (2,500 feet), is a majestic gem of the Catskill Park, the vast wilderness area of the Catskill mountain range in New York. 

The Catskills still elicit mixtures of laughter and nostalgia among the diminishing ranks of East Coast baby boomers, Jews especially, who grew up vacationing or working in the area during the heyday of its Borscht Belt hotels and resorts, which long ago disappeared. Cultural icons such as these evolve and dissolve, but the clove’s peaks, creeks and its stunning Kaaterskill Falls stand immovably and ceaselessly move, graceful but implacable royals made of stone, trees, light and water.

From the very first time I saw Kaaterskill Falls from a viewing platform, my feet have begged me to let them take me to the bottom 80 meters (260 feet) below. The water cascading from the Kaaterskill Creek down the two tiers of rock evokes for me the power of life raging and racing through the world, as if God had built a massive water slide and plummeted downward in roaring joy. 

Having missed a chance to hike down to the falls with my wife this past spring, I spontaneously paid them a visit on a quiet, sunny Wednesday afternoon in late August. The Jewish High Holy Days were approaching, COVID continued to batter us and soon late summer would become fall and winter, rendering the descent on the steep hiking paths icily impassable.

At the turning of the Jewish year, I desperately needed solace and solitude, the kind that only a place such as those falls could provide. Speeding off the New York State Thruway, my car and I negotiated the tight, winding path of State Route 23A, one of the region’s two scenic byways whose vistas are so stunning they threaten to render wonder-struck drivers incapable of driving safely.

A LOOK at the Kaaterskill Falls as seen from the upper viewing platform.  (credit: DAN ORNSTEIN)
A LOOK at the Kaaterskill Falls as seen from the upper viewing platform. (credit: DAN ORNSTEIN)

I approached the parking entrance where one trailhead to the falls begins, noting the deepening woods that wove a latticework of towering trees out of which would shoot intermittent flashes of midday sunlight. With a bit too much melodrama, I imagined that I was a pilgrim to a silent shrine offering me the quiet of God’s peace on a weekday afternoon while everyone was at work.

Everyone was not at work. 

As I pulled into the almost-full lot, I was stunned by the mass of humanity parked and picnicking there, that had run away from COVID for the day. Knowing that Greene County in Upstate New York, where the falls are located, is hardly a bastion of ethnic diversity, I surmised quickly that the people there in their multifarious saris, sarongs, speech patterns and skin tones were from out of town, likely New York City, an easy three-hour drive. 

Though I was inspired by the sight of so much vibrant and diverse humanity in one place, I already felt thwarted by and resentful of the crowding and the noise on that serene Wednesday afternoon. So what if all these fellow New York State residents paid taxes like I do? 

The falls were supposed to be my sanctuary that day, with the only noise the wind in the trees and the rush of water, a choir singing for me alone. The hike down to the bottom of the falls would be exhilarating.

But I was annoyed at having to share it with a crowd of big city fair-weather hikers, many wearing dumb and dangerous flip flops on their feet, carrying wasteful plastic water bottles in their belt loops, and lugging cumbersome beverage coolers in their hands. 

As a long line of people began their descent to the falls, I hung back to enjoy the little serenity I could obtain. Walking slowly along a tributary of the main path through a cool and darkened grove of trees, I was surprised to meet a young hassidic couple who likely came from one of the region’s ultra-Orthodox enclaves.

“What are they doing here?” I asked myself, as I started pulling the self-protective carapace of stereotypes securely around me. Their austere, modest black and white dress contrasted jarringly with the bright colors worn by the other hikers and the trees’ vibrant greens, seemingly hard evidence of how much more sunny, joyful and authentically human my world was than theirs.

Though as a fellow member of the Jewish people I certainly have known ultra-Orthodox and hassidic Jews, our different approaches to Judaism are increasingly divergent and at times mutually hostile, a reflection of the worldwide Jewish community’s increased polarization. Glancing at them, I noted with condescension how they were dressed for daily life in the constricted spaces of their fundamentalism, not the wide-open places of the Catskill wilderness; they were ill-prepared and ill-attired for its free and rugged terrain. I started to walk away from them, hoping to reach the falls quickly.

And as quickly, I changed my mind.

Clad in hiking clothes and a favorite baseball cap, I displayed no giveaways that I too was a member of the tribe, but I felt compelled to signal our common bond to them. “Shalom aleichem,” I said to them, peace be upon you, a standard greeting among religious Jews.

“Aleichem shalom,” upon you should be peace, the young couple warily but politely responded; their speech was inflected with the thick Yiddish twang of Eastern European Jewry long ago demolished in the Holocaust yet revived in their more secluded piece of America.

“This park is such a beautiful place, a true bracha,” I exclaimed, using the Hebrew word for a blessing. “Yes, it is,” the wife responded. “It’s one of our favorite places to hike.”

I didn’t see that one coming as scaly stereotypes fell a bit from my eyes. “Yeah, it’s a wonderful way to feel Hashem’s presence in the world,” I gushed somewhat stupidly, using the Hebrew word for God. 

“It’s why we come here to hike all the time,” the husband remarked.

Eager to let them know that I was a well-educated Jew like them, I casually replied, “Just the other day I was teaching some of my Talmud students the passage about the bracha one says upon seeing waterfalls.”

“There is one?” the man responded quizzically. His wife shot him a look of mild embarrassment that said, “This clean-shaven, assimilated Jew knows that, and you don’t? For shame!” Maybe some scales had fallen from their eyes as well.

We chatted for a few more minutes, exchanging the usual pleasantries about our communities, but always returning to our shared amazement at the wondrous miracle of the waterfall. God, who I like to believe has little tolerance for mutual intolerance, had given us this fleeting moment of shared gratitude and joy, in which no room existed for divisive derision of one’s fellow Jew or human being by the other.

I suspected this would be the only time that I’d meet these people; we’d return to the small, shuttered silos of our respective lives and loves, each of us hopefully a bit more open to the other’s nuanced messiness shimmering beneath our neatly stereotyped appearances. There is a legend that when the Israelites witnessed God’s power in splitting the Reed Sea into water walls, each of them saw God in supremely individual ways, yet they became one people. 

As we anticipated witnessing God’s power in splitting a creek into a waterfall, my hassidic friends and I became members of the Jewish people again, as well: a people continuously redeeming itself from the petty bigotries of our righteous ignorance, long enough to celebrate the rush and rustle of the world and our many places within it.