A Hanukkah Dispatch From the East Village to the Borscht Belt, with Love
Mitzvahs, Miracles, Mariah Carey, and a Mountain of Technicolor Latkes
On the first night of Hanukkah, my mother gave to me: a pair of scrunchy pink socks from the Dollar Tree.
Did you know there’s a new James Bond movie out? I had no idea what it was called, so I dubbed it “Casino Never Dies.” Honestly, I’m surprised they haven’t taken that one, but should it ever come to fruition, you heard it here first.
I write to you from the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant where I am conquering a mountain of latkes (potato pancakes) and a cup of matzo ball soup polished off with some Medly gummies in honor of Hanukkah. John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (The War Is Over)” and Mannheim Steamroller are playing on this very premature radio holiday playlist that sounds nearly identical to the ones I’d listen to as I ushered piles of popcorn during the Christmas blockbusters playing at the movie theater I worked at as a teenager in the suburbs of Chicago.
Listening to Lennon’s anti-war Christmas song on the first night of Hanukkah is ironic not only for the holiday itself—which has become so conflated that some corporations are now using a super cringe one-size-fits-all daft approach to inclusivity—but that there are just many wars going on and no one knows when any of them will throw in the towel: the war on COVID, the war on climate, the War on Drugs, the conflict in the Middle East, Civil War, and, of course, the most tragic war of all: the Starbucks War on Christmas. When will it all end?
The unexpected blessing of the first night is learning that Mariah Carey has been holding out on a Hanukkah banger. Thank you for these seven seconds I will forever cherish.
Eating Jewish holiday foods at restaurants always feels a little like cheating, as if I am disappointing my wooden spoon-wielding ancestral mothers by not making a proper meal for six to eight. Yet, here I am cheating—for the first night, at least—and loving it. Listening to a table of 12 older people discuss micro-dosing psilocybin and mescaline, and how much relief they felt from depression is holiday cabaret and I didn’t even need a ticket. Eat your heart out, House of Gucci! That’s entertainment.
I’ve decided to do a slight Tour de Latke this week, until I muster up the energy to DIY my own latkes. Inevitably my tiny studio will smell like the deep fryer at Katz’s, which will soon double as a pheromone.
The streets are empty, but filled with trash because this is New York City and that’s how we do. Jack Frost isn’t quite nipping at my nose and I’m okay with that. Otherwise I wouldn’t have caught a room full of ballroom dancers at Cha-An Tea House on 9th Street, a Hanukkah line parade of Mitzvah Tanks and menorah-decked SUVs on 7th Avenue, a car with tinted windows billowing smoke on St. Marks, or had the willpower to keep searching for last-minute latkes at a diner at 8 p.m. all within a few hours of each other.
Hanukkah is kind of a weird celebratory holiday lumped into secular holidays filled with joyous time-honored activities like eating latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), and spinning a dreidel for chocolate gelt. As a result, it’s easy to forget with all of the family friendly charming activities that this is in commemoration of a bloody civil war between assimilationalists and non-conformists — or Jews vs. Jews.
On the one side were the Hellenist Jews, who wanted desperately to accommodate the ruling Seleucid regime, and were willing to do whatever it took to gain acceptance: changing their names; undoing their circumcisions so they could play naked in the gymnasia; worshiping Zeus instead of God. On the other were the Maccabees, the fundamentalist rebels who insisted on Jewish particularism and resisted assimilation to the death. Including the deaths of their fellow Jews.
The war began in 167 B.C. in Judea, in a town called Modi’in just outside of Jerusalem, when Mattathias, a Jewish priest, was ordered to prepare a sacrifice to Greek gods in the Jewish temple. He refused. Then he slaughtered the governor who issued the order and a fellow Jew—an idolator who had complied. What followed was an all-out uprising, with a small band of Maccabees defeating a far more powerful Seleucid force, recapturing the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and reasserting Jewish sovereignty in Judea.
Contained in this story are the themes that have run through Jewish history. The tension between universalism and particularism. The battle between assimilation and self-assertion. The pull between fundamentalism and secularism. And the complicated question of how far the bonds of peoplehood can strain before they break.
So basically, we’re honoring fundamentalists for being non-conformists. A real mixed bag of feelings on that one. The celebration, of course, was the victory and the miracle of oil (presumably olive) to last for 8 nights as an eternal flame—and a future act of resistance against the Nazis during the Holocaust.
In many ways, watching our favorite little queer yenta Sandra Bernhard explain to the iconic RuPaul how the Jews celebrate Hanukkah was an understated act of non-conformist resistance and a paradox of secularism and Jewish particularism. Bernhard has a much more cosmic and whimsical approach to the holiday because like most ‘90s celebrities, she was into Kabballah. RuPaul dons a velveteen yalmulke atop her glorious wig, confirming it is not sacrelig for drag queens to participate in Jewish activities nor wear a yamulke—in case you were wondering. As well as a reminder that legendary Sammy Davis Jr. was a Jew. He was also a satanist, but that’s another story (the early ‘70s were a weird time and the ‘90s digested all of it into a quirky exercise).
Tradition vs. reinvention is an interesting thing. Which traditions do we keep, and which are we willing to part with?
Growing up in the Midwest, I lived in predominantly Christian communities, so our holidays felt mostly like a private affair. I’d usually have one other Jewish friend, until college when I had a small group of Soviet Jews and Israelis I’d kick it with, trying our best to weave together our disjointed traditions. It wasn’t until my thirties that I had to start considering these ancient stories and traditions, somehow wanting to preserve these traditions while also constantly looking for ways to skirt rules. For many reasons, I appreciated that paradox of identity and self-determination.
After I wrote my book, I was asked many questions about the history of the Sullivan Catskills Borscht Belt, “or Jewish Alps, is a colloquial term for the mostly defunct summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains in parts of Sullivan, Orange and Ulster counties.” My family never really discussed this history before, so I had to do some digging because my maternal side was quite secular and my father’s side was raised to be anti-religious. My father, a truck driving, Marlboro smoking, Jewish cowboy, and my mother, an artist and insurance adjuster, a power suit wearing woman who ambitiously tapped at the glass ceiling before tapping out. Neither of them fit the mold of tradition in any sense, so I suppose it might seem strange that the passage of these traditions remains through a secular lens.
Yet, deep in my roots, we did have connections to the Borscht Belt. My grandfather took his kids to the Borscht Belt first time in 1969 during the moon landing, which they watched in the lobby of the Vegetarian Hotel in Woodridge. Later in the early 80's, my aunt Carol went to the Concord Hotel with some friends and saw Frankie Valee and the Four Seasons. And in 1978, she went to Grossinger's with my grandfather where Jackie Mason hit on her. “That was way before #MeToo!” she says.
About a month ago, I managed to escape the chaos of the city and take a trip to Sullivan Catskills for two much-needed days off the grid. The leaves were slow to turn in New York City, with a death grip still locked onto a hot girl summer long past its expiration date. Greeting me: a new generation of resorts starting to perk up, somewhere between an homage to the past and gesturing towards an unknown future. There, you can find peaceful moments in nature, perfect for taking an edible and videotaping nature for 40 minutes like I did.
Looking to GTFO? Of course you are.
Here are some fun things to do in Sullivan Catskills:
Where to Stay: I stayed at The Eldridge Preserve: a 3,000-acre resort in the heart of the historic Borscht Belt with contemporary cabins and rooms each offering private views of the woodlands. The cabin I stayed in featured a wrap-around deck, in-room fireplace, deep-set tub, and sumptuous bedding larger than my entire 9x12 studio apartment I currently inhabit in Manhattan. The bathroom was basically the size of my whole apartment. The breakfast buffet also wasn’t shabby: fresh-made pastries, quiche, and granola. The property features an on-site restaurant, Homestead, with a seasonally-driven menu of New American dishes. Get the Trout Almondine, made with locally-caught boneless fish from the Beaverkill River.
What to do: I missed the alpaca farm, but managed to get in some restorative yoga at Kenoza Hall, followed by two days of tastings at apiary-distillery-cum-general-everything-store Catskill Provisions Distilling, stunning newcomer Upward Brewing, and longtime local favorites Catskill Brewery, Northern Farmhouse Pasta, Do Good Spirits (FKA Prohibition Distilling), and Roscoe Beer Co. I demolished the chocolate honey truffles at Catskills Provisions as soon as I got home and still dream of the breakfast buffet at Eldridge.
What’s the weather like?: Rain poured from the sky and flooded every crevice of the mountain lows to Biblical proportions, then receded into a murky and muddy mess reminding that yes, climate change is very real. Everyone was quite friendly, though, and truly in the best spirits. It’s Harvest Season, after all, and not all ghosts are unfriendly.
I filled a bathtub with a Spirit of the Bayou Kush Queen Bath Bomb, then spent 40 minutes blissfully recording slow-motion videos of nature just so I could remember it one week later: shuffling slowly to the OBGYN.
On the way out of town, we took one of my favorite scenic routes along the Upper Delaware Bypass, where I snapped this pic at Hawk’s Nest: an iconic stopover with sweeping views of the river and mountains.
What’s the verdict on the vibe?: Sullivan County is still breathtakingly bucolic with charming small town vibes, an incredible abundance of nature and low frequency vibrationals courtesy of practically non-existent cellular service. If you’re looking to disconnect, this is a great place to recharge your batteries.
Overall, a marked improvement from last year when I was spiraling out with friends and family members slowly going insane while trapped with the depths of my tormented subconscious riddled with years of childhood trauma to cope with the horrible atrocities we collectively witnessed that infected every crevice of humanity and far too much time on my hands to process it all trying to figure out what to “do” with myself.
What’s the deal with weed and weirdos?: Beyond that, there is no weed news to report in Sullivan County. It is just a magical place to BYO to a region where you can dip out while prancing through the forest blasting Enya on your earbuds, then brag about it to everyone.
What I do recommend, however, is making a beeline for Bethel Woods, home of the original Woodstock Festival (not to be confused with the town with the eponymous name in Ulster County), which is hosted its very first Peace, Love and Pumpkins festival rivaling the annual Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze of Croton-On-Hudson and Long Island, but with the bonus that you can visit the very psychedelic Museum at Bethel Woods and original Woodstock grounds.
That’s just two days among the many adventures you can have highlighted in my book Easy Weekend Getaways in the Hudson Valley & Catskills, out now everywhere books are sold. IndieBound | W.W. Norton | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Target