June 11, 2007


In N.H. town, a cultural widening: Bethlehem residents, stores responding to influx of Jews (Sarah Schweitzer, June 11, 2007, Boston Globe)

Kosher history was made in this North Country town as clerks at the Bethlehem Village Store recently moved aside boxes of Luvs diapers and cases of Budweiser to make way for Manischewitz matzo meal, borscht, gefilte fish, potato pancake mix, and Tam-Tam crackers.

"The store is recognizing that there are other people who exist," said Harold Friedman , 76, a Bethlehem selectman and resident of six years, by way of Long Island. "It's wonderful."

Brookline, it is not. But Bethlehem, population 2,300, has become an unusual rural scene. Jews from across the country have taken up residence in and around this faded resort town, lured in part by the area's rugged beauty, but especially by the proximity to members of a common faith.

Jewish culture, far more prevalent in urban and suburban settings, now threads through this outlying town, which has a lone blinking traffic light and grassy knolls where elegant hotels once stood on Main Street. The recent influx has propelled an ongoing tutorial for long time residents in the ways of synagogues and Jewish burial and the rules of kosher food.

The scenes unfold everywhere. Bethlehem's Colonial Theater this summer will host a Jewish film festival. The town's five-member Board of Selectmen includes two Jewish members. The non denominational synagogue, a former Episcopal church, is now open year-round for regular services, a Hebrew school, and bar and bat mitzvahs. [...]

Specialists in Jewish-American life say that Jews have transformed other onetime seasonal spots, such as Sharon, Mass., into permanent homes. But Bethlehem is remarkable because of its setting. New Hampshire was the last state to grant Jews and other non-Christians the right to hold elective office, in 1877, and has long held the reputation of being unfriendly to outsiders, with its homogenous population and conservative political bent, said Jonathan Sarna , a Brandeis University professor of American Jewish history.

In recent years, New Hampshire has grown in population and become more diverse. Still, the state now counts just 9,970 Jews, or .8 percent of the population; Massachusetts, by contrast, counts 275,030 Jews, or 4.3 percent of the population, according to 2006 estimates by the American Jewish Year Book. [...]

Their presence marks a renaissance of Jewish activity. Jews began flocking in summertime to Bethlehem in 1916, seeking relief from hay fever in the town's high altitude. At the time, many of the region's grand hotels barred Jews, but they were welcomed at the Altamonte Hotel, which had been bought by businessman Isidor Lusher . By 1956, more than a dozen hotels in Bethlehem catered to the summer Jewish trade, according to "Images of America Bethlehem," published by Arcadia Publishing.

"They were communities in and of themselves," said Linda Herrman , a Bethlehem resident who recently moved from Florida. Her father owned the Sinclair Hotel, which signaled its friendliness to Jews with a notation of "Dietary Laws" on its stationery, meaning that the hotel was kosher. "There was not a lot of contact with the rest of Bethlehem," she said.

In the 1960s and '70s, the Jewish hotels were shuttered as allergy sufferers sought solace in medication and as hotels elsewhere removed rules precluding Jews. Jews sold homes, and attendance at the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation fell.

Rebirth of the Jewish community came in the late 1990s, with the burgeoning group of year-round residents. Some are retirees who visited during summers of their youth; others are small-business owners and telecommuters freed from city life by the Internet.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2007 6:57 AM

"Non-denominational Synagogue" The mind boggles anew almost every day.

Posted by: erp at June 11, 2007 8:30 AM