“Castle Hill” were the magical words of my childhood. For years, my family and I rented a small bungalow in what we called a “bungalow colony” in the Catskill Mountains in New York State—one colony of many populated by Jews living in “the city” (Brooklyn and Queens) and seeking to escape to, literally, greener pastures.
All winter long I dreamed of Castle Hill.
There, we swam every day in the freezing cold pool, chattering and shivering as the sun began to set. There, we barbecued every Sunday, when all the dads, who joined us for Shabbat and headed back to city life for the workweek, could grill us their famous hot dogs and burgers, along with cold fizzy drinks and drippy watermelon, cut into huge chunks. There, we learned to ride bikes, along with the cuts and scrapes that accompanied the rite of passage called “time-to-take-off-the-training-wheels!” There, my uncles played endless games of backgammon and played guitar while my aunts and mother chatted and needlepointed, while us kids ran around with abandon.
Castle Hill had a castle. I have no idea what this castle was for. Google is keeping its secrets. As kids, we made up story after story of princes and princesses, of haunted places and scary spirits. The colony used the castle as its sort-of main house, where the counselors of our day camp slept (I guess they weren’t spooked) and where you could buy ice cream and treats in a little snack bar. At some point the castle was condemned by the Board of Health, or some such agency, its windows boarded up and its stairways roped off.
Every now and then, the trucks would roll up. There was “Mom’s Kosher Knishes From Woodbourne!” as the driver would holler over his megaphone, over and over on repeat. There was Murray’s “sock truck,” which would appear selling socks, toys, and all kinds of novelty items. Also: yarmulkes, challah covers, nose plugs, and long skirts. But mostly, we lived a pretty simple life at Castle Hill. Dinners without the dads were kid-friendly affairs taken outdoors, with lots of grilled cheese sandwiches, which we were only too thrilled to enjoy.
But Shabbat at Castle Hill was special. On Friday, we’d clean up real nice. Everyone came out of their bungalows on Friday afternoon all sparkly with damp hair and shiny eyes. The daddies were home. Our tiny bungalows were transformed into ballrooms for Shabbat. We’d have our aunts, uncles and cousins over for Shabbat meals, dining like kings in the simple spaces. Since Shabbat was late, and I was young, I’d be sent off to bed which was literally one room over from the dining room, drifting off to dreamland to the comforting sounds of Shabbat chatter so close by.
And then, the September when I was six years old, my father died. We had just gotten back from Castle Hill a short while before. Little did I know it would be the last summer of Castle Hill with my father. And the next summer, my mother was preparing for her second marriage to my stepfather, a man from Cincinnati who had come to Cleveland to learn at Telshe Yeshiva and later attended medical school here. We would be moving to Cleveland. There would be no more Castle Hill.
I tried to get back to this near-mythical land of my childhood many times. My aunts, uncles and cousins still went, and I used any opportunity to be there, to drink in those halcyon, uncomplicated days. But the older I got the less entrancing it seemed, the smaller the bungalows, the more run down it all appeared.
Can we ever go back in time?
Every year as summer approaches I think of the days of Castle Hill. I’ve always wanted to give my children the summers I had as a kid, and in a way, raising them here in Cleveland, in suburban, safe, green spaces, is doing just that. But as nostalgia would have it, it’s not the same.
The older we get, the less halcyon life seems. It’s hard to think that today’s bumps and scrapes will be tomorrow’s nostalgia, but I already know this to be true. Today, as summer approaches, I am consumed with the trauma of Covid, of Meron, of the unrest in Israel. I am sad, scared, and helpless. Can today’s complex moments really be tomorrow’s fond memories? I can’t even look at photos of people in masks without feeling that familiar pit in my stomach and welling of tears in my eyes.
The year we’ve been through has been hellish on a number of levels. Never in my life have I experienced the fear of the unknown as I have in the past 14 months. It’s very possible that 24-hour access to digital information exacerbates that—I’ll own it—but it’s objectively been an unprecedented ride for those of us who have not lived through wartime. One memory: I am in my bedroom, talking on the phone with my sister-in-law, as she describes to me her real, raw fear that my brother-in-law will not survive the day.
I am nostalgic, already, about the beginning of Covid, when my family prayed together every Shabbat morning because synagogues were universally closed, bar none. We reminisce, this soon, about the delight of going out to pick up a prescription, because you were “going somewhere,” not to mention the joy of being selected to take out the trash. And, concomitantly, I think we all have post-traumatic stress from the low times. The fear, the tears, the losses, the dread.
Summer is coming again, and the Castle Hill of my youth is forty years in the past. It’s mixed up with the death of my father and my abbreviated time in that burnished bubble. The Year From Hell is barely a year old. The good memories and the bad, they’re all mixed up together. I wonder if my mother remembers Castle Hill the way I do. And I wonder how my children will remember Covid.
No one knows. Time has a way of shaping perceptions into something that takes on a life of its own. But one thing is for sure: perspective, my friends. Gam zeh ya‘avor. This too, shall pass. It always does; it always will. And maybe, just maybe, it will even take on a certain halcyon sheen one day.