For as long as I’ve been a practicing rabbi, I’ve taken most of my vacation time in the month of August. Most rabbis—by far the majority—vacation in July, feeling that August is too close to the Holidays. It makes them anxious to be away then. I’m exactly the opposite. I’m all for preparing, but since July is customarily a very slow month work-wise, I’ve never quite understood why to take vacation then. I’d rather “get out of Dodge” when everyone else is getting increasingly antsy about what lies ahead!
Be that as it may, I returned to my synagogue last week fresh from some wonderful time away in Seattle, Washington. Why Seattle? Well, mainly because it’s reputed to be a wonderful city, which it is; it‘s said to have spectacular weather during the summer months, which it does; and, frankly, because it was about as far away from New York as my wife could get without leaving the country (other than a brief trip to Victoria, B.C.). I’ve found through the years that the only way to really get away is to actually get away physically. We spent some of our time here in NYC, and it was wonderful to use the city as a playground, which we rarely allow ourselves to do. But getting out of the city into a radically different part of the country, with a very different vibe, was both delightful and restorative.
Those of you who are familiar with Seattle will know that it has many charms, far too numerous to describe here. Each deserves its own special shout-out. But I think that what I enjoyed the most, and what had the greatest impact on me, was a beautiful day spent in Mount Rainier National Park. I could have stood and stared at that snow-capped, towering mountain for days and not tired of it. It’s hard not to feel good about the world when you’re in the presence of such sublime majesty.
When you live in New York City, as I do, and a lot of your time is spent navigating Queens Boulevard, the Long Island Expressway, the Triboro Bridge and Manhattan traffic, as mine is, it doesn’t take all that much natural beauty to overwhelm you. I love New York. I have always believed that if you don’t love New York, it’s foolish to live here, because the obvious issues that New Yorkers are called upon to deal with on a regular basis will blow away the fact that there’s Broadway, museums, and all that. You have to love this city to put up with its mishegas, and I do love it. It’s been the backdrop of my life for almost fifty years.
Take me out of the city, where it’s quiet, peaceful, and beautiful, and I am a happy man. Not to suburbia; that’s completely different. No part of me longs for suburbia. But put me where you look outside you window, or open your front door, and you’re looking at majestic mountains, gorgeous lakes, or towering trees, and I’m contented in a way that I rarely am able to feel here in the city. In that sense and for many others, the national parks in this country are a great gift to us, reminding us of the grandeur of creation and the great natural beauty that is to be found here in America. There is a world beyond where we live, and natural beauty is every bit as much a part of the American landscape as skyscrapers.
And, of course, I am well aware of the fact that there are people living in those areas of this country that so thrill me who long for nothing more than to come to New York and experience the exuberant, cacophonous vibrancy of the city. People who have never seen Times Square at night, or been to a play or to a museum here, or contemplated the Freedom Tower, are missing as important a piece of the American tapestry as we city dwellers are. We are all pieces of the greater whole that is this country, in all of its complexity.
We are all pieces of the greater whole that is this country, in all of its complexity… How great would it be to transplant that sensitivity, born out of a classic city mouse/country mouse daydream, onto the social and political divides that plague us in twenty-first century America… Even the quest for balance could only make us healthier.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.