Washington, D.C., summers have been hot since forever, so a place to swim is a necessity, not a luxury. In the 1950s and 1960s, no one had air conditioning at home, and the Potomac River was so polluted that a tetanus shot was advised if you fell in. We lived in Southeast when I was little, and my parents would drive across town to Georgetown, the rich part of the city, to the public pool. My mother says I would throw myself in if she took her hand off me; she was constantly thanking people for rescuing the baby.
When I was four, we moved to the suburb of Glen Echo, Maryland. The nearest community pools were full, and country clubs didn’t take Jews. I’m not sure if we would have been disqualified on ethnic grounds, my mother not being Jewish, but my father’s government salary certainly excluded us from the country club set.
Glen Echo had one “public” pool, the Crystal Pool, an Olympic-sized art deco extravaganza with a fake beach in an amusement park, a converted Chautauqua overlooking the Potomac with a fairy-tale round stone tower and a roller coaster. All summer, you could hear screams, the clatter of cars, and music.
We never went there, though, because it was segregated. Also, my mother considered amusement parks tacky. According to a June 27, 2010 retrospective in The Washington Post, until 1957, Montgomery County, Maryland, schools bussed white students to swim at Glen Echo and black students to pools in the District. Residents of a nearby Jewish neighborhood petitioned the county to stop the practice. By the time I started school, no one mentioned swimming outings.
We joined a new community pool the minute the construction plans were announced. My parents, who agonized over every expenditure, didn’t hesitate. I remember my father’s smile when he announced that we would have a place to swim the next summer. We visited the construction site, watching the progress from dirt hole to raw concrete and rebar to aqua basin. We swam from Memorial Day to Labor Day. My brother and I swam all day, then returned after dinner with my father. We never wore sunscreen or goggles and always saw rainbows and smelled of chlorine.
In the summer of 1960, black students from Howard University and white community members picketed Glen Echo Amusement Park for eight weeks, the culmination of years of attempts to desegregate. Counter-picketers included the American Nazi Party, according to eyewitnesses and historians interviewed in the documentary “Glen Echo on the Potomac” by Kevin Weyrauch.
For a taste of the malice the protesters faced, listen to an audio tape made by a radio newsman, Sam Smith, of a black protester talking to a park employee, which includes this (edited) exchange:
“My race? I belong to the human race…”
“The park is strictly for white people, has been for years…”
“Because my skin is black, I cannot come into the park?”
“Not because your skin is black. I asked you what your race was…”
“What class person do you allow to come in here?”
“…So you say you exclude the American Negro who is a citizen of the United States?”
The park’s owners held out all season, but opened it to all comers the following year. “Fun is where you find it… Glen Echo Amusement Park,” an old radio jingle went.
The bus ride to Glen Echo probably took two hours from Washington’s African-American neighborhoods. But they came.
In 1966, black teenagers rioted on Easter Sunday, after the roller coaster was closed. Park managers said a lit cigarette thrown from a car had damaged the tracks, but black customers apparently believed they’d closed the ride out of spite. D.C. Transit cancelled bus service back to the city, forcing them to walk miles through white suburban and Northwest D.C. neighborhoods. Vandalism was reported. Police quoted in a UPI report called the rioters “a bunch of savages.” The park closed permanently in 1968, its “fun” image long eroded. Glen Echo is now an arts park run by the National Park Service. The stone tower, the Spanish Ballroom, and the carousel were restored, but the Crystal Pool was filled in long ago. Today, there are seven public pools in Montgomery County and several dozen in D.C.
Our pool wasn’t segregated, but it didn’t have any black members, and no one brought black guests—until 1963 when my parents invited their friend, Wilbur Wright, a State Department colleague of my father’s. I remember hanging by the wall with him and my parents, him laughing, as if it was just another summer day at a neighborhood pool. I wonder how he felt. I remember my father saying afterward that other members complained about him politicizing the swimming experience.
The two best reasons to visit Vinalhaven Island, Maine, are quarry swimming and lobsters. So, I was surprised to see a young Orthodox Jewish couple with their baby and an older woman, apparently the mother of one or the other, among the summer people one August, some years ago. Lobsters, being scavengers, are treif (not kosher) and so is immodesty, which rules out mixed public swimming, though the details vary among Orthodox sects and denominations. Some only swim covered. Some swim onlyen famille and in private. Some never swim in mixed company. Some don’t swim, period.
Intrigued, I watched the couple from afar. The island is only fifteen miles long by seven miles wide. Commerce clusters around Carver’s Harbor. You’ll cross paths with anyone several times a day. My husband and I and our two children were staying in a rented house on the island. I’d been coming to the Maine islands since childhood and Vinalhaven for the past several years. Used to be, you never saw anyone “different” on the Maine islands. The Vinalhaven 2010 census is 97.6% white, down from 98.14% in 2000. Many fishermen have the surnames you see on tombstones in the cemetery, which goes back to the 1700s: Burgess, Ames, Young, Philbrook, Bunker.
The “summah people” tend to be rusticating professionals from New York, Boston, and occasionally farther afield. That summer, there were several white families with adopted non-white children, including us, and we knew a mixed-race couple from Maryland who owned a summer house on Vinalhaven, but none of us required more than the island’s stock offerings.
The Orthodox family was staying at the Tidewater Motel at the harbor. I saw the four of them driving around in one of the motel owner’s rental cars. The couple occasionally rode the motel’s clunky single-speed bikes minus baby. They looked to be in their twenties, modern Orthodox, not Chasidim. He had a beard, no payis. She wore a long denim skirt, closed shoes, long-sleeved shirts and a head scarf. He wore long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and a yarmulka. The tzitzit, fringes of his prayer shawl, peeked out from under his shirt. The older woman dressed more conservatively, in a head scarf, dark clothes, and stockings.
I wondered what they ate. There are no kosher restaurants and no kosher section in the Vinalhaven IGA. They certainly couldn’t hang out at The Harbor Gawker, the island’s premier lunch place, which specializes in milky fish and seafood chowders and cheeseburgers.
The island of Vinalhaven is the tip of a granite mountain in the Penobscot Bay, an hour and a quarter ferry ride east from Rockland. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a source of granite for such major public works as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Washington Monument, Penn Station in Philadelphia, and the foundation and columns of St. John the Divine in New York. In 1891, the Bodwell Quarry claimed to have quarried the largest mass of stone ever: 115 feet high, 10 feet square and weighing 850 tons.
Maine ocean swimming is best left to children with furnace metabolisms. The currents flow from Greenland and Labrador, and the cove bottoms are covered with ostrich egg-sized granite stones, slippery with kelp. But all over the island, the abandoned quarries, fifty feet deep in places, have filled with rain and spring water, their raw edges grown over with fir trees, grasses, and moss.
The Vinalhaven town maintains two quarries as public pools. The swimming is the most delicious imaginable. The water is dark green, pure, free of weeds and algae, sweet, and chlorine-free. Quarrying left behind stepping stones, diving cliffs, high and low, shallow and deep areas, and coves. Lie on your back, scull, watch the clouds, the pines. On hot weekends—hot being relative even in August—the quarries are crowded, also relative. On a cool or cloudy day, you may share an entire quarry with one other family.
The Orthodox family had been on the island a few days when they showed up at our preferred quarry. Just the couple and baby. There were a few other families swimming, island women with school-age children, and us and our two. I wondered how the island women would react to the couple. Jews haven’t historically gotten a very warm welcome in Maine. In the 1950s, most Maine resorts excluded Jews. Today there are only 14,000 Jews in all Maine, over half recent transplants. I watched the island women go out of their way to talk to the young mother when she brought the baby down to the large flat rock closest to the water and splashed water on the little girl. Maybe they didn’t notice the husband’s yarmulka. Or maybe they felt compassion for the flushed mother in her hot, confining clothes. Her equally red-faced husband walked around on the rock, appearing restless and uncomfortable.
My own mother is not Jewish, but my family ties are exclusively to my father’s Viennese Jewish family, one of those assimilated bourgeois families that gave up ritual, but not its sense of Jewish identity. I’m sure that a couple of hundred years ago, my ancestors lived by Orthodox rules as well, and I’m grateful they gave them up—for their sake and mine. (I wouldn’t have been born, for one thing.)
The rules of tznius (modesty) are supposed to prevent women from stimulating inappropriate erotic feeling in men. Rabbis cite the Torah, but the Torah is cool with slavery and prescribes execution for adultery and stoning if a bride turns out not to be a virgin. Why modesty and not slavery? Why not a little stoning, while we’re at it? Why, on a beautiful summer day, should God make the goyim cool and happy and the pious Jews suffer?
At some point, the couple had some discussion, and the wife went off briefly toward the woods while the father watched the baby. She came back wearing an ordinary one-piece bathing suit. She was very thin and had long brown hair and white skin. Then her young husband took off his pants, shirt, and tallis, right on the rock in front of us. He had his bathing suit on underneath his clothes. He was also very white, thin, and long-waisted. The woman went into the water first. She could swim well. I felt like a voyeur watching her dunk her head and let the water run off her hair. Her movements were a little shy. I wondered if she’d always been so observant. She swam back and began playing with the baby, while her husband swam.
I talked with her about babies and sunscreen, not daring to ask: do you feel guilty? Do you do this in other places where you’re unlikely to meet other Orthodox Jews? Do you think God minds? Did He bring you to this water to tempt you?
My mother, who went to Catholic school as a little girl in the 1920s, adored one of her teachers, a young, pretty nun. “I used to think maybe she’ll escape,” she told me. I was thinking the same thing for this young couple. Run! Free yourself!
Virginia Woolf wrote a short story, “An Unwritten Novel,” in which the narrator invents a miserable, old-maid life, a cruel sister-in-law, and a dead married lover for a woman on a train, who turns out to have a son waiting cheerfully for her at the next station. Maybe this was the peace the Orthodox couple had made with their restricted lives–sneaking brief non-kosher pleasures where no one they knew would see or condemn them, and I’d simply projected onto them my admittedly conflicted feelings about religion.
You can find a justification for many things in the Bible—smiting, vengeance, repentance, rejoicing. To swim happily on a summer day? I’m no Torah scholar, but Ecclesiastes 7:15 might suffice: “Be not righteous overmuch…why shouldst thou destroy thyself?”
Julia Lichtblau’s writing is forthcoming in The Florida Review and has been published in Best Paris Stories, Temenos, Ploughshares blog, Narrative, Pindeldyboz,and Tertulia.