AUGUST 10, 2017 – The two best reasons to visit Vinalhaven Island off the coast of 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. Some swim only with family 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 15 miles long by 7 miles wide. Commerce clusters around Carver’s Harbor. You’ll cross paths with anyone several times a day.
My husband and I were staying in a rented house on the island with our two children. 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 94.4 percent white, down from 97.6 percent 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.
The Orthodox family was staying at the Tidewater Motel on 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 20s, modern Orthodox, not Chasidim. She wore a long denim skirt, closed shoes, long-sleeved shirts, and a head scarf. He had a beard, no payot, and wore long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and a yarmulke. 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 market. They certainly couldn’t hang out at The Harbor Gawker, the island’s premier lunch place, which specializes in milky fish, seafood chowders, and cheeseburgers.
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Vinalhaven is the tip of a granite mountain in Penobscot Bay, an hour and a quarter ferry ride east from Rockland. Maine ocean swimming is best left to children with furnace metabolisms. The icy 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, 50 feet deep in places, have filled with rain and spring water, their raw edges grown over with fir trees, grasses, and moss.
The town of Vinalhaven 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, high and low diving cliffs, shallow and deep areas, and coves. Lie on your back and watch the clouds, the pines. On warmer weekends, the quarries are somewhat crowded. 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 their baby. There were a few other families swimming, island women with school-age children, and we and our two kids.
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 among the 1.3 million residents of the vast state.
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 the little girl. Maybe they didn’t notice the husband’s yarmulke. 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 origins, 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.
The rules of tznius (modesty) are supposed to prevent women from stimulating inappropriate erotic feeling in men. Rabbis cite the Torah, but the Torah allows 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 let the goyim be 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 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 has appeared in The American Scholar, Narrative, BusinessWeek, and elsewhere.