Book rekindles memories of Bagel Beach and Woodmont
Elizabeth Poliner’s new book, “As Close To Us As Breathing,” has sparked discussion of the history of Woodmont and brought people together to reminisce about their past.
This was the case recently at the Tri-Beach Recreation Center in Milford, when Poliner visited to sign copies of her book prior to a tour of the synagogue across the street, which was the center of life for Jewish vacationers in 1948, when Poliner’s book was set.
“What a great crowd we have in Bagel Beach,” said Mara Balk, program director for the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, as the program got underway earlier this month just beyond the Woodmont line. The JCC organized the event, working with the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont.
People packed the community center for the signing and reading from the book, which was described as a chance to “Journey back to the ‘Catskills-by-the-Sea’ with friends and community members.” The book, though fiction, is historically set, recreating the atmosphere and places that existed at the beach after WWII.
A bagel brunch was included, followed by a tour of the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont. The historic synagogue is currently the focus of fundraising and a restoration effort following a 2012 fire that nearly destroyed it. Brunch-goers got a look inside the building, which is largely the same as it was the day after the fire; they also toured the newly restored hall next to it, where weekly services and other events now take place.
Those in attendance reminisced about the beach, the synagogue and mutual friends as if they were at a reunion, and copies of Poliner’s book atop a small table whispered of the past, the story including mention of many Woodmont landmarks.
The fictional story is set in 1948. According to a book description at Amazon.com, this “small stretch of the Woodmont, Connecticut shoreline, affectionately named ‘Bagel Beach,’ has long been a summer destination for Jewish families. Here sisters Ada, Vivie, and Bec assemble at their beloved family cottage, with children in tow and weekend-only husbands who arrive each Friday in time for the Sabbath meal.
“But when a terrible accident occurs on the sisters' watch, a summer of hope and self-discovery transforms into a lifetime of atonement and loss for members of this close-knit clan,” the description continues.
The book opens along Milford’s shore.
“Here: the shore, that small piece of it unofficially called Bagel Beach, which was our beach, the Jews’. We were among the many Jewish families throughout Connecticut (and a few from Massachusetts and New York as well) who funneled down to this spot where some of us owned cottages, some rented, and others stayed in seaside hotels, but all of us kept close, crowded, because in 1948 there were so many palaces Jews still couldn’t go, so many covenants, formal and informal, restricting us from neighborhoods, resorts, clubs — you name it.”
In her novel, the intersection of Merwin and Hillside avenue is described as a place where there existed “Jewish bakers and butchers, and even a one room Orthodox synagogue — the Woodmont Hebrew Congregation — a building of white clapboard, in the New England way.”
Poliner said four generations of her family had ties to the beach area: She grew up hearing stories from her parents, who spent summers at Bagel Beach and actually met there, and which inspired the setting for her book.
“I grew up hearing about four cottages in a row on Hillside,” she told the crowd. “My parents and their siblings have a connection from their summers at Bagel Beach.”
Poliner’s story is set after WW2, when she said there was a renewed sense of hope, “so everyone is a little more relaxed.”
“I like to think of them as just able to follow their passions,” she said of the characters in her book.
Her novel includes mention of Treat Farm, where a character “works part time and develops a fondness for a girl, but she isn’t Jewish.” Poliner also did a book signing at a recent farmers market at Robert Treat Farm.
There are glimpses in her book of Hillside Avenue, Sloppy Joes, which later became Sloppy Josés; Anchor Beach, and other local landmarks.
Poliner noted that Bagel Beach is technically not in Woodmont, pointing out that “different people define Bagel Beach in different ways.”
Chanie Wilhelm, whose husband, Schneur Wilhelm, is the rabbi at the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont, is an authority on the area and the history, and she spoke too at the recent book signing. A member of the relatively new Bagel Beach Historical Association, Wilhelm is collecting stories and artifacts to create a Bagel Beach museum at the synagogue.
She said the Jewish people who vacationed summers here called their area Woodmont because the trolley that they took from New Haven to get to the beach dropped them at the Woodmont stop, and they walked the short distance to their beach cottages and homes.
Bagel Beach, though it was never an official name for this area, actually consisted of Merwin, Burwell and Farview beaches, Wilhelm said.
Poliner, who spent six years researching and writing her book, said she had planned to call it Bagel Beach, but then changed that to a line from a prayer: “You are as close to us as breathing, yet You are farther than the farthermost star.”
The line, she said, captures the family’s struggles in the novel.
Milford beaches in years past were in many ways representative of the way cultures remained divided during those years, Poliner explained during her presentation. She explains it like this in her novel: “Segregated ethnic tribalism that for us was part necessity, part comfort.”
Poliner grew up in East Hampton. She teaches at Hollins University in Virginia, and she sets many of her stories in Connecticut. She is also the author of Mutual Life & Casualty, a novel in stories, and Sudden Fog, a collection of poems, according to the Hollins University website.
A trip to the Milford Public Library is indicative of the local attraction of a book filled with Woodmont and Milford history and memories. There are two copies of As Close To Us As Breathing, but as of last week, there was a list of at least eight people waiting to read the books.
(Check back in coming days for more articles about Bagel Beach, the Bagel Beach Historical Association, and the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont.)