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America in the Fall

Family spends two exciting months touring coast to coast. Story and photos by Susan de la Fuente

After a long absence from the USA, we returned to New York in the fall for a family event. We spent two exciting months touring coast to coast. Among the first places we visited were Virginia, Florida, New Orleans in Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas. Although we sometimes rented a car, we also used Amtrak trains and intercity buses to help us stay within budget.

Being kosher travelers, we used insulated food bags plus a Styrofoam ice chest for car travel. We chose motel rooms with a refrigerator and, preferably, a microwave and laundry facilities. With no close relatives or friends to fall back on we scheduled Shabbat in orthodox communities. After writing ahead to synagogues to check prospects for hospitality, we booked motels within walking distance.

Early in October we did a car tour of Virginia, state of the beautiful trees. During an action-packed week we hiked the trails of the Shenandoah River State Park and the George Washington National Forest in Fort Valley. Unfortunately, the Skyline drive was inaccessible due to a government closure. We visited the 19th century Bushong Farm, Virginia's impressive Museum of the Civil War and the nearby Newmarket battlefield. American history comes vibrantly alive there through the videos and museum exhibits.

Similarly, the Monticello estate of Thomas Jefferson – a World Heritage site – showcases Jefferson's virtuosity, his aptitude for architecture and his beautiful gardens and plantations. Incidentally, Monticello's survival owes much to its subsequent owners, members of the prominent Levy family. Guided tours of the grounds and the slave quarters imparted some fascinating backstage information. For instance, as Jefferson rode around his plantation he used a piece of lead to make notes on an ivory tablet. The University of Virginia also bears his imprint as founder and designer. A convenient free bus runs from the historic center of Charlottesville to the university and back.

Our first southern Shabbat was in Richmond, Va., a fairly sizeable community, where we ate with a family on Friday night, and enjoyed communal meals the next day. On Sunday we walked around the colonial town of Williamsburg, whose beautiful restoration was funded by the Rockefellers. Our waterproof ponchos came in useful that rainy day. Though admissions were expensive, cheaper tickets were available for seniors. 

When you wish upon a star ... a Disney scene in New Orleans

At night we bunked down for a long train ride to Orlando, Florida, where we had our first and only Disney experience during the next couple of days. A shuttle bus connected our motel with Disney World sites which were fun but expensive. Waiting in long lines in the balmy heat also required stamina and patience.

At our next stop, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina was still a topic of conversation. Our elderly cab driver at the Greyhound bus station had returned to work from retirement after the destruction of his house.

Shabbat was in the Metairie neighborhood with Jessie and Alvin, a young couple with small children. They hosted us for Friday night as there was no hotel nearby. Beth Israel was a small, attractive synagogue of the post-hurricane era which functioned smoothly, though it had no official rabbi just then. That evening we joined a dairy potluck supper in a private house with a group of young local families and enjoyed mingling with them all. After lunch in the synagogue we walked by the levees lining the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. I enjoyed my first experience of America's south and found it quaint to be addressed as "ma'am".

After a bus tour of New Orleans which emphasized the annual Mardi Gras carnival – aided by a scantily dressed black lady of large proportions who breezed on and gyrated gratuitously on the upper deck – we strolled past the elegant mansions of the Garden district. 

How the west was worn ... period costumes in Williamsberg, Virginia

We also took in the wrought iron balconies and art galleries of the French quarter, the River Walk that displayed an Agam sculpture, and the National World War II Museum. We enjoyed an afternoon jazz cruise down the Mississippi river on an old steam ship, an authentic paddle wheeler. After eating our sandwiches, we sampled tasty donuts or beignets from Café du Monde, then under kosher supervision. 

Touro Synagogue, New Orleans

The Touro synagogue, a Reform temple since 1891, also caught our attention. Its immense building, dedicated in 1909, houses the ark originally donated by merchant philanthropist Judah Touro (1775-1854) to his Spanish-Portuguese brethren of Nefutzot Yehudah in 1847. Initially named Shaarei Hesed, and later Touro, the first New Orleans synagogue was founded in 1828 by German settlers. The Sephardic Jews reunited with the Ashkenazis in 1881 after a 35-year separation. 

Taking a walk in San Antonio, Texas

A long train ride followed across the flat shrubland of Texas. Sometimes our kosher meals arrived, but sometimes not. On the train we chatted with members of a church group who were touring the Christian mission sites but stuck to orange juice instead of the freely flowing beer.

Our next Shabbat was at Rodfei Shalom synagogue in San Antonio. Rabbi Scheinberg and Rebbitzen Judy, 43 years at the helm, greeted us warmly. Here too we stayed with congregants,but dined in the expansive synagogue as it was a special weekend with communal meals. We were glad to learn how different Jewish communities cooperate in San Antonio and that tolerance is the norm. Some couples had recently moved in because of the reasonable housing and friendly atmosphere. Our fond memories include visits to the Spanish governor's palace, the river area, the Alamo, the McNay art museum and the botanical gardens, plus a moving reunion with my nonagenarian cousins and their daughter at the kosher vegetarian restaurant.

Though we arrived in San Francisco by car, we avoided driving because of the congestion. Instead, we briefly toured the hilly outdoor sights by bus, tram, cable car, ferry and on foot. We ferried over to the former prison island of Alcatraz which reopened to tourists after its closure in 1963, but unfortunately we lacked time to visit all the city's splendid museums.

On Friday afternoon we finally detected the storefront housing the tiny downtown synagogue on 873 Sutter Street – just in time to light candles. In the summer tourist season, there is usually a quorum of men but unfortunately there was no minyan that Shabbat. However, Henry Falkenberg, the veteran lay leader of Keneseth Israel, organized vegetarian meals for the small sociable group that assembled to pray. On weekdays my husband attended morning services at the nearby school of digital film. Though I was profoundly shocked by the human misery that manifests itself in the downtown area, I was later told that city hall offers generous welfare benefits which attract destitute people.

Details of our subsequent travels in the vast USA will appear in another installment. 



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Monday, 22 July 2024

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