Connections: Better Together

A funeral service last weekend, and the reception afterward, seemed the embodiment of community. The memorial gathering was held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church for the late Edwin Geus, with a gathering later around long tables, each decorated with spring daffodils, at the East Hampton Firehouse. Mr. Geus had served as a longstanding volunteer for both the East Hampton Fire Department and the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association, and members attended in uniform; a well-polished fire truck and ambulance stood like an honor guard outside the church, behind Town Pond.

I am always curious and interested when personal connections bring me into a church — being Jewish, myself, and having been raised in a moderately religious household (kosher, at least in my early childhood). East Hampton, founded by Congregationalists, used to be almost exclusively a Christian community. Today, the majority might still identify themselves as Christian — Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist — even if they don’t spend much time at services.

Anyway, I disavowed what others call faith long ago, in childhood, when my parents tried without success to send me to the Sunday school of a Reform synagogue. 

In my twenties, I was working at the Columbia University School of Journalism, as secretary of one of the deans, when I met the East Hampton native I was to marry. One of my colleagues at “J school,” as we called it, warned me to watch out: Anti-Semitism in such a town, she said, would be wicked. It turned out that the community I joined was welcoming instead.

Jeannette Edwards Rattray, my mother-in-law, made me comfortable right off. Her daughter had already broken any lurking religious taboo by marrying a man who was defined as an artist, rather than by the fact that he happened to be Jewish (although artists weren’t so revered here yet and it wasn’t obvious that East Hampton was going to become a 20th-century artists’ haven).

During my first summer in East Hampton, I heard an anecdote about how Mrs. Rattray gave a not-too-distant relative the business while table-hopping at Chez Labbat, the only sophisticated restaurant here at the time. He had stopped to complain that Jews were taking over Lily Pond Lane. She herself had married a worldly man “from away,” Arnold Rattray, and while conservative in some ways was progressive about religious freedoms and bigotry, and she read her rude relative the riot act. 

The East End, it turned out, had been a fairly worldly place for a hundred years or more. There was the broadening influence of artists and actors, since the late 19th century. Sag Harbor had a large Jewish population, based around its watch-case and silver factories’ need for skilled workers. (The journalist Karl Grossman is known for scholarship about the early Jewish community in the Harbor, as his frequent lectures attest.) 

Today, I no longer think of myself as a liberal New Yorker, but as a liberal-minded member of the East Hampton community, which never was as homogenous as some might think. We are not free of anti-Semitism here, that is certainly true. But, still, if only the rest of the world could mix and mingle as peaceably as we.