Berastagi: "Kuch-Alein"

North Sumatra
Republic of Indonesia

June 29, 2008

Meine Kinderlein,

In the summertime, when I was a young boy, my parents scooped me off the streets of New York and carted me and my sister Paula up to "the mountains." "The mountains" is how we New Yorkers refer to the Catskill Mountains, a cool two-hour drive north of the hot City.

The mothers and children usually stayed all summer. The women played mahjong and canasta and tended to their family. We children swam, played ball and took short hikes. We put on shows. The big event every day was when the bundle of mail was delivered to the RFD mailbox on the main road. We argued over who would sort the letters and bring them to the families. And once a week, the Krug's Bakery truck showed up. They had the best powdered donuts and crusty blueberry pies you ever tasted. With home made ice cream on top.

The fathers came up from The City on Friday night. Mom was cooking happily and we anxiously-awaiting kids always sang, "Daddy, what did you bring me?" Daddy drove back to work early Monday morning. Much later I learned that the round-trip weekend drive was known affectionately as "the bull run."

In "the mountains" there was a well-established institution known as the kuch-alein. Kuch alein literally means to cook alone or to cook for yourself. Here's the way it worked: in a large boarding house, several families had a bedroom room or two upstairs. On the main floor was a spacious, open area with ten or fifteen small kitchens, side by side. Each kitchen had a stove, sink, a refrigerator, some cabinets and a dinette set. Every mother cooked alone for her children, and each family ate separately, but all at the same time in the large and noisy dining room.

I thought that the kuch-alein was indigenous and unique to The Catskills. Turns out that the idea is centuries old and practiced until this very day in the Batak villages in the Karo Highlands of North Sumatra.

Our driver Anto parked at the edge of Lingga, the best-known Batak village in the area near Berastagi. Utami and I wandered around. There are about a dozen large houses with the characteristic horned roof and colorful patterns painted on the exterior walls. Each house is built on stilts and we needed to climb a ladder to the main entrance.

The houses have electricity, the TV is on, but the deep, open space is dim. When our eyes adjust to the darkness, there it is: the kuch-alein! There are ten separate "kitchens" -- one for each family living under this roof. Every "stove" is a charcoal pit with a shelf just above the fire so that food can be smoked. There's no refrigeration. Next to the fireplace are mats for sleeping. All the families cook and eat and sleep on the same floor. "The facilities" are the stream that runs along the border of the village.

There's a "pushka," a small donation box at the entrance to the house we visited, so Utami and I dropped in a few Rupiah before we left.

"The Batak houses have lots of symbolism built into their design.

The roofs of the house are designed so the back of the roof is higher than the front. The father of the house always sleeps at the front of the house and the children sleep in the back. The higher roof in the back signifies that the father wants his children to reach higher in life than himself.

The steps leading up to the small entrance are always at least four, five or six to signify how many children the family wants to have. The small entrance into a Batak house is designed so you have to bow down to enter the house to pay respect to the people inside." *

"The ornaments put onto the external walls of the house are meant to drive away evil influences. These ornaments consist of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic representations, carved decorative ornaments, and wall paintings. The colors used are natural colors, the most important being red (from red clay), and white (from chalk), and black (from charcoal), which respectively represent the three spheres of the cosmos: the human world, the world of good spirits above, and the underworld." **

The lifestyle here is certainly simple yet complex, traditional with a touch of modernity (ubiquitous satellite dishes) and everyone seems to be happy. The kids are glad to see us. I reckon they are thinking "What did you bring us?" Moms are caring for their infants. Dads are busy with carpentry or farm chores.

The Lingga streets are dusty and some of the buildings look like they'd topple in a strong wind. But the air is clean, the food is cooked fresh and the scenery is compelling with green hills, towering clouded mountains and two ancient volcanoes.

Utami and I are off to Dokan Village and then to Gunung Sibayak, a volcano at 2094m above the sea. Here as in much of Indonesia, the ground is also cooking.

At first the path on the volcano is almost straight up, but soon we are walking comfortably up the quiet hillside. While we don't plan to reach the summit, we do carry water and I carry my walking stick and my camera with the wide angle lens attachment. On this climb I want to capture the views below and beyond.

In less than an hour we are above the clouds. We pause. We are alone. It is utterly silent. It is so beautiful. The mountains and volcanoes are far away yet they seem so close. The peak of our volcano peers down from above. I have traveled so far. I am far from home. A week ago I had never heard of any of these places and yet here I am, above the clouds on the slope of a smoldering volcano. If there are better reasons to venture to the other side of the world, I can't think of one now.

I wish my parents were still here. I would thank them again for taking me to "the mountains" and for encouraging me to "get out of the house." And when I am out of the house, wherever I am, I always feel at home.

Get out of the house, my friends.

Be well,



PS I must set the record straight. My family never went to a kuch-alein. My mother would have considered that as très déclassé. Instead we went to the Air Haven Resort which was yet another Catskills institution -- a bungalow colony. Each family had their own little individual or semi-detached home with a proper kitchen and bedrooms and even a porch.

Our bungalow colony was in the Poughkeepsie – Hyde Park area of New York State. One day my mother went out to a luncheon in Hyde Park . She came back home simply overwhelmed and enchanted. She had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt.

OK, I must tell the truth. One summer when I was a very small boy and my sister was an infant, our family spent the summer at Mrs. Jaffee's Cottage in Tannersville, New York. The cottage was a large, multi-storied boarding house and we did have a few kitchens. The ice man delivered blocks of ice that were placed on the top shelf of the ice-box. To alert the telephone operator, calls were made by rapidly turning a handle on the side of a wall-mounted wooden telephone. The Victrola also had a handle to wind the springs to play a 78 rpm record.

In the 1930's and 40's, Mrs. Jaffee was one of a legion of Jewish European immigrants who bought property in the Catskills, also known as the Jewish Borscht Belt. (Perhaps you've heard of Jennie Grossinger?) Mrs. Jaffee's English was mostly Yiddish and she was a caring and thoughtful woman. She always worried about the young children scampering around the house. Her most memorable and frequent exclamation was, "Kinderlein, kinderlein, don't fall down the stairses." You can check with my older cousin Stanley Taxier. He will verify my story.

Most of the Catskill Mountains area is in Sullivan County. The irony that thousands of Jewish New Yorkers vacationed in Sullivan County seems to have escaped the notice of everyone. My Russian-born grandfather, Harry Lifson referred to the well-known journalist and television personality as "Ed Solomon."

Once again my friends, sei gesunt.

Kinderlein Jan mit loch in kop




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