Somewhere around 1920, a minor fungus reserve in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, made U.S. Geological Survey maps as “Jew Pond,” by which bigoted assholes then referred to it. I hope that long after the votes have been counted and a new name decided upon, the story of Jew Pond won’t disappear with the creepy old-timers who refuse to recognize it by any other name. ‘Cause we can always use a lesson in Yankee narrow-mindedness.
Original Story LA Times
The festering, if serene, hole formerly known as “Jew Pond” is an 80 year-old artificial lake made for the nearby Grand Hotel and its golf course, where people “of Hebrew descent” were decidedly unwelcome. When the automobile came along and carried away the hotel’s intended patrons, its owners were forced to sell the place to the only people who wanted it – Jewish lawyers (gasp!) who catered to previously banned clientele.
It’s a small story from a small town, but one with many perspectives, beginning with a civil engineer who found the pond’s name on a government map in the course of assessing its algae levels. Next were those who saw “Jew Pond” in bold newsprint when a local reporter interviewed the engineer about his year-long effort to follow official USGS name-change protocol. Email and gossip started to circulate more widely, culminating in a gathering of 200+ local residents in the Mont Vernon Schoolhouse gymnasium for a vote that garnered national attention in March of this year.
The most interesting viewpoints are those of Mont Vernon’s youth, one of whom was so fascinated by the perspectives of town elders that she convinced a few of ’em to sit for her video camera.
As a child, Katelyn Dobbs says she lost herself in the glamour and romance of the Grand Hotel as depicted in the historic quilt that hangs in the Mont Vernon school. She imagined the grandeur of history as it applied to Mont Vernon’s oldest citizens, its village footpaths, and the countless coats of paint that cover its buildings. The hotel itself had burned to the ground in the middle of the night long before, but it wasn’t ’til she learned its deeper history that Kate’s feelings about both the landmark and her hometown changed considerably. Up to then, she hadn’t known that those of Jewish faith or lineage weren’t allowed in the hotel she’d daydreamed about. (That’s not surprising, really: it’s kindly old people –not Nazis– who are known for their quilts.) As a senior at the University of New Hampshire, seeing the name “Jew Pond” in print spurred Dobbs into action. With her 13-minute mini-documentary, “The Story Behind Jew Pond,” she’s off to an earnest start as filmmaker.
The film’s opening lines of poetry don’t work for me; only a girl still in love with her collection of plastic horsies would jump off with such saccharine voiceover. But I can’t wait for a sequel. Though it’s a slightly bumpy 13 minutes, Dobbs’s documentary debut shows heart and promise. It also show a few folks for who they really are, although as you’ll see, it’s more about mummified, dumb-ass perspectives than blame.
It’s no Birth of a Nation, but “The Story Behind Jew Pond” offers unnerving, if humorous, insight into Mont Vernon’s long-ago Jew hatin’ elders. For instance, there’s the thousand N-word stare of the Grandmother from Hell, Roberta Wilkins, that you wouldn’t trust with a pile of white sheets. (Speaking of nice old ladies makin’ quilts, this eerily serene witch is straight out of “The Shining.”) Though she admits –with a smile– that the name “was probably meant as an insult,” she’s not in favor of changing “history.” (Apparently she’s in favor of avoiding it, instead. I’m guessing she’s good at sidestepping uncomfortable topics.)
Then there’s the good ‘ol boy nephew of the man who donated the pond to the town. He defends the preservation of the name “Jew Pond” ‘cause he’s “an old timer” who also claims to believe in history, no doubt his own. Never mind that the thing was also once called “Lake Serene,” “Spring Pond,” and “Carleton Pond” after his very own (bigoted) uncle: Pops is settin’ an example for the kids.
Dobbs offers more rib-tickling in the form of a Brooklyn bowling alley fugitive circa 1959: Jack Esposito, the town’s Selectman. Esposito begins with the logic that nuthin’ ever came of nuthin’ ‘til it hit the newspaper. He’s no anti-Semite, but the guy is barley able to get the word “Jew” past his upper lip. I can’t watch Esposito’s segment without being reminded of the shady Amity Island bureaucrats in “Jaws.”
“Nobody ever complained about the name,” he shrugs, “not one citizen. And I’m sure there are Jewish families. I know our town clerk is a, is a – is a Jewish woman and she never complained! We’d never offend anybody intentionally, and since nobody was offended we just didn’t do anything about it.” Obviously Jack just wants everyone to get along on a count’a people should speak up if they got a beef.
At any rate, the good leaders of Mont Vernon conducted what they considered to be due diligence on the topic. According to the Selectmen’s Meeting Minutes, dated February 13, 2012, an “informal survey” (of who, their friends?) indicated that an “overwhelming majority of responders wanted the name to remain.” Oddly this “majority” was ignored a month later, when 104 Mont Vernon residents (of pop. 2400) voted by secret ballot for the name change and just 33 voted against it.
Dobbs’ documentary also introduces us to the town’s Health Officer, the muckraking civil engineer himself who started this whole name change business. Problem is, the guy just can’t stand still. Something weird and chicken-like is going on there – maybe he’s inhaled too much pond scum. Still, Rick Masters saved the town from those who would excuse idiotic inferences like “Jew lawyer” and “Jew politician.” Bravo, Mr. Masters, you put Mont Vernon on the map and made it less cringe-worthy.
Interviewed toward the end of the film is a Nashua Telegraph journalist, presumably the town crier who brought all that attention to the issue. Even he has trouble calling “Jew Pond” what it is: flat-out derogatory. “It’s unusual,” he says of the name, “compared to what things are named these days.” So much so that “it strikes people as odd.” (Is that it? Odd?) He adds that if it had “a real strong reason” for being called “Jew Pond” there’d probably be more support for keeping the name, which is easy guesswork for a guy whose descendants were likely allowed to vacation at the Grand Hotel.
Now maybe it’s just me not diggin’ this guy’s total lack of eye contact, or maybe I don’t trust any of these fence-sitters, but at this point in the film I’m hoping someone will just get it over with and insist that some of their best friends are Jewish. In the end, after a psychotic pause, the little rodent-man makes a partial case for keeping the name: “The only reason to keep that name is because it’s been that name for a long time.” Jeeze, stick Selectmen Esposito back in front of the camera already! At least he’ll make us laugh, try and sell us a car, and accidentally prove he’s a person worth taking the time to enlighten (slowly). Besides, in the Feb. 13 Meeting Minutes he’s quoted as expressing the hope that finding a better name “wouldn’t take up the whole evening.” Can’t you just see the Cohen Brother’s having a ball in this town?
Before I leave you with “The Story Behind Jew Pond,” allow me to throw in my 2¢ about the vote itself. Some wave it off as overboard political correctness; others have pledged not to allow their town to be associated with this “indignity.” Coming from a bunch of isolated white people, that in itself sounds suspicious. But I’ve generalized about these Stepford weirdos enough. Personally, I couldn’t care less if they change the name of a swamp on the outskirts of a colonial township once rooted in anti-Semitism, because until all those town mummies are dead and pushing up racist daisies, the real problem isn’t going anywhere. Let ‘em argue, change, fight, or deny: the true wake-up call to Mont Vernon’s citizens will best be served as cold as the Jewish skeletons they’ll probably find at the bottom of that fake-ass fishing hole once it’s drained.
Yet there’s no excuse for the Mont Vernon Village School not to follow the example of Kate Dobbs, clearly one their brightest graduates, by etching this episode of town history into its basic curriculum. After all, these kids are coming from a long history of questionable entitlements. ‘Ol Rick Piwowarski of nearby Nashua recalls fishing when there was “a Greek Hole, a Polock Hole, and a French Hole for the French kids. My mother marked out the names on a map that I have.” And we can’t leave out Squaw Cove! If the school fails to take advantage of a “teachable moment” that took up most of 2012, may the whole place get sucked into the glowing ghost hole that ate the house at the end of Poltergeist.
For now, here’s Kate Dobbs and “The Story Behind Jew Pond.”
P.S. Let’s see a show of hands for who wants to call Google and ask ‘em to yank “Jew Pond” from its maps page…