On Jew Pond: A New Hampshire Town Debates a Historic Name

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Does a snide joke from the 1920s still belong on the map?

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Rich Masters, the Mont Vernon health officer who originally petitioned the Board of Selectmen for a name change, stands in front of the frozen Jew Pond (marked on the overlaid map). Photo by Darren Garnick.

Whether you love the name or hate it, there's one thing everyone can agree upon after visiting New Hampshire's most controversial body of water. Jew Pond is no Sea of Galilee. And if it truly ever was a recreational paradise, it must have been much prettier.

The quarter-acre pond itself is a glorified mudhole, no deeper than 5 or 6 feet, that is occasionally used for ice skating - but never for swimming. It is also the home of an annual children's fishing derby. On March 13, voters in this charming rural community (population 2,366) will debate at Town Meeting whether the name "Jew Pond" is offensive and should be changed to something generic.

"It certainly feels like an insult to me," says Mollie Straub, who moved to Mont Vernon from Rochester, New York, in 1990. "Growing up Jewish makes you sensitive to name-calling and the intent here is obvious. What bothers me even more is people's reactions. Some have said they are going to keep calling it 'Jew Pond' no matter what happens with the vote."

Straub estimates she is one of fewer than 10 Jewish residents in town. Until two years ago, the ethnically charged name of the pond had largely remained a secret. The only sign on the property says "Carleton Park," named for the family who donated the land, and many residents simply referred to it "as the pond on the way to the dump." However, after an overgrowth of toxic blue-green algae shut down the park in 2010, the U.S. Geographical Survey map's official name hit the headlines.

"People suddenly heard it was called Jew Pond and were horrified," recalls Rich Masters, an environmental engineer who doubles as Mont Vernon's health officer. "In this day and age, how can this possibly be?"

From the late 1800s through the 1920s, Mont Vernon was a major summer destination for city folk desperate for a country breeze. The largest luxury resort, the Grand Hotel, offered a gorgeous view of the mountains and, like many tourist establishments at the time, banned Jewish guests. One promotional brochure bluntly stated: "Hebrew patronage not desired."

grand-hotel.jpg

Vintage postcard of the Grand Hotel

In 1927, the property was bought by two Jewish brothers, Myer and Nymen Kolodny, Boston attorneys who had planned to fill the void for a Jewish-friendly hotel. Unfulfilled plans included expanding the small pond and rebranding it "Serene Lake." Locals mocked the owners, who wound up selling in 1929, with the sarcastic "Jew Pond" nickname that eventually became immortalized on government maps.

It's hardly a unique American tale. The map of the U nited S tates is dotted with prejudice-tinged place names such as Wyoming's Negro Creek Park, South Dakota's Squaw Humper Dam, and New York's Polack Swamp. The issue most recently fell under the spotlight with revelations that Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's family hunting camp was named after the N-word.

Mont Vernon Historical Society member Zoe Fimbel, who plans to speak in favor of keeping the Jew Pond name, says she doesn't understand all the fuss.

"I have Jewish relatives and the name has never bothered me," she says. "The word 'Jew' is not considered a derogatory term in the modern day. It's just a name. We have a Christian Hill Road and a Purgatory Road that have religious undertones and no one's upset about that."

"I'm a typical New Englander," adds Fimbel. "I don't like change - and why change something that hasn't been a problem for 60 or 70 years?"

Indeed, the connotation of the word "Jew" is all over the linguistic map. As a noun, it simply describes a person who practices Judaism (or who was born into the faith). Comedian Adam Sandler, who grew up a few miles away from Jew Pond, sings in his Chanukah Song,"Paul Newman's half Jewish; Goldie Hawn is half, too. Put them both together - what a fine-looking Jew!"

But used disparagingly as a verb, "Jew" means to cheapen or to bargain down the price. Most mainstream dictionaries label this usage as offensive slang. Others endorse the prejudice as a legitimate definition, with the online Urban Dictionary even offering tips on where to "Jew down" a seller (they suggest Tijuana and flea markets, for starters).

As an adjective, "Jew" is typically framed in a negative context, especially if you happen to drift onto white supremacy or conspiracy theory websites (i.e. "Jew York,"  "Jew Boy," "Jewnited States," "Jew World Order"). Yet, there has also been a recent countersurge in pro-Jewish puns such as the culture blogs " Jewcy" and " Jewlicious," and the musical comedy act " Jewmongous."

Ironically, unrelated to the pond debate, there has also been much consternation over the name of the Jewfish, an unattractive, bloated, 400-lb beast commonly found off the coast of Florida. In 2001, the American Fisheries Society's Committee of Names of Fishes officially redubbed it the Goliath Grouper. (Prediction: Mont Vernon should brace itself for wisecracks about gelatinous gefilte fish swimming in Jew Pond.)

But to Derrek Shulman, New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, the name debate is no laughing matter.

"We don't need to overthink this," he says. "Why analyze it and dissect it when we already know what the impact is? The name Jew Pond is offensive and hurtful and there's an already overdue opportunity to right a wrong that happened long ago. We have a lot to gain and very little to lose by changing the name."

Along with the ADL, the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire, the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, The Nashua Telegraph (which originally broke the story), and U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) have urged Mont Vernon to change the name. [Read a PDF of Senator Ayotte's letter here.] The final decision is up to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which does not need to abide by local wishes but factors public opinion into its rulings. In the past, the Board has unilaterally changed hundreds of place names containing "nigger" and "Jap."

If the heated conversations on the town's non-public Facebook group are any indication, the debate at Town Meeting could get ugly. Many of the posts are vehemently against changing the name of Jew Pond, with the reasons falling into one of five categories:

  1. This is a local issue and outsiders have no business meddling in town affairs.

  2. The word "Jew" is not offensive.

  3. Erasing the name is whitewashing history.

  4. Americans are too sensitive and too easily offended. Changing the name would mean bowing to political correctness.

  5. The whole debate itself is a trivial waste of time, especially with tough economic issues facing the town.

Masters, the town health officer who originally petitioned the Board of Selectmen for a name change, has pointed advice for those who say the matter isn't worth discussing at all: Don't stick around for the vote. The Jew Pond article is number 12 on the warrant, he says, so people can go home after the key budget issues are decided.

"There's no question in my mind that naming this Jew Pond was meant to be an insult," Masters says. "It was wrong in 1929 and it's still wrong in 2012. The vote at Town Meeting will reflect our values and convictions. Do we believe all people should be treated with dignity or not?"

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Darren Garnick is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer and journalist based in New Hampshire. He is currently writing  Why Can't I Be President?, a comic book about history's "Oval Office Underdogs," and blogs about politics and pop culture at CultureSchlock.com.

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