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Vermont dreaming and why I’m boycotting Ben & Jerry’s

BY HARRY PINCUS | Back in the Seventies, Ben and Jerry ran a promotional gimmick in Soho. They placed a lovely black and white cow on Spring St., in front of Wally’s, the ice cream parlor where Woody Allen wooed Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan.”

These two chubby Jewish boys were trying to compete against the established and exotic Haagen-Dazs (our friend calls it Hoggin’ Dis) which really wasn’t so exotic after all, as the founder was also a Jewish boy from Brownsville, Brooklyn.

In those days, I had a wonderful friend, Alan, who had bought a 200-acre farm in southern Vermont. He was a Yale Drama School graduate who wanted to create, not a commune, but a sort of refuge for good people.

I was always welcome on that beautiful old farm, and Alan even offered to sell me 10 acres for $3,000, when I was 22 years old. Perhaps I could have been a Bernie Sanders, as I thought of buying an old railroad caboose and hauling it up the mountain.

As fate would have it, my parents were still here in the city, and they were getting old, so instead I bought a loft in a deserted harpsichord factory. A friend was looking for someone to buy an apartment on the fifth floor of the new co-op she was organizing, in a deserted area of Lower Manhattan, and none of her friends could come up with $4,000. I was the only one who had saved this vast sum by driving a cab all night in the South Bronx, loading trucks at the Post Office, also all night, and working as a messenger and office worker. And so it was that I bought a home here, in what became Soho, instead of in Vermont.

That was back in 1975, and after all of these years, I am being sued in the Southern District of New York by a Westchester attorney, the son of the people I trusted back then. The son is unable to sell his mother’s next-door apartment, which she never happened to legalize, and is subletting. He is using his two Ivy League degrees to claim that I “do not own” my own legal apartment “at all.”

Ben & Jerry’s “had a cow” in Soho in the 1970s. (Photo by Harry Pincus)

In spite of my original stock certificate and proprietary lease, my city certification as an “artist in residence,” and all of the sweat equity that I poured into settling this old factory, my existence is not recognized by the Westchester attorney, who grew up next door, or the current, wealthy absentee owners of the co-op. This seems somehow to be in keeping with the Soho rezoning travesty, which will actually penalize the original artists who revived the old factories. Now, even the City of New York will no longer recognize the protections that were promised us when we turned the deserted old factory buildings into Soho.

My Vermont friend Alan was a great man, who, as a Jew with hippie friends, was hounded, reviled and finally sued, by the morons in Readsboro, the nearby hamlet. The crime was allowing his young friends to skinny-dip in the stream beside the old wooden mill. But, in a sense, my friend was driven out, just as the folks who are suing me today are trying to drive my family out of our only home.

In truth, Alan’s dream was destined to be riven by the fates, and by the brutality of life on the old farm. When he managed to raise a little glass dome over the farmhouse, a hawk flew into it and shattered the glass. The family dog was shot in the eye by a hunter, and the new concrete foundation for the farmhouse cracked. Finally, Alan’s 1939 tractor fell on him and broke his hip, and it was time to relocate to the small Vermont city of Brattleboro.

I had always been welcome on the old farm, through all of my youthful romantic crises, and whenever I had finished an exhausting run of illustration deadlines. We used to sing in the back of Alan’s 1950 Ford truck, the old “Okie truck,” as we bounded down the Searsburg Pass, accompanied by the sweet smell of wood fires and the brightly colored leaves that meant that time, and a season, was passing.

I loved those rolling hills of Vermont, but I would have to say farewell to that farm, and to my youth, and then finally to my dear friend. He is fittingly memorialized by a small marker in a Brattleboro graveyard that says, “He loved his fellowman and sought no higher calling than to do good.”

Alan would be happy if he knew that another writer, Saul Bellow, would soon be interred nearby, and I think of him, whenever we are fortunate enough to head up north.

“The Eternal Jew,” a pen-and-ink drawing by Harry Pincus. (Courtesy the artist)

In Brattleboro, Alan’s widow met another good man, a political activist who wrote a column for the Brattleboro Reformer and a book about Abbie Hoffman. He was also a transplanted New York Jew, who had lived on a commune and been one of Bernie Sanders’s earliest advocates. As much as I liked and admired my new friend, we always seemed to argue about Israel.

There aren’t so very many Jews in Vermont, and I recall that one of them told me that she had to travel 60 miles to see another one. They seemed to fit the rugged landscape, though, which Alan had likened to what his grandparents must have known in Russia.

When the horror of 9/11 struck our neighborhood, I waited until the smoke had cleared and fled to good old Vermont with my wife and young children. They were about to have a town hall meeting in Brattleboro, but of course I wasn’t invited, and we met our friends afterward for dinner. There was a cold mood that evening, as the meeting had been called to discuss the 9/11 attacks. Since I was probably the only eyewitness in town, I wondered why I had not been asked to recount what I had seen.

“That’s all right, Harry, we saw it all on TV,” said my friend, even though the TV was not being attended to, and the mushroom cloud I had just seen on our street corner was not even 11 inches high on the screen. The folks in Brattleboro were organizing a peace march!

They were probably doing the right thing, because war is never a solution. But I was now a refugee, and didn’t know if we could ever return to was left of our neighborhood. I became angry and asked, “If someone kicked in the kitchen door and raped your wife, would you organize a peace march?”

It was a sad ending to a long friendship.

A few days ago, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream announced that they would not sell their ice cream in what they call the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Ben and Jerry no longer run the company, which is now a part of a vast international conglomerate called Unilever. But the company’s decision to join the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement directed at Israel was probably cheered by many of my old Vermont friends.

If the boycott is acceptable, and adopted by other corporations, Israel will become a pariah, and Hitler’s original plan to boycott, divest and sanction the Jewish people will once again come to pass. Of course Unilever is not opposed to selling their product in the rest of Israel, because there is money to be made.

I guess that Hamas and Iran, which have vowed to annihilate the Jewish state and drive the Jews into the sea, are no better than Israel. There are numerous despots, dictators and corporate criminals in this world who might possibly be boycotted, as well. Indeed, every corner of this earth is full of injustice and inequality, and yet it is Israel that is always there to be culled out and punished by these self-appointed righteous souls, like the board of Unilever corporation.

As for my old friends in Vermont, do they think that they will never be identified as Jews, and someday driven out, as Alan was — and as my “neighbors” are trying to do to me? When Bernie supports people who say that Israel, the only refuge of the Jewish people, is “all about the Benjamins,” does he think that he is safe now that he is a Vermont Yankee? By the way, that would have been pronounced “Yen-kee,” by my grandfather, and probably by Bernie’s father, a Polish refugee.

I recognize that there is injustice on both sides. But I don’t think that boycotting Israel is going to lead to equality or a better life for the people of Gaza or the West Bank. Hatred merely begets more hatred, and if the existence of Israel is not even recognized, there will only be more war.

I don’t eat much ice cream anymore, but I’m going to Boycott Divest, Sanction Ben & Jerry’s. I don’t like their new flavor. In fact, I don’t think it’s new at all.

Pincus is an award-winning illustrator and longtime Soho resident.

9 Comments

  1. Harry Pincus Harry Pincus July 23, 2021

    Your link won’t open, Mr. Penley, and I think you’re prohibited from using links in comments, but no matter, your distaste for Israel is registered.

    • Beth Sopko Beth Sopko July 23, 2021

      It opened for me, but there’s a paywall.

  2. OK? OK? July 23, 2021

    what exactly is the value of publishing this rambling story of personal real estate grievances and human rights violation apologia?

  3. Harry Pincus Harry Pincus July 23, 2021

    Which human rights violations are OK with you? They certainly exist on all sides, but when a huge International Corporation puts its fist down on one side of the scale of Justice, don’t we have a right to oppose them?
    As for my personal “ramblings,” I’m sorry if I did not have the space in this small column to clarify. We all need to understand things in a personal context, and not merely march to the drumbeat of what we are told to think.
    I can tell by my one “like” that this is an argument that has already been decided by people who call themselves progressive, which was all the more reason for writing the piece.
    At least I have the courage to reveal my name.

  4. laura rubin laura rubin July 23, 2021

    Good read, but what does this have to do w/Downtown NY?

  5. JackDog JackDog July 23, 2021

    There are more cows than people in Vermont. It was written that during the Revolutionary War the Vermonters were placed in front because of their mean streak and tenacity. Let’s hear it for the Green Mountains.

  6. Harry Pincus Harry Pincus July 23, 2021

    Thank you for asking.

    I am the last certified “Artist in Residence” still living in my original Soho Joint Living and Working Quarters co-op building, which we purchased and converted from an old harpsichord factory in 1975. We had very little money, and invested our sweat equity to build living spaces, under the protections offered by the new JLWQA laws. Our hard work resulted in the revival of Lower Manhattan, and the creation of what is now called Soho. These days, the “Soho Rezoning” being pushed forward by the outgoing Mayor will strip the original artists of our protections, and, in fact, I would have to pay a tax penalty of $100 per square foot to the City, if I sell my loft to a non-artist. This is because our original 1979 Certificate of Occupancy was filed incorrectly, without my knowledge or participation. The C of O requires that each tenant be a certified artist, which I am, but the others here are not. The rezoning would require me to pay for any new owner in order to convert the C of O to non-artist status.

    Coincidentally, the wealthy owner sublets the illegal next-door apartment for enormous profit, and her attorney son is suing me in in the Southern District of New York, and demanding that I sell our only home. The co-op board, composed of five non-artists, served me with a Notice to Cure, demanding that I cure the violations in that same, separate and illegal apartment. They are attempting to shift the blame to me for the incorrect C of O, which depicts the next-door apartment as a “Studio/No sleeping.” I am therefore being held responsible for the violations in the next-door apartment, which I do not own, and cannot access. That unit was filed as a “studio/no sleeping” attached to my legal “living /work” JLWQA apartment. The five other members of the co-op board, who for the most part, don’t even live here, are seeking to avoid responsibility for the defective C of O, and have thus refused to recognize my rightful existence here, even though I was the first resident, forty-six years ago. This kind of thing is going on all over Lower Manhattan, and now that I am almost seventy years old, I fit in with the other elderly targets of the greedy real estate interests.

    As for Israel, I admit to being a Jew, and I am surrounded by five opponents who do not recognize my right to exist.

    When I heard of the Ben & Jerry’s boycott I recalled the day, so many years ago, when their first cow appeared on Spring Street. I also wondered what my life would have been like if I had chosen to live in a railroad caboose on a hill in Vermont, instead of moving into a deserted factory in Lower Manhattan.

  7. Nadine Hoffmann Nadine Hoffmann July 25, 2021

    Ben & Jerry’s is not boycotting Israel. They sell products in Israel, just not in the occupied territories.

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