Memories of life in American Jewish farming communities, from our Wexler Oral History Project collection
Lekoved (in honor of) Jewish American Heritage Month, we are featuring memories of Jewish neighborhoods around the United States. We are going beyond the New York neighborhoods that may first come to mind to give voice to some of the other hubs of vibrant Jewish life. Each week we'll feature a different neighborhood or theme, so check back here or on our homepage for new perspectives on the American Jewish experience all month.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, a number of Jewish organizations and individual donors—most famously Baron Maurice de Hirsch—helped to establish agricultural colonies across the United States. These farms were part of an idealistic back-to-the-land movement, but also were a way to resettle some of the masses of new Eastern European immigrants in the overcrowded urban areas. It didn’t always pan out. Many of the early collective farms failed quickly because members had little to no farming experience and the farms were often on unsuitable land.
After World War Two, the American farming landscape changed. As larger farms and corporations began buying out small farms, some Jewish farmers turned to raising chickens instead of crops. But with time, even many of these farms became too difficult to maintain.
In the 1970s and '80s, a new generation of middle class Jews from largely suburban backgrounds started exploring organic farming and food cooperatives. More recently, another generation of young Jews has established new Jewish farms, cooperatives, and organizations—one of which even makes cultivating and caring for the Yiddish language part of its project.
Albert "Boonie" Dinner was born and raised in Greeley, Colorado. Boonie recalls his Jewish upbringing as surprisingly traditional, despite being surrounded by non-Jews. He reflects on how Jewish identity felt close, atmospheric, despite the physical distance from Denver Jewish cultural centers.
Sitting with his cousin, turkey farmer Leonard Strear, Boonie shares memories of his career as a cattle farmer. He describes the “glamour” period of the cattle business, when farmers rode horses, branded cows, and did “everything a cowboy could do.” Today, farming involves mainly office work, without the social interactions and travel of his time as a cattle farmer.
Miriam Slater is a retired professor of history at Hampshire College who grew up in the Bronx. She and her husband, Paul, in partnership with Paul’s sister and brother-in-law, owned a chicken farm in New Jersey from 1955 to 1971. She describes the culling process at the farm, remembering the two Holocaust survivors who would come by and say, in their heavy accents, “Give us a cull!”
Helena Lipstadt moved to the United States from Berlin in 1952 with the help of ORT (Obchestvo Remeslenogo Truda: Association for the Promotion of Skilled Trades), a nonprofit global Jewish organization. She describes the culture shock that her family experienced after moving from an urban center to rural Connecticut, where they worked on a chicken farm, and she shares the Yiddish song that her father made up about working with chickens.
David Berg reflects on the immigrant experience through the story of his uncle, who was solicited along with other Philadelphian Jews to create a farming colony in rural Utah. After training at a Jewish agricultural school outside of the city, the Jews of the newly instated Clarion Colony moved west. “They tried their best,” says David, but in the end the colony failed.
Caring for Yiddish and caring for the world are tenets of Yiddish Farm, an organic farm in upstate New York where Yiddish is spoken almost exclusively. Yiddish Farm cofounder Naftali Ejdelman describes the farm's summer Yiddish language intensive.
Explore the entire Wexler Oral History Project collection for more stories of Jewish neighborhoods, food, holidays, historical events, and much more.
You can explore more of our Jewish neighborhood series on the Center's Wexler Oral History Project YouTube channel, where you’ll find a selection of playlists. And follow the Wexler Oral History Project on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to view these clips and more from the Project.
Image: Front page of July 1933 issue of the Yiddish version of The Jewish Farmer. Printed by the Jewish Agricultural Society.