Naftali Ejdelman and Yisroel Bass: Yiddish Farmers

Written by:
John Marchese
Fall 2012 / 5773
Part of issue number:
web 120821_Yiddish_Farm__001.jpg
Naftali Ejdelman and Yisroel Bass I Photograph by John Madere

Raised in the suburbs on Long Island, Yisroel Bass grew up sailing on the sound, moved to Los Angeles for college, and finished his degree—philosophy and Jewish studies—in the very urban confines of the City University of New York.

But in the winter of 2012, Bass left the city and moved to a dormant 225-acre farm in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains outside Goshen, New York. His plan, which he’d developed over the last several years with his friend and partner, Naftali Ejdelman, was to revive the land as a working farm, filling fields with organically grown wheat, rows of beets and garlic and potatoes, stocking a barnyard with chickens, goats, and maybe a dairy cow or two. While that’s pretty standard as farms go, this would be no ordinary rural enterprise.

The place would be called Yiddish Farm and would not only grow crops, but also try to cultivate a new cadre of fluent Yiddish speakers by offering a summerlong work-study camp whose participants would work, cook, eat, and hang out together—speaking only Yiddish. It would be a rare refuge for total immersion in the language, what Ejdelman would dub “Yiddish Land.”

One warm afternoon in the first Yiddish Farm growing season, Bass reports, “I went to the tractor shop, and they’re pricing out a tractor for me with this and that—all the equipment I need. The guys who work there are friends with my neighbor, and they were eating lunch in the back and asked me to come back with them. We’re chatting around the table about farming, and the guy who owns the tractor shop says, ‘Do you know a good psychotherapist?’

“I told him, ‘Maybe I could find one.’ And then he says, ‘That’s good, because you should probably go to him before you start farming. Nobody sane gets into farming.’”

For Bass’s partner, Ejdelman, questions of his sanity came from closer to home. “I thought he was crazy,” says his mother, Rukhl Schaechter. “How are you going to bring those two principles—organic farming and sustainability—together with Yiddish? It wasn’t until I saw how serious he and Yisroel were about it that I thought, why not?”

If you talk to them separately, Ejdelman and Bass will each tell you that it was he who came up with the idea for Yiddish Farm. It’s a subject of a running, good-natured disagreement. But one thing is certain: the two young men come to Yiddish Farm from different directions.

Ejdelman was born into Yiddish. His mother was the daughter of Mordhke Schaechter, a well-known Yiddish linguist and teacher. Rukhl is a staff editor and writer for the Forverts who raised her children in Yiddish. (She also cohosts an online cooking show in Yiddish, recently devoting a program to preparing fresh beet salad using products from the Yiddish Farm.) “We weren’t allowed to speak English around the house,” Ejdelman remembers.

Ejdelman started teaching Yiddish himself at the tender age of thirteen, when he started a Yiddish club at his school. Enrolling later in Brandeis University, he studied history with a plan to become a New York City history and civics teacher. After he received a license to do that he discovered that the city had instituted a hiring freeze on new teachers and he might need to alter his career plans. He thought of pursuing his interest in environmentalism which had formed in college.

Yisroel Bass grew up in an English-speaking, Conservative Jewish household. “I became interested in Yiddish right after my bar mitzvah,” he remembers. “I took it with an ounce of seriousness, a little bit of seriousness. It wasn’t until I was sixteen and read Tony Michels’s book Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York that I was really inspired by this coming together of identity and politics, and this inspired me to take Yiddish more seriously.” Moving to Los Angeles for college, he interned for the Yiddishkayt cultural and education center. “I started taking Yiddish classes for the first time, had a Yiddish tutor and started hanging out with any old person I could find. There’s no Yiddish-speaking youth in LA. There’s no scene for it. The older people were active.”

So he came back to New York, ostensibly to attend City College, “but the main thing,” he says, “was to pursue this Yiddish identity and meet the younger Yiddishists and meet the Hasidim and the people on the fringe of both of those societies.” Researching the subject of Jewish Territorialism—a political movement seeking to resettle Jews in Australia and other distant lands—led him to think about establishing a Yiddish-speaking farming community.

In the start-up days of Yiddish Farm, the differences between Bass and Ejdelman would prove helpful in establishing the operation. Ejdelman has an easygoing charm and a relaxed style, traipsing around the farm in torn jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. One visitor described him as “a combined Yiddish teacher, social director, and rebbe.”

Though he has a sneaky sense of humor, Bass comes off as more serious and intense. He is tall and athletic; the sailor in him is used to being tanned, though now it comes from fieldwork. He has developed a kind of postmodern traditionalist look—wearing tsitses (ritual fringes) that might as well have a Burberry label. Peyes (Hasidic-style side curls) spill out from under a straw hat that could have come from an Amish country souvenir shop. The two men have divided the many duties required to get the farm and school up and running.

“We don’t step on each other's feet,” Ejdelman says. “That developed naturally. Back when we started, Yisroel wasn’t a farmer. He was just a kid from Long Island who used to be a sailing instructor. Now he’s the farm manager. He’s going to be the one driving the tractor and plowing the fields. Not me. I’m education director. Maybe I’ll be selling produce—driving into the city, finding new customers, doing marketing. If he needs help I’ll help, but I don’t see myself spending that much time in the fields. But he’s really committing himself to a life of backbreaking labor.

“He’s a big guy,” Ejdelman says of his partner. “He’s very good with machinery. It just wouldn’t be safe having me driving the tractor. My role is to be the educator and just make friends with everybody. I’m good at making friends. That’s my job.”

They’ll need friends. Yiddish Farm was established with donations from a variety of foundations, and the farmland is leased from the family of Eve Jochnowitz, a Jewish food historian who cohosts the cooking show with Ejdelman’s mother. Tuition revenue from the first year’s crop of ten students was about $20,000. And though it was Bass who crammed in an education to become a farmer, Ejdelman also received quick practical instruction. “It’s really hard to make money,” Ejdelman says. “And we have to become self-sustaining, because we can’t just keep going back to the same people for money.”

Bass seems to eye the future with more sanguinity. “One step at a time,” he says repeatedly when discussing his plans. "What I want to see over the coming years is that we develop three things: Continue to build our education programs and attract students to come here and learn Yiddish or improve on their Yiddish. Build up the farm into a business that myself and Naftali and perhaps some others could support themselves on. And building up this community, settling families here on this land or in proximity to this land.

I see ourselves as wanting to be the American or the modern version of a dorf, which translates to a small country village. The goal would be to have no more than fifteen or twenty families. That’s all a Jewish community needs. Traditionally you need ten men, a synagogue. A mikveh [ritual bath]. And you have something to do. If you have all those things, you have a community.”

That doesn’t sound so crazy.