back to the roots: weeding through the past

Back to the roots? Resuscitating cultural artifacts from the discard bin. Hard to say. There is much ink spilled over Islamic fundamentalism but there is in general a remarkable momentum back to tradition in Judaism as well, a sort of polarity between assimilationist, anti-Zionists and atheistic Jews, a contradiction in itself, and something more religious that rekindles a past from the diaspora seen in this emergence of jewish agriculture, something yanked out of the Shtetl of Eastern Europe and transplanted in North America.

In a sense it a form of romanticism; the farms lack the capital investment, scale, and product development to be economically sustainable; from Belarus to Brooklyn can’t be achieved with this vision. But the idea, almost Bohemian to drop out of the market economy rat-race is commendable, and continues a long tradition of farming. In parts of Canada such as Quebec there were literally thousands of Jews in the 1920′s to 1940′s who converted in order to be able to purchase farm land which had selling restrictions against Jews by the Catholic church, the pull of soil prevailing over religious identity.

—Calling themselves ‘G’dudei Ha’Avoda’ (Workers’ Brigades) they paved roads, drained swamps and undertook other strenuous work. When construction workers were needed in Jerusalem their group moved there and set up camp in an empty lot. My father quickly learned to quarry stone and my mother became a plasterer.
Not long after I was born, the group erected a kibbutz on a lonely hill south of Jerusalem. The kibbutz was called Ramat Rachel because it overlooks the grave of the biblical Rachel. —Read More:

There is certainly a “galut” cultural element to this movement. It’s not the Zionist ethos but something that encompasses the idea of the Diaspora as punishment and consequence of failures that led to the exile; a Diaspora way of life that demanded of  Jews to develop a self-definition and identity split off  from territory and political sovereignty and the militarism that has been intrinsic to Zionism. In exile,   Jews arrived at a definition of  power based on the context  of cultural autonomy, and the power to develop armies and a national bureaucratic apparatus was outside the purview of their expectations. But at the same time, this return to religiosity, could not have arisen in a vacuum, that is without the existence of Zionism and Israel, which although it has not solved quite tangible physical threats, has contributed, ironically, in revitalizing the Jewish culture. Ben Gurion and the old Mapai would be spinning cartwheels to see what was becoming stultified in the Disapora be re-emancipated on the back of Zionists and their secular elite  who had and still hold, – hello Yossi Sarid and Gideon Levy- a not-even concealed hostile and deep-seated antipathy to Judaism and Yiddishkeit that packaged it.

( see link at end) …Yiddish Farm is a novel venture today, but Jewish agricultural projects have a long history in the United States. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish farms were scattered across the country, from chicken farming communities in Roosevelt, N.J. and Petaluma, Calif., to the agricultural colony of Clarion in Gunnison, Utah. By 1938, Time magazine reported, there were some 100,000 Jewish farmers in the United States….

—THE FEDERATION OF JEWISH FARMERS OF AMERICA exhibit at the Educational Alliance building, East Broadway and Jefferson Street, New York City, October 13, 1909. (George Grantham Bain Collection) —Read More:

…Many of these farmers were just trying to make a living, but others had deeper ideological goals. The socialist Am Olam group founded one of the earliest communal Jewish farming efforts in Oregon, in 1882, which they called “New Odessa.” In the Farmingdale area of New Jersey, in the 1920s, Jewish farmers founded two cooperative associations, a unit of the International Workers Organization and a branch of Zionist Pioneer Women. The territorialist movement, a Jewish political ideology that advocated for a Jewish homeland outside of Palestine, also sought to start agricultural colonies in America and other countries….In his search for ideas, he organized a group to discuss the works of Chaim Zhitlovsky, a writer and political thinker who laid the groundwork for modern Yiddishist ideology….( continue after break)

Many religious Jews avoided Zionism on the basis that it would not empower Jews but rather remove the power Jews already had. This argument posited that  Zionism would supplant the ages-old Jewish notion of cultural power with a political-secular one, the identical template of the same non-jews they sought to resist, with Zionism replacing Jewish culture, substituting political affiliation from religious identification. These Jewish farming projects seem more in-line with the oppositional movements against secular and iron-clad forms of power emobodied in a Jewish state. And if the messianic dimension is thrown into the thresher, the argument arises that Zionism, the establishment of the state, has actually served to delay and postpone unti la much later date, the arrival of the Redemption. In the meantime, farming is a form of safeguarding tradition.

…The farm also boasts a shifting array of guests who stop by, sometimes unannounced, for a weekend, a day or an afternoon. They are often Hasidim or former Hasidim that Bass and Ejdelman have befriended. Ultra-Orthodox singer Eli Beer recently shot a music video on the property, bringing a crowd of spectators who heard about the shoot on Twitter. The farm has placed an ad in the Satmar newspaper Der Yid, inviting Hasidim to use the property as a campground. Read more:

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(see link at end) …But with all this new interest in Jewish farming, Jewish Americans’ agricultural history remains largely unknown. In the decades prior to World War II, upstate New York was dotted with egg, dairy, and produce farms owned and run by Jews. Petaluma, Calif., in Sonoma County, boasted a thriving community of chicken ranchers from the 1920s through the 1960s. Indeed, Franklin’s street in Swan Lake was once home to four Jewish farming families whose rousing post-Shabbat gatherings, he told me, routinely piqued the curiosity of non-Jewish neighbors.

Many of these farms were beneficiaries of the Jewish Agricultural Society, an organization founded in New York in 1900 by a German Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch. An urban Jewish businessman with utopian, pre-industrial leanings, de Hirsch spent his fortune helping Eastern European Jews escape anti-Semitism in their home countries and settle on American pastures, far away from the cities’ tenements. The society provided loans for purchasing land, seeds, and equipment and offered practical education to the settlers, many of whom had minimal prior experience as farmers. It even published a magazine in Yiddish and English called The Jewish Farmer. Read More:

In 1938 Time reported that there were nearly 100,000 Jewish farmers working in the United States, including Max Yasgur, the amicable dairyman who would famously allow Woodstock to erupt on his fields in Bethel.

Many of these mid-century farm families enjoyed modest success, while raising their children on hard work, socialist politics, and fresh country air. While not overtly religious, the communities maintained Jewish lives that were built around a synagogue, Hebrew or Yiddish schools, and organizations like Hadassah and B’nai Brith. “The local synagogue migrated to the country along with us,” Sonny Whynman, whose family moved from the Bronx to start an egg farm in Toms River, N.J., in the mid-1940s, when he was 7, told me. Many people from his old Bronx neighborhood decided to settle in rural New Jersey, too, he said….Read More:

…Read more:


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