Surely this has happened to you: One day you have a knotty research question. You begin with, say, Wikipedia. You click on a footnote link, one click leads to another and before you know it, it’s tomorrow! How you landed where you are is a mystery.
It was by just such a series of virtual leaps that I discovered the rich but relatively brief history of Jewish egg and poultry farmers of the early-to-mid twentieth century, most of which were located in New Jersey.
A few more clicks and I happened upon The Land Was Theirs: Jewish Farmers in the Garden State by Gertrude Wishnick Dubrovsky (1992, University of Alabama Press). The book captured my attention not only because of the subject matter but also because my mother’s maiden name is Dubrov, and her ancestors were indentured farmers to a wealthy estate owner in Russia. Perhaps my own interest in farmers and farming is bred in the bone.
I had always assumed that all Jewish immigrants to America went to cities, found work, and stayed there. If we eventually moved out to the suburbs, our work was still city-based. I didn’t imagine Jews settling in rural communities and making their living in agriculture. Yet there has been a continuous, if small, Jewish farming presence in the U.S. for more than 100 years.
Jewish immigrants began settling on farms in the late 19th century with the help of well-meaning Jewish institutions and individuals. While these early attempts to establish farms mostly failed, some survived and eventually prospered and went on to make important contributions to American agricultural life.
Gertrude Dubrovsky came from one such family. She grew up on a poultry farm in Farmingdale, NJ, the exit to which I pass when I drive south on the Garden State Parkway to visit my mother. The farmers, many of whom had arrived in this country to escape persecution, had relocated out of New York City where life was a struggle and they couldn’t find work.
During their prosperous years (and prosperous is relative when talking about a family farm), the farmers created thriving communities, with schools, synagogues, and community centers. They created social, cultural, religious, and economic organizations. Many of the farmers were highly educated with professional degrees in law, medicine, psychology, economics. They put their degrees aside and left New York City to become farmers.
While farming is hard work, these new farmers managed to cultivate their intellectual lives. Discussion groups were forums to exchange—and debate— ideas in a civil and mutually respectful ways. They invited scholars to lecture and lead some of these discussions. According to Dubrovsky, the guest speakers included Irving Howe, John Berryman, Langston Hughes, and Paul Fussell. Albert Einstein was among those invited. Though he declined, he expressed great enthusiasm for the “Jewish farmers! Real farmers!”
These days, whenever I visit my mother, I think about taking a detour to Farmingdale even though I know that none of the Jewish egg and poultry farms survived the post WWII changes in agriculture. Small farms were bought out by “agribusinesses,” large farms that had the financial capacity to buy lots of land and to modernize and mechanize many aspects of agricultural work. Poultry farming moved west. At the same time, the government withdrew price supports for egg farms. Did Anti-Semitism play a part in this decision, which hastened the end for the New Jersey farms? The case has been made. In any event, the farms are gone, and along with them a fascinating piece of our agricultural history.