Goshen, the fabled Egyptian area that the ancient Israelites settled and farmed when famine struck the Holy Land, was so fertile, according to the Bible, that the Israelites multiplied at rates that made the Pharaohs afraid.
It’s hard to see Goshen, N.Y., in the foothills of the Catskills, as the locus of a similar Jewish explosion. But who knows? This summer, a group of young farmers are launching Yiddish Farm, a new experiment in Jewish agriculture, in the rolling hills of Orange County, some 50 miles northwest of Manhattan.
“Behind me we have 13 rows of Yukon Gold organic potatoes that I planted just before Pesach time,” Yisroel Bass told me on a recent Sunday afternoon, surveying a field of crops. “They’re really taking off with all the rain.” He extolled the garlic a little farther down, and beyond that, rows of white beets, “an heirloom variety.” Below that were plantings of spinach, oats, three carrots, wheat, dill, sunflowers, zucchini and more beets.
This is farming with a diasporist twist. Normally, Bass, a tall, tanned 23-year-old with a straw hat, beard, yellow plaid tzitzis and Hasidic-style peyes, would be speaking Yiddish. For a visiting journalist he was willing to make an exception, but for everyone else taking part in this venture, Yiddish is the lingua franca.
The idea of Yiddish Farm is simple, if novel. Bass and his partner, Naftali Ejdelman (the son of Forverts editor and staff writer Rukhl Schaechter), aim to create both an immersive environment for speaking and learning Yiddish and a model of sustainable agriculture. In this, their first real season, they have attracted a handful of full-time participants to live and work on their property in Goshen for the summer. It’s early days, and spirits are high.
“We’re making it happen, we’re running a farm,” said participant Sarah Wolk, 24, who is living and working at the farm for the entire two-and-a-half months. “We cook, we live together, we clean, we’re running a household and from what I hear we’re also growing vegetables. And I’m learning so much Yiddish!”
“They’re pioneering cultural and linguistic terrain that hasn’t really been explored,” said Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh, director of Adamah, a Jewish agricultural fellowship in Connecticut. “But it fits into larger trends of people being interested in the sources and origins of things, whether that’s language, culture or food.”
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.
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. Ejdelman’s grandfather, Yiddish linguist and territorialist Mordkhe Schaechter, thought to start a Yiddish-speaking community in New Jersey in the 1950s, though his plan never came to fruition. Perhaps, belatedly, it is.