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In 2009, Bass, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household on the North Shore of Long Island, was studying philosophy at City College, teaching himself Yiddish and exploring New York’s Yiddish-speaking community. Though he was learning the language and making friends, he felt that existing Yiddish endeavors were failing to move the culture forward.
“To a large degree were we just coming together and talking about Yiddish, in Yiddish. It was like this meta-Yiddishism,” he said. “I thought: ‘What’s the next step? Hanging out drinking beers shouldn’t be the great accomplishment of Yiddishists in the 21st century.’”
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. They met each week at Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, on Houston Street in Manhattan. Gradually, he arrived at the idea of starting a Yiddish-speaking farm.
“Farming encompasses not just one aspect of life, it encompasses every aspect of life,” Bass explained. “You’re living together, you’re cooking together, you’re working together, and it provides an isolated enough context in order to teach Yiddish in an immersive environment. You can have the opportunity to build friendships in the language and not just around the language.”
That winter, Bass ran into Ejdelman at a party in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Ejdelman, a red-bearded 26-year-old who grew up in a Yiddish speaking home, had developed an interest in environmentalism and organic agriculture while studying at Brandeis University. He was involved with such Jewish environmental organizations such as the Teva Learning Center, Hazon and Adamah. But for Ejdelman, “something was missing, because to me Yiddish is such an important part of my Judaism.” The encounter with Bass was just the push he needed.
The two aspiring farmers spent the next year and a half laying the foundations for Yiddish Farm. Ejdelman pointed Bass toward Adamah, where Bass spent the summer of 2010 learning the basics of organic agriculture. They wrote grant proposals and received start-up funds from Yiddish-oriented foundations such as The Naomi Foundation, the Binyumen Schaechter Foundation and the Fishman Family Foundation. Most important, they started looking for land.
Finding a property wasn’t easy. The pair checked out some half-dozen sites, but each one fell through. Finally they heard about a property through Ejdelman’s mother, who hosts an online cooking show for the Forverts. The family of her co-host, Jewish culinary historian Eve Jochnowitz, owns a 225-acre property that was once home to a Lubavitch bungalow colony. It was large, conveniently located and had running water. Best of all, it belonged to a family with Yiddish roots. And a Yiddish farm in Goshen would not be a lone outpost of Yiddish in the area. Fifteen minutes down the road is Kiryas Joel, a village of more than 20,000 Yiddish-speaking Satmar Hasidim.
Yiddish Farm was founded on three principles: to foster unity among Yiddish speakers, to create an expanded role for the Yiddish language and to promote environmentalism through organic agriculture. All three were apparent during a Sabbath sojourn at the farm in early June.