A Life of the Land: Connecticut's Jewish farmer

Cover Nov 12 2010

Jewish Farming in Connecticut

By Joel Samberg

By most accounts, if you brought all of Connecticut’s traditional Jewish farmers into one room, you wouldn’t even have a minyan. By other accounts, agritourism, the modern-day equivalent of old-style farm ownership, has at least a quorum of Jewish proprietors in the state. And by still a third account, the Jewish community can stake quite a strong historical claim on farming in the Nutmeg State.

It is that third account, the historical record, that’s getting a big boost now through the efforts of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. The organization began a project in 1998, when it received a grant from the Connecticut Historical Commission, to conduct a report on Jewish farms and resorts in Connecticut.

“The architectural and historical survey “Back to the Land” was prepared by Mary M. Donohue and David F. Ransom, which became the basis for an oral history project and future scholarly journal,” explains Estelle Kafer, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. “The new journal is entitled, “A Life of the Land: Connecticut’s Jewish Farmers,” co-authored by Donohue, who is the architectural historian of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and Briann G. Greenfield, professor of public history at Central Connecticut State University. It consists of historical data, oral history interviews, and unique photo essays describing the compelling story of Connecticut’s Jewish farmers, their descendents and the communities they impacted.”

On one hand, the men and women featured in the upcoming book will have little in common with the Irv Silvermans and Phil Snows of today, other than a love of the land and a respect for their faith and heritage. On the other hand, that’s probably enough of a connection to eternally link yesterday’s Jewish farmers to the small handful of those who are here today.

Phil Snow owns Snow’s Farms in Easton. Phil’s grandfather came to the United States from Austria in 1899 and worked in a bakery before purchasing a farm in the early 1900s. It is really Phil’s son Irv and daughter Jenny who handle daily operations at the farm, which is now engaged primarily with organic composting products, landscape marketing with such items as mulch and stone, and seasonal merchandise like Christmas trees and firewood.

“Our family really loves what we do every day, and that makes us all truly happy,” Phil says. “In that way, being a Jewish farmer in Connecticut in 2010 is a wonderful adventure.”

Silverman’s Farm, also in Easton, began in the 1920s by Irving Silverman’s father, who first worked at the Remington Arms factory and then wanted to grow fruits and vegetables. The landowners he approached wouldn’t sell to a Jew, so he got someone to buy land for him. Irving, the youngest of eight children, grew up on that farm and was active in its operation until recently. On his 50 acres are pick-your-own fruit orchards, greenhouses, and an animal farm with buffalo, llamas, sheep and other visitor-friendly creatures, all of which are examples of modern-day agritourism.

“The place has changed with the times,” Irv says, perhaps with a hint of nostalgia. Is it a Jewish farm? “Well, fruits don’t know the difference between Jewish farmers and non-Jewish farmers.”

Bringing cows from Chicago

That may be true, although with the challenges faced by settlers in the infant days of the State of Israel, compared to what it has become, a case could be made that farming has a very special significance for the Jewish community at large.

The staff at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village also find significance in it, particularly since they are committed to making a connection between Jewish spirituality to agrarian lifestyles.

The Freedman Center began in 1893 as the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society. In 2004, a program called ADAMAH was introduced for young adults who wish to participate in three-month Jewish fellowships on the six-acre farm to learn about organic farming, community building and Jewish spirituality. ADAMAH Director Shamu Sadeh indicates that Jewish farmers from Connecticut may not be prime Friedman students.

“Haven’t met any,” he confirms–although it isn’t clear if that’s because there simply aren’t too many around, or because they wouldn’t necessarily need or want that kind of educational immersion anyway.

Actually, as Sadeh agrees, even lifelong farmers (Jewish and otherwise) might have something to learn at Isabella Freedman, only because global climate change, energy independence and the state of agricultural subsidies have become increasingly important topics–topics that modern-day agricultural instruction often includes in the curricula.

It isn’t the 1930s anymore.

Chicken Shelters

Chicken Shelters, Rashell anad Cantor Farm, Ellington CT, 1940's

But the 1930s–and a little before and a little after–come alive with the book being published by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. Perhaps the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of some of those Connecticut pioneers will be part of the celebration in some way.

According to Irwin Miller, historian with the Jewish Historical Society of Lower Fairfield County, there are many descendents still in the region, and even a few remaining farms to join ranks with Snow’s and Silverman’s. But a full-scale accounting and documentation of modern-day Jewish farming has yet to be conducted.

In the early days, assimilated German-Jewish immigrants developed plans to offer newer immigrants a chance to own land for the purpose of farming. In Connecticut, Colchester, Lebanon, Chesterfield, Rockville, Vernon, Ellington and Somers were the hot spots for these modest spreads. It wasn’t always easy, but the Jewish farmers survived and in some cases thrived. They had, as the new journal describes, “an unshakable determination to overcome difficult times, a difficult land and a foreign culture.”

It’s an important part of Connecticut’s history, and soon we will have an entertaining and educational way of remembering it as if we were right there with them.

Joel Samberg is a freelance writer living in West Hartford and the author of “The Jewish Book of Lists” and “Reel Jewish: A Century of Jewish Movies.

Photographs are from the collections of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.

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