A former U.S. congressman talks about growing up Jewish on a Connecticut farm
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – More than 100 years ago, German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch set up a charitable enterprise that would save thousands of co-religionists from the scourge of pogroms in 19th-century Russia and, after his death, from the ravages of the Holocaust. His plan: to resettle Jewish immigrants in Connecticut farming communities.
Now, a new documentary film produced by Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, explores the Jewish farming communities throughout (mostly) the eastern part of the state that were financed by the Baron Maurice de Hirsch Fund.
The film, “Harvesting Stones: The Jewish Farmers of Eastern Connecticut,” will enjoy its Greater Hartford premiere on Monday, Sept. 19 at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford, part of the JFACT Fund Annual Night at the Theatre benefit. JFACT Fund is the fundraising arm of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut.
Sam Gejdenson, a former United States Representative for Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District, is among the children of Jewish immigrant farmers featured in the film. He will speak at a pre-film reception for JFACT Fund donors.
Gejdenson was born in 1948 in a Displaced Persons Camp in Eschwege, Allied-occupied Germany, the first child of a Belarusian father and Lithuanian mother. When he was 18 months old, he and his parents and half-sister immigrated to a dairy farm in Bozrah. A graduate of UConn, Gejdenson was elected as a Democrat to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1973; in 1980, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving ten terms.
Today, Gejdenson splits his time between the family farm and Branford, and Sam Gejdenson International, through which he advises clients on international business issues. He served as a commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2012 to 2014 and is on the board of directors of the National Democratic Institute.
Gejdenson spoke with the Ledger about his life as the son of a Jewish farming family on a Bozrah dairy farm.
Q: What are your earliest memories of life on a farm?
A: When I first ran for Congress, people would meet me and say, “a Jewish farmer? That’s incredible!” and I kept thinking to myself, “Everybody I knew was a Jewish farmer.” They all had gold teeth, foreign accents, and a few cows and a few chickens – that was the community I grew up in. So, I kind of grew up bifurcated. The one lucky break that I had is that my parents would only speak to us in Yiddish at home because they wanted to protect the culture. So, the basic rule at home was, if you wanted to eat, you had to speak in Yiddish. If you didn’t want to eat, you could speak any language you want. My father would get insanely angry when I would ask for “some” of something because the Yiddish word sahm means “poison.”
I learned English from the kids across the street, whose grandmother must have scared the hell out of them, because she said, “These are the people of the Old Testament.” They were very nice people. They helped my parents immeasurably.
Q: Do you still speak Yiddish?
A: I still speak Yiddish but I have fewer and fewer people I can speak with.
I have a story about Yiddish from when I was in Congress. After the Lebanon invasion, [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin comes to the United States. Newsweek and everybody portrays him as being disoriented and a disaster and falling apart mentally and physically. Finally, after a long day of meetings, he meets with Jewish members of Congress. People start going around the room and he’s dismissing them; they’re telling him, “You’ve got to deal with the West Bank, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,” and Begin’s pushing them aside. I figure my only shot is to speak to him in Yiddish and therefore Begin will see that I’m not just some fly-by-night Jew, that I’m serious.
He was complaining how he was being misperceived and I tell him, in Yiddish, the story of my mother, who used to say when I was young, “If two people tell you you’re drunk, sit down and assess the situation.” And I said that we have to deal with Judea and Samaria, and until we solve these problems the conflict will continue.
He said to me, “You’re a nice Jewish boy, you speak a wonderful Yiddish — and you know it’s not the West Bank and Gaza; it’s Judea and Samaria.”
Q: The film includes anecdotes of antisemitism encountered by the new immigrants. Did you have that experience?
A: We came over in the 50s, when there was anti-everything. People hated Irish, they hated Italians, they hated Jews. If I ran into bigotry from my youth until high school, maybe once somebody said something about “dirty Jew” or some kind of other comment, and I would say that I heard derogatory terms about every other ethnic group just as often. The parents may have run into it more because they were dealing with an older generation – more set in their ways, more disrupted – and I did hear through the years, “We used to own all this land and they came and bought it.”
But basically, our neighbors were incredible: nice to my parents – they’d tell them when to pay taxes, when to register the dog, help them to milk the cows when the electricity went out. My parents thought that Halloween was an embarrassing holiday where children went out to beg for candy and we were not allowed to go trick-or-treating, even though they were very happy when other kids came by. The neighbors would send over candy because they knew that we were not allowed to go trick-or-treating. It wasn’t such a terrible thing because we lived in the country, where the houses were far apart, so it was much better having the candy delivered.
Jews had taken in much worse because of our recent experience in Europe, where things had not gone so well.
Q: What was Jewish life like during your childhood?
A: There was a handful of Jews, not many, and no kids my age. My father was Orthodox but the Orthodox Hebrew school was five days a week, and the Conservative Hebrew school was three days a week, so we became Conservative. Three days a week, we’d go to Hebrew school – additional punishment for a young person not necessarily keen on school to begin with – and we’d go to shul occasionally. My mother never went. She was a little angry with God that she didn’t think existed because the Nazis killed a million-and-a-half Jewish children, and that kind of severed her relationship with God.
We ended up at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich. We used to go to a lovely little shul in Lebanon; there was a handful of people, it was very hamish, they ran the service themselves. It was unlike modern synagogues, where people sit politely. There was a generational shift in the old generation, everybody knew how to daven, so people mumbled through the service at high speed. Then we had a generation where lots of people didn’t know the language so it became important to use strict pronunciation. So you’d hear people articulate every vowel. Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who created the Conservative rabbinical school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, started out in Norwich at Beth Jacob.
Q: Is anyone in your family still farming?
A: My brother continued to farm until a few years ago; now we’re gentlemen farmers. My [half-]sister lives in Norwich. My brother lives on the old family farm, and I have a house next door to him and I spend three or four days a week on the farm. The Jewish farming families have spread out: my generation has moved all over the country and all over the world. There are some groups who still get together, like the Brooklyn synagogue group that does an annual event there.
Q: As a former politician, what do you think of the current presidential election campaign?
A: One of the things that I’ve always said is that Jews aren’t always the first to face discrimination and hatred – but we’re never last. What’s frightening is the hatred that’s been brought out by the Republican presidential nominee. The assault on Muslims and Latin-Americans. It’s been part of our society for a long time. There used to be amendments on the floor of Congress that had “English only.” My wife bought my mother a poster, created by the U.S. government, that says, “Save food for the U.S. war effort” in Yiddish. Generations of Eastern Europeans and Chinese and everybody came here and the first generation didn’t speak English, either because they lived in a little enclave or spoke it hardly at all, and by the third generation, they couldn’t speak their native language, which is a great loss.
The old Republican coalition, to which they added gun nuts and religious fanatics and what have you, those groups don’t have any other place to go, so whether they agree with Trump on some of this other stuff, they’re still sticking with him. It’s like the “war on Christmas.” There’s no war on Christmas; what the people who talk about the “war on Christmas” are doing is a war on all other religions in the country. We can’t say, “Have a happy holiday,” meaning no matter what your religion is, I hope you have an enjoyable winter period, whatever you happen to celebrate yourself.” They’re saying it’s unacceptable unless you’ve adopted this one particular religion, and that’s not America. It’s all sort of coming to a head and hopefully it will get destroyed this November and we can go back to having a dialog about important things and about what America really stands for.
At his inauguration, John Quincy Adams took the oath of office on a book of law, not on a Bible. This country is about the law. It’s about treating every religion and every individual equally and fairly in a constantly expanding manner. So yes, for a very long time, black people were property, and for an even longer time, women didn’t have the right to vote. But what’s made America greater and safer than any country on earth is our expanding view of what inclusion in this democracy means.
JFACT Fund Annual Night at the Theater, featuring Harvesting Stones: The Jewish Farmers of Eastern Connecticut: Monday, Sept. 19, 6-9 p.m., Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. Pre-film reception with Sam Gejdelson. For information or tickets: jfact.org / (860) 727-5701.