Down on the Farm

The coming of age of a chicken farmer

My immigrant parents decided early in their marriage in 1923 that they wanted to settle on a farm. Neither found the city congenial, nor their hand laundry business the epitome of the American dream as they had imagined it might be while they were still in Europe. In 1927, in partnership with a landsman and his family, and with a loan from the Jewish Agricultural Society, they and their two infant children — my older brother, aged three, and me, aged two — settled on a small farm in Whitesville, New Jersey. For some reason, within a year the partnership dissolved and my parents lost farm, friend and money. Returning to New York City’s Lower East Side, they again established a hand laundry and apparently were building up a clientele, while s the family grew to four children. But when a car almost killed my three-year-old sister who had run into the street, my mother told my father they had to leave. The children would never survive in the city.

My father resisted, and after a terrible row, which I remember — I must have been six-years old — she told him he could stay in the laundry with his business and she would move with the children. Alone, she appealed to the Jewish Agricultural Society for help, and the officers directed her to a Mr. Peskin in Farmingdale. With his assistance, she found a farm, put down a small deposit and returned to my father with a fait accompli. Eventually, husband and wife came to some agreement. In the fall of 1932, my mother settled with her four soldiers, aged one to seven, on the farm while my father remained working in the laundry to earn money which he brought every weekend. Besides taking care of us children, she raised 2,000 baby chicks by herself. We tagged after her, or helped by pumping up buckets of water from our outdoor pump which she carried to the chicks. When the chicks grew to chickens and came into production, my father joined the family.

Ironically, my mother did not survive. Two years after my father came onto the farm and our family was reunited, my mother developed cancer and died. Had we not been on the farm where my father could work and take care of us at the same time, I am not sure the family would have remained intact.

When we moved to Farmingdale, there already was a small Jewish community in place. Two years previously, the farmers had built a community center where meetings and socials were held every Saturday night. This weekly ritual of communal gathering replaced the more traditional Shabbos. There even was a kind of ritualistic formula in the meetings.

These gatherings gave us a chance to socialize and an opportunity to become acquainted with the neighbors and landsleit scattered over a wide geographic area. We were fortunate to have the Center within walking distance of our farm as we had neither an automobile nor a horse and buggy. Saturday night was special. We attended every meeting and every gathering, and the community center became a second home.

The farmers attended with their entire families. The infants, wrapped in blankets, were placed side by side on the raised platform stage where they slept while the adults entertained each other from the stage with Yiddish readings, story telling, or singing. It didn’t take long for the members to find out that my mother had a beautiful voice. She was always happy to sing when asked, and even developed dramatizations of the songs in which my brother and I had parts. I remember one of her numbers — I think it was “Eli, Eli” — where we were on our knees on each side of her, looking up with hands folded in prayer. It always got a big hand from the group. The image is with me still; when my mother became ill, I prayed and prayed, just as she had taught me to do for her song.

My mother’s illness and death was the first such tragedy the young community experienced, and the neighbors rallied to help us. Self-help was part of the shtetl baggage the immigrants brought to America and to the farm. Men helped my father on the farm, while the women helped with the nursing. People dropped by with food, Mr. Zeller brought flowers from his garden almost every day, Mr. Bierstien brought newspapers.

Mother was at home, daily getting worse, for about six months before she died. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, came to stay with us, and women from the community tried to help her manage the four of us children. Pauline Sokol, a former neighbor whom I interviewed years later — a lifetime later — remembered how sick my mother was, and how my younger sister refused to go away from the bed.

When it was no longer possible for my mother to be at home, neighbors came to take her to the hospital, and the family gathered together for a leave taking. It was the most difficult parting imaginable. She kissed us all, begging us each in turn, all four of us, even the baby who was placed by my father in her thin outstretched arms, to remember to take good care of each other and of papa.

The few farmers who had cars transported my father to the hospital, and every night a small group of people came to the house to learn the news. Few farmers had telephones in their homes. When my mother needed blood, a network informed the scattered members of the Jewish community, and a car full of farmers departed for the hospital, driven there by Sophia Peskin, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the first farmer. As it turned out, only Sophia had matching blood, and she told me many years later that as she lay on an adjoining hospital stretcher and watched the blood go from her arm to my mother’s, she prayed that her blood was strong enough to work a miracle.

My father dealt with difficult situations by not talking about them. He did not tell us when my mother died. I learned it from my New York cousin who appeared with a lot of other company. I remember how I screamed at my father to tell me where my mother was, and how he just sat down at the table, buried his face in his arms, and sobbed.

When, some fourteen months later, he remarried, he didn’t tell us about that either. One day he asked my older brother, who was just eleven, to walk to the railroad station, two miles away, and help a woman named Hilda carry her bundles to the farm. Somehow, I vaguely remember that he went off to New York City once to meet her, and she came to Farmingdale once to meet us. Only later did I understand what had happened. It was a marriage of convenience for the two of them, arranged by my father’s landsman living in Brooklyn. My father needed someone to look after the children and help on the farm; Hilda, 32-years old, needed to be married and live somewhere other than with her sister’s family in a tiny Brooklyn apartment.

My grandmother, who could only speak Yiddish, lived with us between my mother’s death and my father’s remarriage. Old for her time — she was in her late sixties — she managed the house and children, catered to all our personal idiosyncracies, and provided us with her love and warmth, which we needed, and her wisdom and values which we absorbed.

She must have known that Hilda was about to arrive. Early one morning, my grandmother cooked and baked every specialty we loved — blintzes, borsht, kreplakh, perogi, cookies, fruit cake — called the four of us aside, and said simply that she must move back to New York. She left out the front door as soon as Hilda came in through the back door. She did not stay to greet our new stepmother; it was too painful for her to see her daughter’s place taken by a stranger.

My father did not take time off from his farm routine for Hilda, his bride, on the day she arrived. As far as I could understand, Hilda appeared and my grandmother disappeared. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to anything.

My grandmother’s leaving was even worse for me than my mother’s death, it being the second major rift in my life within a short period of time. Hilda never filled the void; she was not pretty or sensitive or creative like my mother, nor soft and wise and kind like my grandmother. Nor did she know how to cook — my grandmother was a magician with food. When we did not eat, Hilda took it as a personal affront and became angry and surly. Once, when I burst out crying because she berated me for not eating her pea soup, she tried to console me. “Don’t cry. I’m going to be your mother. I’ll be good to you. I won’t hit you.”

I was not convinced. For weeks after she arrived, I would come home from school, throw myself on the bed, and sob. There was no end to my sorrow; I was now in double mourning, for both my mother and my grandmother. My father tried to comfort me, telling me that everything would be all right. But he couldn’t convince me either. Hilda stopped being sympathetic and became impatient. “Crying again,” she would snap. “Look what a mess you are making of the bed.”

I stopped crying and developed migraine headaches which sometimes lasted for days. The only way I could control the pain was to lie or sit perfectly still. My headaches and my quietness were much more acceptable to both my father and Hilda. Although I outgrew the migraines, I learned the wrong lesson. Stoically bearing one’s sorrow is not the best road to happiness.

Hilda wanted us to call her “Mother,” and spent considerable time trying to get us to do that. But we never did. I could not accept her as my mother, and since my father never told me directly that he had remarried, I invented the myth that Hilda was our housekeeper I told my friends that we had a maid and even felt a new status. Who else among them had a servant?

In fact, Hilda was, in many ways, treated like a hired person. She did all the house work, packed the eggs, cleaned the fresh-killed chickens, including those my father sold to summer boarders, processed the milk from our two cows — making it into cream, cheese and butter, and prepared the rooms and bungalows for the summer people. My father, who did a good share of the housework while my grandmother was there, no longer helped in any of these tasks. He did all the outdoor work on the farm and, when he purchased a car, drove around making deals of various kinds. Once a week he drove my stepmother to Freehold or Lakewood for supplemental grocery shopping. Every week, he gave her a spending allowance which she called her paydeh [Yinglish for “pay”].

I watched my stepmother turn from a well-dressed city woman to a farm wife. When she first came, she changed every evening into a good dress in preparation for her walk. I don’t know where she walked. She considered Saturdays a day off, dressed in an even better dress and coat, and walked up and down the road several times. There were not many places she could go unless she walked to a neighbor’s who, like as not, was too busy to talk or visit during the day. Or she might have walked to Farmingdale. Once or twice, I accompanied her. Although she continued walking in the evening during her whole life in Farmingdale, she soon stopped changing her dress and soon after that she didn’t differentiate between Saturday and the rest of the week with one exception. The house always received a thorough cleaning on Friday mornings, and she baked chalah and prepared traditional Sabbath foods. This, and the Yiddish language of the home, was our only connection with tradition. Like most of the Farmingdale farmers who put religious observance on the shelf to be taken down as needed, Hilda sneered at the believers. The days blended into each other in an unbroken and monotonous chain of work.

When I was about eleven, my job was to grade the eggs with my stepmother when I came home from school. We worked in the basement, grading each egg separately on a small hand scale, brushing the dirty ones by hand with a sandpaper brush. Hilda sat on a low box in front of an upturned crate. From sitting thus for years, my stepmother’s shoulders got so round that she appeared to have a hump. One of the last modern machines to come onto our farm was an automatic egg-grader; it took my father a long time to understand why we needed one. But it was too late for Hilda’s back to straighten out.

All the farm women and girls I knew packed eggs. Some of the women worked on the farm as well, right alongside of their husbands, cleaning out chicken coops, preparing the outdoor ranges for the chickens, doing the heavy manual work of the men. These were the women who peopled my world. I looked at them, at their work-worn hands and faces, their rough clothing, indistinguishable from the men’s, and I resolved never to live on a farm or have anything to do with a farm when I grew up. But, as the saying goes, a mentsh trakht un gut lakht (a person plans and God laughs). I not only married a farmer, but became a farmer myself, and remained in Farmingdale for 24 more years.

In summing up what it felt like to live on the farm, my stepmother, Hilda, who spent her last years in a nursing home said: “What can I tell you. We worked very hard. Shver un bitter (hard and bitter). But we were free. It was a nice life, a beautiful life. I wish I had it now.” How well I understand those words.

Gertrude Dubrovsky now lives in Princeton, N.J. where she teaches Yiddish. She is producing a film on Jewish farmers and their communities.

Suggested Reading

Two recent books describing Jewish women’s experiences on farms during this century are:

Dakota Diaspora, by Sophie Trupin. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

A series of heartrending vignettes of one idealist immigrant family’s failed attempt to farm the rock-laden terrain of North Dakota, where several Jewish families had been enticed by the offer of free land.

Papa Was a Farmer, by Brenda Weisberg Meckler. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 1988.

The very personal story of another immigrant family who successfully farmed land near Cincinnati. Of special interest is the author’s description of her family’s relationships with its non-Jewish neighbors.