Saturday, March 17, 2007

MEMOIR: My grandfather's tobacco farm

If my paternal grandfather could have assured himself that a quorum of 10 adult Jewish males could be easily assembled to recite the Jewish prayer for the dead in the event of his own death in Connecticut's sparsely populated tobacco farming region, I might have grown up as a farm boy.

With such assurances, my grandfather would have confidently purchased a 70-acre farm near Windsor Locks, Conn. in 1920, my father might have eventually inherited the farm, and I could have conceivably been born and raised on the soil. But it was not to be.

My grandfather had arrived in the U.S. from the Czarist Russian-ruled sector of Poland with his wife and four children about 14 years earlier. Like so many other East European Jewish immigrants, they settled in the hurly-burly of Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Grandpa, who was an ordained rabbi, founded and headed what was one of the first Hasidic congregations in this country. His prestigious position was essentially an unpaid one. He tried to earn a living selling steamship tickets and sewing machines, but was not very successful. Grandma became the family's primary breadwinner, as she had been in Europe. In Poland she had been in the vegetable oil business. In New York she operated a tiny dairy store on the ground floor of the tenement apartment house in which they lived.

Grandpa was oriented more towards philosophical pursuits than business. He had only one occupation: "being a devout Jew," as my father once put it. (I never actually knew my grandfather.) When his wife took time out to bear babies, however, it was his unhappy lot to take charge of the store. This was invariably a bitter experience for both Grandpa and Grandma. My grandfather had a disquieting tendency to allow the store's operations to collapse into commercial disorder.

Under his unskilled and half-hearted direction, customers would not be pressed to pay debts, bills would not be paid, and orders to replenish inventories were not placed. Grandma's remarkable mercantile talents would have to be hastily applied to resurrect the business.

This would be accomplished as soon as the care of the latest infant could be arranged, either with a relative or a boarder, usually a single young woman fresh from the family's Polish home town.

After several years in New York, Grandpa, who was now about 45, became dissatisfied with city life. The tumult of the big, teeming city was making him disenchanted with the new land. He decided to move to the "country," believing that rural life would be preferable for his youngest children still at home.

He was encouraged by a friend who had purchased a farm near Monticello, N.Y. in the Catskills. The friend owned a few cows, chickens and a vegetable garden. His farm house had several spare rooms, which he rented to summer boarders who required a kosher cuisine. This was at a time when the Catskills area was being established as the borsht belt, a summer vacation mecca for Jews from the big city. The friend, who came from Grandpa's Polish home town, invited him to visit.

Grandpa was overwhelmed by the beauty of his friend's bucolic surroundings. He decided that he too would become a farmer and offer his family the benefits of rural life. He was not deterred by the fact that he knew nothing about farming and had never performed manual labor.

The move to the country, of course, would involve his severance from full-time ultra-Orthodox synagogue life. But in the best Jewish tradition of "alles far der kinder" (everything for the children), he was willing to make the sacrifice.

Seeking advice on how to become a farmer, Grandpa turned to the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural Society, an organization set up to promote the settling of immigrant Jews on the land. The society provided both technical assistance and low-interest loans to aspiring Jewish immigrant farmers.

When my grandfather told a society agent how impressed he was with his friend's farming experience, the agent advised against moving to the Catskills. "If you want to run a restaurant," Grandpa was told, "you might as well open it up in the city."

The agent warned that my grandfather would have a hard time making a living by combining the operation of a tiny farm with a boarding house for summer guests. Indeed, Grandpa's friend normally moved back to the city in the winter to work in a garment factory to support his family and pay the mortgage on the Catskills farm.

The agent told Grandpa that he would seek a more attractive situation and would call when one came along. Several months later, Grandpa received a letter from the society, reporting that one of its field agents had learned that an aged Jewish farmer, a Mr. Weinstock, in Windsor Locks, about 15 miles north of Hartford, wanted to sell his farm and retire.

The farm was was almost entirely devoted to the cultivation of Connecticut River Valley tobacco, a high-grade strain widely used as a broad leaf wrapper for cigars. In addition to a curing shed for the tobacco, the farm had seven cows and three horses.

The agricultural society suggested that Grandpa visit the farm. It was available for $12,500, a fair price, the society agent assured Grandpa. The farmer had operated the property for 25 years. His three children lived in Hartford and had no interest in continuing to farm.

By coincidence, several weeks earlier, my father had just returned to New York after quitting his job on the Ford Motor Co. assembly line. Having tired of Detroit, he now sought work in New York. My father, who was 22, accompanied Grandpa on a visit to the tobacco farm.

As Mr. Weinstock explained, the tobacco seeds were planted in the fall under glass in a hot house. The following spring, the tobacco plants were set into the open ground, and in the early fall were harvested. The leaves were placed in the curing shed for several months and then sold. In addition to the tobacco crop, the farm produced a small but regular income from the sale of dairy products. It all sounded perfectly simple.

The time was May, and the farmer promised that if Grandpa bought the farm, he would remove the tobacco leaves from the hot house and replant them before turning over the premises. He assured Grandpa that he would visit the farm twice a week throughout the summer to see how my grandfather was making out and to provide any required assistance. He advised Grandpa to hire a live-in laborer to help with the heavy work. There were many immigrant workers in Hartford, he said, who were eager for such jobs.

Grandpa returned to New York with my father to decide what to do. After much deliberation, my grandfather decided to go ahead with the deal. Mr. Weinstock wanted an immediate $500 deposit and a $5,000 down payment 30 days later to seal the purchase. The agricultural society offered my grandfather a no-interest, long-term loan of $3,500 for the down payment. The farmer was willing to hold a mortgage for the balance of the purchase price.

My father offered to dip into his savings to help Grandpa with the down payment. Again my father accompanied Grandpa to Connecticut to make the $500 deposit. My grandmother and their other children remained in New York until arrangements could be made to sell the dairy store and move to the farm.

After a few days, during which the farmer instructed Grandpa and my father on how to operate the farm, my father went to Hartford to hire a laborer. The usual pay was $75 a month, plus room and board.

The first morning, my father was unsuccessful in finding a man. He had no better luck the following morning, and decided to return to the farm and bring Grandpa back to New York before closing the deal. He thought that the family might be able to get along without a hired hand. He figured that he would stay on the farm for a couple of months, and that his younger brothers would then be able to help their father run the farm.

When he got back to the farm, he was greeted by a stranger who introduced himself as the owner of the neighboring farm. The man sadly informed my father than Mr. Weinstock had had a heart attack and had died a few hours earlier. Very slowly my father entered the farm house's living room and was shocked to see Grandpa kneeling over Mr. Weinstock's body and reciting the Psalms in Hebrew.

A candle was burning on the floor besides the body. Grandpa was a member of his synagogue's burial society, which prepared the dead for burial, and was thus well qualified to cope with Mr. Weinstock's body. Jewish religious practice, which forbids embalming, requires the hasty burial of the dead.

Hasidim like Grandpa usually did not use commercial undertakers. Grandpa tied Mr. Weinstock's legs together before his body became stiff, washed the body, and covered it with sheets. After several hours, Mr. Weinstock's children arrived to arrange their father's burial.

After the funeral, the children returned to the farm to "sit shiva," the traditional Jewish, seven-day period of grief and mourning normally held in the deceased's home. ("Shiva" is the Hebrew word for seven.) The custom stems directly from the verse in Genesis in which Joseph mourns his father Jacob for a week.

During the shiva period, the deceased's sons recite "kaddish," the prayer for the dead, at the three Jewish daily prayer services--in the morning, at sunset, and in the evening. The sons continue to recite the kaddish for the next 11 months.

The prayer's central theme is the magnification and sanctification of God's name. The prayer's purpose is to assure that the deceased's soul goes to heaven. According to Orthodox Jewish practice, all the prayers are conducted in the presence of a "minyan," a religious quorum of 10 adult males.

Grandpa was jolted by the fact that there were not enough adult Jewish males living in Mr. Weinstock's neighborhood to constitute a minyan during the shiva period. He was equally shocked by the family's inability to quickly find a Torah to be set up in the home while sitting shiva--a tradition followed largely by ultra-Orthodox Jews like my grandfather.

Grandpa suddenly realized what it would mean for him to live and die in what he now regarded as "the wilderness"--a neighborhood with few if any other Jews. The religious requirements that meant so much to him could not be fulfilled. A life as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish farmer near Windsor Locks began to look impossible.

My grandfather decided to abandon the idea of becoming a farmer. He called off the deal, surrendered his deposit, and sadly returned to the hurly-burly of Manhattan's Lower East Side, the family's dairy store, and the familiar comforts of his religious life as an ultra-Orthodox Jew.


Blogger joared said...

A fascinating story as are the thoughts of how your life might have been quite different had your grandfather become a Conn. farmer.

Monday, March 19, 2007 1:26:00 AM  
Blogger Mildred Garfield said...

What an interesting story. A jewish farmer - never heard of such a thing!!!

Your grandfather was lucky he was able to get out of the deal and get his money back.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 3:46:00 PM  
Blogger Mortart said...

This story was based on an interview I conducted with my father several years before his death in 1990 as I tried to record his recollections of the past. Millie Garfield (above) got the impression that my grandfather was able to retrieve his $500 deposit. I wrote that he surrendered it. Now I am starting to wonder whether I got my father's recollection correctly. My grandfather's tobacco farm story dates back about 87 years when $500 was really very big money. I now find it hard to believe that Grandpa would have actually been willing to give up such a huge sum. Perhaps he just surrendered a small token portion of it. This story is based on recollections of two old men--my father and me--with very shaky memories.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 4:35:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Mama said...

Always interesting to hear of your family stories. I was going to ask how you were able to write such a detailed account of your grandfather's brush with farming when I read your comment about your interviewing your father. Did your mother continue to run the dairy store? Do you think it was Divine intervention that made your grandfather pass on life in the country, and thus less likely in his opinion to be able to fulfill his religious duties? Was he happy continuing his life on the Lower East Side? Was your father disappointed or relieved that they didn't buy the farm? Do you think your grandfather might have been able to keep his Orthodox lifestyle in Connecticut, despite the fact that he ran into some obstacles with finding a Minyan in Mr. Weinstock's neighborhood. Maybe he could have broadened the search.

Have a good Pesach

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 5:44:00 PM  
Blogger Mortart said...

In response to Joe Mama's questions (above), my grandmother continued to operate her dairy store for several years. I don't know about the role of "Divine intervention" in my grandfather's life nor do I recall my father's reaction to the failure to buy the farm.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 8:19:00 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

I love these stories of your family. Can you imagine what a 70 acre farm in Windsor Locks, Ct. would be worth today??? I know that area and, although it is very beautiful, it boggles the mind to realize the prices!

Friday, March 23, 2007 7:35:00 PM  

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