In mid 2017, I was drawn to care for a Guatemalan teenager, ultimately becoming his legal guardian and helping him move toward college and a Green Card. I also became involved in Vecinos Seguros, a local organization that tries to bring safety and support to the undocumented Central Americans who live precariously in our midst.
Though I haven't been an activist for several decades, I'm the daughter of refugees, born a couple of weeks after they arrived on these shores. As I learned English in my neighborhood and school, I became my parent's first "American child," assigned to interpret the often incomprehensible American world about them.
Looking at my writing, I see how two novels, The Flood and A Call From Spooner Street, a memoir, Afterimages, and my most recent nonfiction book, A Chance for Land and Fresh Air, all explore the trauma and conflicts of immigration. Though I feel very American, my heart is deeply touched by the hopes and resilience of immigrants.
A CHANCE FOR LAND AND FRESH AIR: Russian Jewish Immigrants in Sharon and Amenia, 1907-1940
In 1907, the first of thirty Russian Jewish families settled in the Ellsworth hills above Sharon to try their hand at dairy farming. Most of the immigrants purchased land with mortgage assistance from the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, an organization in New York City’s Lower East Side funded by the Belgian Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch. The Russian Czar had forbidden Jews to farm, and Hirsch hoped that farming would enable Jews to become productive and fully-respected citizens in America. But the Ellsworth hills were too stony for dairy farming, and most families subsidized their incomes by offering kosher vacations to New York City Jews wanting fresh air.
In the 1920s, as their children reached high school age, the Russian Jews began moving down from the hills, many to Amenia, New York, where the high school was more welcoming. Amenia was directly on the train line, and so accessible to vacationers. The immigrants built kosher boarding houses and small hotels, as well as a range of business. By the end of the decade, Amenia was a busy resort town, and the Jews were finally able to build a synagogue that ninety years later thrives as Congregation Beth David.
Ascher draws her important and moving story of Jewish rural life in the early decades of the twentieth century from photos and interviews with descendants, many of whom remain in the area, as well as from land records, census data and other historical documents. Thanks to funding from Baron de Hirsch, similar settlements of Russian Jewish farmers took place in other rural communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, as well as throughout the United States and Canada.
A Chance for Land and Fresh Air is based on and expands an exhibit that Ascher curated for the Sharon Historical Society. The exhibit was on display at the Historical Society between October 2016 and April 2017. It is now permanently installed in Amenia’s Congregation Beth David,Congregation Beth David 3344 East Main Street, Route 343, Amenia, NY 12501
See more about the book, including images and excerpts at www.achanceforlandandfreshair.com
"These are my roots. This book put me in touch with the resilience and determination of people like my grandparents, Harry and Anna Marcus. Their hard work and resourcefulness made it possible for those of us who came behind them to do well. As a historian, it helped me understand better how ordinary immigrants enriched American life, sometimes overcoming discrimination and other barriers in doing so."
~ Martin Klein, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto
Carol will present at talk on Russian Jewish Immigrant Farmers for the Women Writing Women's Lives forum at CUNY Graduate Center.
Monday, March 4, 2019
Cuny Graduate Center
West 44th St.
New York, NY