A Chance for Land and Fresh Air
Sharon Historical Society WebsiteAvailable at
In 1907, the first of thirty 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, 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 hills were too stony for dairy farming, and most families subsidized their incomes by taking in city Jews wanting kosher vacations in the fresh air.
In the 1920s, as their children reached high school age, the immigrants began moving down from the hills, many to Amenia, New York, a town directly on the train line, where the high school was more welcoming. These families built kosher boarding houses and small hotels, as well as a range of business, and by the end of the decade Amenia was a sufficiently busy resort town to support a synagogue.
Ascher’s draws her important and moving story of Jewish rural life in the early decades of the twentieth century from photos and interviews with such descendants as Epsteins, Gorkofskys, Marcuses, Osofskys, Paleys, Rothsteins and Temkins, as well as from land records, census data and other historical documents.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.
“This book is not just about Ellsworth and Amenia, nor is it just about a dozen Russian immigrant families adjusting to America. It is about all immigrants who flee, arrive, and struggle to assimilate into a strange new land, learn a new language, take up an altogether new way of life.” - Norman Osofsky, descendant
“The detailed scholarship and memorable stories that make up this book offer today’s reader insight into the refugee experience and leave the reader inspired by these stories of struggle and achievement – Mary Donohue, author of Back to the Land: Jewish Farms and Resorts in Connecticut, 1890-1945
The book, A Chance for Land and Fresh Air, adds several new families and additional material to a three-room exhibit of the same name that Ascher guest-curated at the Sharon Historical Society. The Society’s Marge Smith acted as curator. The exhibit was funded by Connecticut Humanities and the Berkshire Taconic’s Wasserman Streit Y’DIYAH Memorial Fun. Open for viewing in October 2016, the exhibit received unprecedented visitors and critical acclaim and was extended through April 2017.
The book's cover features one of the earliest Russian Jewish immigrants who came to the Ellsworth Hills above Sharon to buy land and work as a dairy farmer. Called Naftali Merkin in Russia, he became Harry Marcus in the United StatesThe book contains 150 black-and-white photos, maps and charts, and a 12-page insert of color photos.
A Chance for Land and Fresh Air: Russian Jewish Immigrants in Sharon and Amenia, 1907-1940
By Carol Ascher
Published by the Sharon Historical Society and available at www.sharonhist.org