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Using All My Senses

Nathan and Rebecca Osofsky and their three daughters, Freda, Ida and Annie, soon after their arrival in Ellsworth

I kept discovering traces of several Russian Jewish farmers who lived up in Ellsworth between 1907 and 1920, where I now live. Finally, about a year and a half ago, I approached the Sharon Historical Society to ask whether they had done an exhibit on this seemingly little-known history. The conversation was short and to the point. No, there had never been such an exhibit. Would I curate one?

Though it’s hard to remember whether I even considered the skills and time involved, I’m a writer who was trained as an anthropologist: neither interviewing nor doing archival research seemed new. And I don’t think I considered what translating narrative into images on a wall would entail.

There were some sketchy months as both the director and the curator left and I continued my research alone. And then one day Marge Smith, the Society’s former curator, appeared. Although Marge would be doing two jobs until a new director was hired, she regretted the long absence of a history exhibit and was enthusiastic about my project.

I remember our first organizational meeting for A Chance for Land and Fresh Air: Russian Jewish Immigrants in Ellsworth and Amenia, 1907-1940. I had brought in an outline of the story and my sense of how each the three available rooms might be allocated. The first would describe the flight of Jews from the Russian Pale, and the creation of a fund by a Belgian Jewish philanthropist, Baron Moritz de Hirsch, to help Jewish immigrants purchase land and become farmers. The second room would focus on the decades the Russian Jews had spent in Ellsworth, subsidizing their dairy farms by opening their homes to kosher boarders. And the third room would follow these immigrants as their children reached high school age and they moved to Amenia, where they built a synagogue and turned the little village into a vibrant Jewish resort.

The timeline I had created to clarify the major events of my story seemed to excite Marge, who affixed it to the first wall with masking tape. (Over the next months, she would set it horizontally, decorating the major events with salient images, creating a dramatic timeline from 1880 to the present that covers one wall of the exhibit.) That day, Marge also taped up the photo I’d brought in of Baron de Hirsch, as well as other images and photos I’d begun to collect. Amazingly, she could already glimpse a visual story!

Marge listened carefully and imaginatively to whatever I brought her. I remember repeating a stirring anecdote a descendant had told me. “Let’s focus on half a dozen families,” Marge responded. “Telling their stories will make the most moving history.” I’d been troubled by how to weave together different family stories. Now, I saw I could describe the immigration experience through two families, the story of farming on Ellsworth through five other families, and the Amenia story through the same as well as new families.

Though I still had little idea of the ratio of images to text that viewers tolerate in an exhibit, I began to file both the narratives I was writing and the documents and photographs I was scanning under the appropriate family names in the Historical Society’s upstairs computer. Marge’s first storyboard showed me how we could combine a hand-written letter from a father to his son about life in Ellsworth with several photos and my narrative.

Watching Marge work with my material made me more creative. I began to tell the family stories in different ways—sometimes forming my narrative from a range of sources; at other times, letting the old-timer or descendant tell his or her own story. I also realized that we could cut up and re-use photos to emphasize the continuity of a character or story.

For months, our story remained two-dimensional—solely on the walls. Then Tim Euvrard, whose family farmed on the mountain, brought in old farming equipment for room 2. Room 3 would have a case of Jewish ritual objects in the center. When a friend lent a samovar, I installed it on the wooden table in room 1, and Marge suggested setting the table for tea, which we did with pieces from our own cupboards. For me, this table creates a poignant reminder of home life amidst the stories of uprooting told on the walls.

The last item to be added was music. Though the exhibit shows the resilience and inventiveness of the Russian Jewish immigrants, I wanted the music in room 1 to evoke the loss and yearning that are the price of that energy. Thus, Yiddish folk songs evoke the old world culture that was held onto even as it was being lost. In room 3, Benny Goodman, one of the great Jewish jazz musicians, should remind viewers that Amenia’s Russian Jews were already becoming Americans. But they were enriching America with their heritage as well as unique contributions.

Suddenly it was October 22nd, Opening Day! Though the opening began at four, by 3:30, cars were already parked on the lawn and soon after they reached far down the street. For the next several hours people packed into the Sharon Historical Society, obliterating all but the sounds of excited conversation, and making it hard to see either the narrative or the photos on exhibit. Over 230 people signed in—numbers never seen at the Sharon Historical Society. Since then, a steady stream of visitors has viewed the exhibit, some expressing gratitude and some visibly shaken by this untold story.

The exhibit can be viewed at the
Sharon Historical Society
18 Main Street
Sharon, CT
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A Chance for Land and Fresh Air - Opening October 22nd, 2016

Harry Marcus w horse on his farm on Modley Road

I came upon this hidden history of some 30 Jewish families who beginning in 1907 became dairy farmers in the Ellsworth Hills above my home in Sharon, CT. I examined the town’s land records, which, in turn, led me to census data and the archives of the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, and back to Sharon and Amenia, to conduct interviews and collect family photographs, and other documents which has led to my role as curator of a new history exhibit, A Chance for Land and Fresh Air: Russian Jewish Immigrants in Ellsworth and Amenia, 1907-1940.

The exhibit highlights several families who continue to have farms in the area, including the Gorkofskys, Osofskys, and Paleys. Marge Smith, Sharon Historical Society Curator, has been instrumental in designing the exhibit. Joel Osofsky, whose grandfather settled in Ellsworth in 1907, has assisted with photographic reproduction and mounting.  Read More 

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How Connecticut's Jewish Farmers Exemplify the Power of Philanthropy

[Originally published in Reformed Judaism]

I had been living in the hills above Sharon, CT, for some time when I heard that a Russian Jewish family had once lived about a mile away. Then a neighbor mentioned that his father had bought their several-hundred-acre farm from "a Jew" in 1926. The mention of a third Russian Jewish farmer, in his nineties and still living on his farm outside of Sharon, sent me to my town's land records, where I found references to "JAIAS" – the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society – under the mortgage details of these three farm purchases.  

    

At the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, I learned that JAIAS was founded in 1900 on the Lower East Side with funds from the Belgian Jewish financier and philanthropist Baron Moritz de Hirsch. It turned out that JAIAS had provided mortgage assistance to 15 Jews between 1907 and 1925 for the purchase of farmland in the hills above Sharon.

One of the wealthiest men of his day, Baron Maurice de Hirsch (1831-1896) was moved by the relentless poverty and persecution of Russian Jews, who were forbidden to own land and confined to an area known as the Pale of Settlement. After Jews were blamed for the assassination of the czar in 1881, triggering a series of devastating pogroms, Hirsch appointed himself their savior.

 

Failing in his attempt to influence the Russian government to ameliorate its policies toward Jews, Hirsch began financing their mass emigration. He provided emergency funds for Russian Jewish refugees making their way through Europe and sponsored projects to help these refugees become self-sufficient farmers and craftsmen in their new countries.

 

Calling it "the object of my life," Hirsch described his goal as giving "my companions in faith the possibility of finding a new existence, particularly as farmers…in those lands where the laws and religious tolerance permit them to carry on the struggle for existence as noble and responsible subjects of a humane government."

 

Hirsch's first initiative was to create the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) to resettle Russian Jews in large farming colonies in Argentina. Although the ICA would ultimately settle 35,000-40,000 in Argentine farm colonies, the project suffered from poor leadership in Buenos Aires and difficult farming conditions. In time the number of colonists diminished, leaving their land for city life.

 

In 1882, when the Jewish Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) Movement began creating agricultural settlements in Palestine, Hirsch considered contributing, but backed away when he learned that the French Jewish philanthropist, Baron Edmund de Rothschild (1845-1934), was supporting these colonies by establishing wineries to help them become self sufficient. In a kind of gentleman's agreement, the yishuv (Jewish community in pre-state Israel) would become Rothschild's turf, and the diaspora Hirsch's.

 

In 1891, Hirsch donated $4 million to establish a fund in New York City that would lead to the creation of JAIAS. Over the next three decades, JAIAS would loan more than $7 million (of which $6 million was repaid) to some 10,000 Jews for the purchase of farms, equipment, and seed. While most of the farmers receiving aid purchased farms in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, some were drawn to places as far away as Wyoming, Texas and, Saskatchewan, Canada.

 

JAIAS agents assessed farmland before purchase and paid visits to new farmers. Its Yiddish monthly, The Jewish Farmer, provided information on what seeds to plant and when, how to judge dairy and beef catle, what machinery to purchase, and how to build chicken coops and silos. In addition, JAIAS provided scholarships to the sons of Jewish farmers to attend agricultural colleges.

 

Through the vision of Baron de Hirsch and the operations of JAIAS, which regarded a farm deed as both returning Jews to a "glorious Biblical past" and the "equivalent to a 'Bill of Rights," a substantial number of Jews became part of America's population of farmers in the first decades of the 20thcentury.

 

Though rural life has changed and the challenges facing the Jewish people today are different, Jewish philanthropists continue to play a leading role both internationally and in the U.S. Their impact on Jewish life, like that of Baron de Hirsch, cannot be underestimated.

 

Originally published in Reformed Judaism

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When Your Great-Great-Great-Granny Is a Famous Santa Fe Ghost

[Originally published in Reformed Judaisim]

 

In American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest (HarperCollins), award-winning author Hannah Nordhaus treats us to a genealogical detective story that combines memoir, cultural history, and ghost hunting in her quest to discover the truth about her great great-great-grandmother.

 

It might have been a typical mid-19th century German-Jewish immigrant story, except for the fact that Abraham Staab chose to join his brother in a territory where Jews were still a rarity – Santa Fe, N.M. After opening a successful dry goods store, Abraham returned to his village in Westphalia Germany to find a Jewish bride – Julia Schuster Staab.

Julia never adjusted to life in the frontier and occasionally left her husband and seven children for extended periods of restoration and spa treatments in Germany. It seems, however, that Santa Fe exerted a pull on Julia, for her ghost, it is said, still haunts the former Staab mansion, now the La Posada Hotel.

 

As the story goes, late one night in the 1970s, the janitor of La Posada (Spanish for "place of rest" was mopping the lobby floor when he caught sight of an apparition: a white-haired woman dressed in a black gown standing near the fireplace. Soon there were reports of swaying chandeliers, glasses tumbling from shelves, tapping on the floor – all signs of a ghostly presence assumed to be Julia.  

 

Is there any truth to this story? Through newspaper clippings, letters, and family diaries, Nordhaus ascertains that Abraham, who made a fortune as a supply contractor for the U.S. Army during the Civil War, was often away negotiating deals. Julia endured a lonely existence, except for the company of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the Catholic archbishop, with whom she shared a love of poetry and gardening. While there is little evidence that she was a devoted mother, the infant death of her eighth child sent her into a deep depression. Julia died in 1896 at the age of 52, having spent the last 13 years of her life alone in her room.

 

That might have been the end of the story, except for the persistent ghost sightings at La Posada.

 

In her role as ghost hunter, Nordhaus spends a nervous but uneventful night in Julia's old bedroom at La Posada. Suspending disbelief, she engages clairvoyants and psychics who all confidently claim to be able to communicate with Julia's spirit, which, they say, is still too distressed to vacate La Posada: Something awful, something dark, made her baby die – or made Julia kill her baby. Abraham tortured Julia. Her relationship with the archbishop brought her immeasurable pleasure – and sorrow. While these telepathic projections paint Julia as a tortured soul, they exist in a realm beyond proof and leave key questions unanswered.

 

What is the truth about Julia's relationship with Abraham, and with Jean-Baptiste Lamy?  (Nordhaus has her DNA tested to find evidence of a possible love affair with the French archbishop.) Did the death of Julia's eighth child, after which her hair apparently turned white overnight, lead to madness and eventual suicide? Most compelling, does Julia's restless spirit still roam La Posada?

 

While the author does not fully embrace the supernatural, neither does she flat out dismiss it.  "Absence of evidence," she writes, "as they so often say in the world of the paranormal, is not evidence of absence. We so badly want the dead to stay with us."  

 

Julia's ghost was real for Nordhaus in the sense that "it lured me into a past I would never have known," and made her a believer "in the power of the past." 

 

Thanks to this entertaining book, the memory of Julia Schuster Staab will live on. Ghosts, however you may define them, have an uncanny way of inhabiting the human imagination.  

 

[Originally published in Reformed Judaisim]

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