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Carol's Blog on Immigration and Our Democracy 

My Interest in Writing about Immigration

Wilfido, the wonderful young man for whom I've become the guardian
Wilfido, the wonderful young man for whom I've become the guardian

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.


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, and I write regularly for my local newspaper, The Lakeville Journal, on the precarious situation of Central American immigrants, particularly in my area.

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Becoming An Activist

Photo of border wall, AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File
AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File

The Trump administration has turned me into an activist after several decades of quiescence, heightening my loyalties as the daughter of refugees. Born a couple of weeks after they arrived on these shores, I learned English in my neighborhood and school. Becoming my parent's first "American child," I interpreted the often incomprehensible American world about them, a role I find myself again playing these days.

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Whose DNA should be collected?

The Department of Justice's proposal to collect DNA samples from hundreds of thousands of immigrants in detention centers without their consent has made me rethink the saliva sample I happily sent Ancestry a couple of months ago. Though Ancestry confirmed that my DNA reflects my family's European heritage, I don't know what other information Ancestry gleaned, or could glean, from my sample. Nor do I know how this organization that so charmingly celebrates our human diversity plans to protect its information from a government that sees DNA as a tool for its national forensic database linking crimes and potential criminals — a database that, in some dark future, offers the possibility of highlighting in advance those genetically disposed to violence, "sexual deviance," and other types of criminal behavior.  


I recall my unease when the DNA Identification Act of 1994 authorized the establishment of a national index of DNA identification records. These records were to include swabs from persons convicted of crimes, as well as samples recovered from crime scenes and from unidentified human remains. Although the national index was focused on sexual offenders, it was soon extended to all federal crimes. Unimaginable to me then, in some states individuals are now swabbed after being picked up for something as innocuous as loitering. DNA samples have also been taken not only from those convicted, but from individuals awaiting prosecution, who may never be convicted, and DNA profiles may remain in the national database even after an acquittal — in other words, still guilty so far as the database is concerned.


The Trump administration's plans for taking DNA samples from immigrants in detention centers have several possible purposes. Most immediately, they will help determine whether the individual has a criminal record, and so discourage the Department of Immigration from allowing him or her to become a legal immigrant in the United States. Ironically, since the administration has criminalized entry into the United States, an individual going through legal channels may already have a "criminal record" if he or she previously entered the U.S. without going through border patrol. More insidiously, by adding all immigrants to the national index of those linked to crimes, the forced samples treat every immigrant as a presumed threat to our security, rather than as an individual escaping poverty and violence or simply seeking a better life.


The collection of DNA samples has been challenged as an illegal search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the constitutional right to privacy to everyone within the United States, regardless of their immigration status. The Fourth Amendment has already been eroded within the 100-mile border zone, where suspicion-less searches are currently allowed, even of American citizens. But the DNA samples — a prime example of suspicion-less searches — constitute one more threat to the privacy rights and civil liberties of immigrants. 


The American Friends Service and the American Civil Liberties Union are among the organizations objecting to Trump's proposal for taking DNA samples in detention facilities. As both organizations note, the government has often tried to normalize new surveillance technologies by testing them on vulnerable communities and imposing initial restrictions on how any information collected will be used. The government inevitably expands those technologies beyond their original purposes, thus altering the purpose of DNA collection to population surveillance. 


What I find puzzling is how many of the same people who fear the "deep state" are those who support President Trump and his administration's expansion of federal powers. Perhaps they see proposals like the DNA samples as protecting them from "other people," outsiders who are not like them. But we ignore at our peril how the same tactics, having been tried out of the public eye on the most vulnerable, can easily be extended to all of us.

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Please DON'T 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses ...'

A few years ago, during a project on Russian Jewish immigrants, I came upon Malka Chavanowa, who in 1905 had arrived at Ellis Island with her 10-year-old son. Beside her name were initials, LPC, which turned out to stand for, "likely to become a public charge." Although Malka was allowed to pass through Ellis Island (she would become matriarch of Arnoff's Moving and Storage), women who arrived without a husband either at their side or waiting on the pier were labeled LPC, and many were put back on steerage to be returned to Europe.  


At the time, I was outraged at U.S. Immigration's assumption that a woman was incapable of sustaining herself. It never occurred to me that becoming a "public charge," was part of the web of obstacles that immigrants still face — that is, until President Trump's recent executive decision to deny green cards to any immigrant who has applied for one of a range of federal public assistance programs. 


The fact is, U.S. Immigration has long used "public charge" to refer to someone primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, either through income maintenance or institutionalization for long term care. Nor is the 21st century version of the term "inadmissibility on public charge grounds" new with the Trump administration. Though rarely used, government statistics show that, in 2016, 164 visas were denied on the grounds that the applicant could become a "public charge." What is noteworthy is the enormous increase in the use of the hardhearted term under Trump: in fiscal year 2018, 5,518 immigrants were denied visas "on public charge grounds." 


Trump's executive decision, intended as a "clarification" of current policy, denies green cards to those who have applied for any of various public assistance programs, from food stamps, housing vouchers, SSI and Medicaid to purchasing subsidized or unsubsidized healthcare under the Affordable Care Act. Needless to say, most of these programs offer far less than primary dependency on the government. Although there are already several court challenges to the decision, the suggestion that poor immigrants are taking undue advantage of federal benefit programs needs to be critiqued.


First, the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., including DACA recipients, who contribute an estimated $11.74 billion to state and local economies each year, have never been eligible for the federal benefit programs mentioned in the executive order. Second, legal immigrants — those with lawful permanent resident (LPR) status — are barred from full access to public benefit programs until they have been here for five years and/or have worked here for 40 quarters. Even social security benefits, which all workers pay into, are not available to legal immigrants until they have completed 40 quarters of work, in addition to having maintained LPR status for five years.


The Trump administration claims that it is simply looking to ensure self-sufficiency from immigrants and to prevent them from becoming a drain on U.S. taxpayers. Yet, immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in government services and benefits, and legal immigrants use federal public benefit programs at lower rates than U.S.-born citizens. According to the Cato Institute, 32.5% of native-born citizen adults received SNAP benefits in 2012, compared to 25.4% of naturalized citizen adults and 29% of noncitizen adults. The Cato Institute also found that immigrants received lower benefit values, costing the program less than native-born citizens. 


While immigrants with serious medical conditions, along with their families, have until recently been allowed to remain in the United States while receiving life-saving medical treatment, without warning the Trump administration has also axed the "medical deferred action program." Letters are being sent to thousands of immigrants here under this program, notifying them that they will have to leave within 33 days. The media have already reported stories of immigrant children for whom this may prove a death sentence. 

Those of us who want to live in a country that "cares for the stranger" are looking on in horror at the new rulings. More important, they must send a chill throughout our immigrant population, who see their choices being narrowed almost daily.  

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Children and the trauma of immigration

Immigrant children have become the collateral damage of the Trump administration's Zero Tolerance policies aimed at their parents, as well as "bargaining chips" in the administration's negotiations with Congress. In addition, our current administration probably hopes that its disdainful treatment of children at the border will be a deterrent to Central American families contemplating life in the U.S.


Unfortunately, the violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is making families sufficiently desperate to underestimate the hardships of travel north by bus, truck or on foot; the trauma of crossing our southern border without papers; and the heartbreak of separation from their children during detention, including the possibility of their disappearance or even death. 


Recently, I met a couple in their 20s who had just arrived from Guatemala with two little preschool girls. We were in the office of a social worker, to whom they had come for help in obtaining medical care for the mother and a lawyer to represent them at court hearings in fall. If their story seemed free of the worst disasters, they had certainly had opportunities for trauma.


Knowing virtually no English, the parents described in Spanish their crossing of the Rio Grande on inner tubes, each holding one child. Somehow they had lost track of each other as they entered U.S. territory. Encountering the border patrol, without proper documents, the parents were arrested separately and given different dates to appear in immigration court. Still, unable to find, or even communicate with each other, but knowing the address of a family member in Connecticut, the husband and wife separately made their way north, each traveling with one child, and were miraculously reunited at the home of this family member. 


The little girls were pretty but frail in their fresh white blouses. They quietly occupied themselves with crayons and paper the social worker had given them, making no demands on the adults in the room. When would they be able to tell their own stories? Would their words be Spanish or in English, a language they did not yet know? In the meantime, their little bodies would hold their silent fears. 


According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (www.nctsn.org), children may be traumatized when they fear for their lives, believe they might be injured, witness violence, experience a sudden and drastic separation from a loved one, or simply become refugees. 


The parents had said little about why they had left everything to come to the U.S., and their immigration experience, as they told it, seemed comparatively benign: No one had spent significant time in detention, and both children had apparently remained with one parent. Nevertheless, crossing the Rio Grande in an inner tube, losing a parent and a sibling, and encountering the border patrol, had all been potentially traumatizing for the little girls. Moreover, although the family's life was relatively stable for the time being, the little girls might well be re-traumatized this coming fall, when one by one, two months apart, their parents would be called before an immigration judge. Without an attorney with a well-developed argument that the family needs asylum, which the family was unlikely to afford, one or both parents might well leave court with a deportation order; the family would likely be separated, or everyone would suddenly be back in Guatemala. 


The six tragic deaths of immigrant children while in detention shocked our nation. But the problem with federal policies that ignore the fragility of children goes far beyond the latest policy of holding children in detention with nothing to do because recreation and schooling are being eliminated to save money.  Long after a traumatic experience, childhood survivors may suffer from emotional upset, depression, difficulties with self-regulation, inattention, academic difficulties, and trouble sleeping and eating. Childhood survivors are also more likely to have long-term health problems, to use health and mental health services, and to be involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.


These are heartbreaking costs to the families who gave up their homeland for a better life — and they are costs that our country, which will become home to some of these immigrants, has not begun to consider.

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"You Make My Life Easy" - A Talk at CUNY Women Writing Women's Lives

Wilfido playing his guitar.

Monday, November 4, 2019
3:30 PM 5:00 PM
West 43rd Street New York, NY, 10036


In 2017, I became guardian of an indigenous Guatemalan teenager, who had crossed the border illegally with his mother. [After living together for a couple of years, she had abandoned him, and he was washing dishes in a restaurant while irregularly attending school. Thus Wilfido was eligible for the federal program that allows abandoned underage immigrants who have a guardian to be given Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, the first step toward a receiving Green Card.]


Although Wilfido lives in the rectory of a church about half an hour from our home, he stays at my house a night or two a week. As I have moved his case through the courts, overseen his schooling, driven him to the doctor and orthodontist, and, in the months since he received a social security number, helped him earn a drivers' license, my husband and I have increasingly felt like grandparents, and Wilfido seems to see us that way.  


"You Make My Life Easy," a quote from Wilfido, is the title of a section of the journal I'm keeping about our relationship. My presentation will include the story of how we met, as well as the journal entry describing our day in federal immigration court.

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My Interest in Immigration Issues

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.

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Connecticut's Russian Jewish Farmers during World War I

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, five million Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement, an area lying between the Baltic and the Black Sea on Russia's western border. In an autocratic society with widespread poverty, life for Jews in the Pale was particularly harsh: severe quotas restricted their entry into universities and the professions, Jewish men were subject to conscription starting at age 12 and lasting as long as 25 years; and, in a society that remained largely agricultural, they were forbidden to farm or own land and were limited largely to what Russians called "parasitical occupations" like money-lending and peddling.  


The assassination of Czar Alexander in 1880, which was blamed on Jews, began several decades of periodic pogroms that sent two million Russian Jews fleeing the Pale, 1.7 million making their way across Europe to ships offering steerage to the United States.


Although America was not entirely welcoming, these refugees filled the tenements of eastern seaboard cities like New York, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Though tuberculosis was widespread in the sweat shops where the immigrants found work, they generally felt physically safe.


Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a wealthy Belgian Jewish philanthropist, viewed emigration and farming as the solution to Russian anti-Semitism. Since Baron Edmond de Rothschild was sponsoring Jewish cooperative farms in Palestine, de Hirsch gave a good deal of his wealth to help Jews become farmers in Argentina and the US.  He funded the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which provided loans to Jews to purchase farmland in every state and Canada and offered a range of supports to ensure that, despite no experience as farmers, Jews would make a success of farming in America.


By 1913, 627 Jewish farmers in Connecticut had received JAIAS loans.  In Sharon, thirty Jewish farm families became dairy farmers, most with JAIAS funding and support. In 1916, there were sixteen Jewish farming communities in Connecticut, including in Chesterfield, Colchester, Ellington, Hebron, Lebanon, New Haven, North Canton, Norwich, Oakdale, Rocky Hill, Sharon, Stepney, Storrs, Vernon, Willimantic and Yantic.  As the wartime slogan, "Food will win the war" put pressure on farmers to increase food production, Connecticut's Jewish farmers hired about 1000 Jewish farm laborers.


Although Sharon's Russian Jewish immigrants were isolated from Sharon's village life by geography, language and culture, they were often more connected to both other Jewish farm communities and urban Jews than were their gentile neighbors. The JAIAS linked them to the Jewish farmers across Connecticut and helped them form a farming association that provided farm credit, a model later imitated by the federal government. Jewish farmers across Connecticut and New York also supplemented their farm income by offering "kosher vacations" to Jews from New York City, Hartford and New Haven, thus building a commonality of opinion built between urban and rural Jews, which was enriched by The Forward, a left-leaning Yiddish newspaper with an Orthodox orientation, read regularly by both urban Russian Jews and Russian Jewish farmers.


As the warm drums grew louder across the U.S., simmering anti-immigrant sentiment was directed at recent newcomers from Russia, as well as Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the latter both Axis powers. Although Sharon's Jewish farmers were tolerated as long as they kept to themselves, their children attending one-room schools. But, in 1916, when the first Jewish farm family tried to bring their daughter to Sharon High School, she was turned away.


On April 2nd, 1917, two-and-a-half years into the war in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson declared war against Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire; the United States would be allied with England, Russia, and Italy. Just as the immigrant Irish maids who had settled in Sharon Valley hoped aloud that the Kaiser would prevail over the Brits, memories of Czarist Russia were raw among Sharon's Jewish immigrants.  As the Forward's editor had wrote, "All civilized people [must] sympathize with Germany.  Every victory she attains over Russia is a source of joy."


Fear of the financial and military costs of war was widespread among all Americans. Although Sharon's Jewish farmers went quietly about their business, New York Jews were the most vocal ethnic group in their anti-war sentiments. To generate support for an overseas war, the Committee on Public Information put up pro-war flyers and harassed dissenters. At the same time, the FBI developed a liaison with the conservative businessmen's organization, the American Protective League, to monitor dissent throughout the United States. And the Espionage Act, passed by Congress in 1917, and the Sedition Act passed in 1918, both aimed to stifle dissent and anti-war protests.


World War I was the first time America used a draft to create its military. Although immigrants from Germany and Austro-Hungary who had not been naturalized were declared "enemy aliens," and so ineligible for the draft, Russian Jewish immigrants were eligible, whether or not they were naturalized. Despite their memories of persecution under the czar and the disasters of Russian conscription, Russian Jewish draftees generally responded positively. Indeed, the Forward argued that, whatever one's criticisms of the war, it was the duty of a citizen to obey the law, and many Jews waived their right of exemption to serve in the military.


Of an estimated 3.4 million Jews living in the country during the First World War, 250,000 joined the military, according to the American Jewish Committee's Office of Jewish War Records. It was the first time Jews had fought in significant numbers for the American armed forces. In New York City's Seventy-Seventh Division, comprised largely of immigrants, a song mocking the rhetoric of war boosters, ended with, "Oh, the army, the army, the democratic army! All the Jews and Wops, the Dutch and Irish Cops! They're in the army now!"


Though barracks at Camp Upton on Long Island were still being built, Russian Jews were astonished by livable conditions created for soldiers, as well as by the attempt to find rabbis for the draftees and even the right of Orthodox Jews to go on furlough for the High Holidays.  Camp Upton may sound like a multi-ethnic utopia, but it did not include either officers, who were billeted more comfortably, or African American draftees who were kept in separate, likely less adequate quarters.

Sharon's farmers had bought their land as recent immigrants with young or no children; in 1917, most of their sons were still not of draft age. Yet of Sharon's thirty Jewish farm families, Morris Cohen and Hyman Paley are listed on the village's World War I memorial.


Two events in 1917 shifted the anti-war attitude of Russian Jewish immigrants. The first was the Russian Revolution: in March, the czar abdicated his throne and a provisional government called for a negotiated peace; in November, the Bolsheviks assumed power, promising peace, land, bread, and sovereignty for all oppressed peoples, and unilaterally ceased hostilities against Germany.  


Ironically, while the fledgling Soviet Union turned Russia into an acceptable ally for Russian Jewish immigrants, the Bolsheviks frightened the middle classes in the United States and in Western Europe, who worried that revolution might spread. Misunderstanding the relief Jews experienced in the downfall of the czar and the new government's promise of full human rights for all Soviet citizens, the middle class tended to see Jews as soft on communism and unreliable Americans.


Since the end of the nineteenth century, Zionism had drawn an increasing constituency among Jews worldwide; moreover, a small but growing number of urban Jews and Jewish farmers had family or friends who had fled the Pale for Palestine.

Ottoman Palestine was an axis power, which meant that Jews might be called to fight their own people.  Thus, the second event that softened the anti-war sentiment of Russian Jews was the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, in which Britain declared its intention to establish a national Jewish home in Palestine, and so claimed Palestine's future as part of the Allied nations.


Although The Forward took a dim view of the Balfour Declaration, arguing that most Jews in America were happy where they were, Russian Jews were generally attached to their Biblical home land, even if they intended to remain in America, they usually had high hopes for a possible Jewish nation.  


Jewish activism in the resistance to World War I, Jews' warmth toward the Russian Revolution, and Jews' involvement in the future of Palestine all fueled the suspicion that Jews were unreliable American citizens. Though some of this mistrust was no more than anti-Semitism, Jewish immigrants were often more international in their loyalties and concerns than were those of other Americans. Many Russian Jews became involved in the humanitarian side of the war, sending packages to destitute and brutalized Jews in war-torn Russia and Central Europe, and to starving Jews in Ottoman-controlled Palestine.


As the nativism of the 1920s, with its passage of stringent anti-immigration laws, would make clear, neither farming nor taking up arms for the United States made Jews social, cultural or political equals.  But the War gave Russian and Central European Jews the courage to express their political convictions, and their activism during World War I expanded the terms of American democracy and helped protect Jews from the backlash of the postwar years.

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Carol Receives CultureMAX Award

Carol at the CutlureMAX Awards

Carol is the recipient of the CultureMax Heritage Professional Award from the Northwest Connecticut Arts Council for her exhibit, "A Chance for Land and Fresh Air" at The Sharon Historical Society. See more about the project and the book of the same name at the www.achanceforlandandfreshair.com.


The award was presented on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 at the Warner Theatre.

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Jewish Homesteading in North Dakota

As my research for A Chance for Land and Fresh Air cleared, a complicated series of circumstance had created a Russian Jewish farming settlement in the hills of Sharon, Connecticut.


Forbidden to own land or farm in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Jews had been confined to "unproductive" professions, which had exacerbated anti-Semitism. In response, young Russian Jews dreamed of farming—some in Palestine, and others in the Americas.  Inspired by the terrible situation of Russian Jews, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a wealthy Belgian Jewish philanthropist, supported early Jewish farm settlements in the US and Argentina.  In 1900, the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society (JAIAS) was established on Manhattan's Lower East Side with money from de Hirsch's estate to offer Jews loans for mortgages and farm implements, as well as the necessary information and supports needed by Jews who had never farmed succeed at farming.

Sharon was on the New York Central train line, a ride from New York not much longer than the two-and-a-half hours it takes today. Moreover, a number of farms were for sale in the stony hills above Sharon.  The new immigrants could stay in touch with the City's vibrant Jewish immigrant community—and, when they needed to subsidize their farm incomes, offer kosher vacations to New York Jews. Indeed, a good percentage of the JAIAS grants were for farms in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, all within a few hours of the Lower East Side, and most of the farmers offered kosher resorts and farm vacations.


As I worked on the exhibit and the book, I met people who grew up in JAIAS-funded farming communities as far away as Saskatchewan, and Iowa.  Though I was charmed by their family stories, my mental image of the Jewish farming movement remained centered on the East Coast. 


Yet recently my dear friend Marnie Mueller announced that her great grandmother, Annie Kahan, had homesteaded in North Dakota, with expenses for clothing and food, and perhaps for seed and farming equipment, paid for by Baron de Hirsch. Whereas Jews in the east bought land that had already been farmed—and was often over-farmed—at the end of the nineteenth century North Dakota remained so unsettled by Europeans that the US government gave 160 acres to any European who stayed on the land for at least five years.


In 1968, the Washington State Jewish Archives at the University of Washington in Seattle conducted an interview with Annie Kahan's daughter, Marnie's grandmother, Sarah Siegel, who was eighty-three at the time. (If you want to hear Sarah's story, told in her lovely elegant voice, CLICK HERE.

The Archive describes the interview as follows.


Sarah Siegel was born in St. Paul in 1885. Her father, Louis Kahan, had emigrated from Poland in 1881 or 1882 to St. Paul, Minnesota where he repaired and rented houses to earn enough money to bring his family to the United States. In 1886, the family moved to North Dakota and settled on a 160-acre homestead just 10 miles from Devil's Lake, a colony funded by Baron de Hirsch. In addition to his farming activities, Mr. Kahan was responsible for the distribution of clothing and food sent by Mr. de Hirsch.


Mrs. Siegel relates how blizzards, grasshoppers and spring frosts hampered farming efforts. She describes the relationship that existed between the sharecroppers and the overseers from Devil's Lake, and briefly describes the Jewish Orthodox services there. In 1891 the family moved to Seattle, where they first opened a clothing store and then a trunk and suitcase factory. Mrs. Siegel discusses her father's writings on religion and his philosophy on religious unity. She also mentions other Seattle families who may have been at Devil's Lake -- the Shapiros, Julius Friedman and the Cohens.

The Jewish Virtual Library adds the following information on Jewish settlements in North Dakota:


At least 800 Jewish individuals filed for land between 1880 and 1916. They generally settled in clusters. Many [after 1900] were aided by the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society. In addition several of the earliest settlements, Painted Woods and Devils Lake, were aided by synagogues located in Minnesota's Twin Cities. Homesteaders endured great hardships such as plagues of grasshoppers, prairie fires, blizzards and drought. Most left after acquiring full land title (generally five years). A number settled in market towns along the two railroads that crossed the state and where they operated general stores.


By 1889 the country's growing railroad industry lured people to the eastern community of Grand Forks. A permanent congregation was established in 1892. It was from the pulpit of B'nai Israel Synagogue that President William McKinley urged the Jews to participate in the war with Spain. The city of Fargo also grew near the turn of the century and by 1896 a synagogue was chartered there. The Jews of North Dakota were engaged mainly in retailing. A few, such as Fargo Mayor Herschel Lashkowitz, and Federal Judge Myron Bright, distinguished themselves in politics.

A 1990 article by Janet E. Schulte in the Great Plains Quarterly offers more information on the 1200 Russian Jewish immigrants who homesteaded in North Dakota. 


What remains unclear in all these sources is how much funding Baron de Hirsch was doing across the United States before the establishment of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, which began with funds from his estate after his death.  If Sarah Siegel remembers correctly, in addition to assistance from synagogues in Minnesota, homesteaders may have been receiving help from de Hirsch as early as the 1880s. 

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On Saturday, May 26th, 2018 I gave my talk and slide show on Jewish farmers in Sharon and Amenia at the Roeliff Jansen Community library in Hillsdale, New York. This little-known Jewish farming community was one of hundreds of such communities around the country in the first decades of the twentieth century, all made possible by mortgage loans from the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, a fund established by the wealthy Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch.  De Hirsch believed that, only by becoming farmers, would Jews be seen as productive members of society and so end anti-Semitism.


In the audience at Roeliff Jansen was a woman who had grown up in Woodbine, New Jersey, in some ways the premiere Jewish farming community, as it also contained the Woodbine Jewish Agricultural School, aimed at teaching the latest farming techniques to the sons of Jewish farmers.  She surprised and delighted me by reciting a Yiddish song, Hey Zhankoye, that she had learned from her farmer grandmother.


When the woman left the Library before I could get her to give me the words, I sent out a call on email and Facebook.  A couple of weeks later, I received an email from Alexia Lali, along with several links to the song. 




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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 is now permanently installed in Amenia's Congregation Beth David.  Read More 

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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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