This book is the latest evolution of the exhibit, A CHANCE FOR LAND AND FRESH AIR, RUSSIAN JEWISH IMMIGRANTS IN SHARON AND AMENIA, 1907-1940, that filled three rooms and a hallway of the Sharon Historical Society from late October 2016 through April 2017. I am no longer sure when I approached the Sharon Historical Society about an exhibit on the Russian Jewish farmers who settled in the Ellsworth hills above Sharon during the early decades of the twentieth century. My meeting was with two women who were then the director and curator, and the conversation was shorter and came to the point faster than I had expected. They had heard about Jews living up in the hills. But, no, the Society had never mounted such an exhibit. Would I curate one?
Excitement at the possible chase erased the doubts I probably should have had. I am a writer, trained as an anthropologist, who for four decades divided my time between studying public education and writing novels, short stories and personal essays. Interviewing and conducting archival research were second nature to me. But in both parts of my career—conveying my research results and following my imagination—I had relied entirely on words. An exhibit would have to tell the story largely through material objects and images.
My interest in the Jewish settlement was first quickened when an Ellsworth neighbor on my road told me his father had purchased their land from a Jewish farmer. Then I was given a three-page history written by Melvin Eliot, the former owner of a house about a mile away, who, curious about the odd structure of his house, had discovered that it had once been run as a kosher boarding house and kochalein (rooms along with doing your own cooking) for vacationing New York Jews. Eliot’s short history contained the owner’s name, Nathan Osofsky, as well as the names of other Jewish families who had lived in the Ellsworth hills: Cohen, Paley, Rothstein, Shulman, and Weinstein.
I had looked up the families in Sharon’s land records before talking to the Sharon Historical Society’s director and curator. The names weren’t hard to find, but what had been curious were the initials, JAIAS, an entity that had apparently helped most with their mortgages. As I had learned, the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society (JAIAS) was an organization funded by a wealthy Belgian Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, to help Russian Jewish immigrants purchase farmland and become farmers.
Shortly after my conversation with the director and curator, both women left their jobs, and for several months I wondered how eager whoever was hired would be to take on the exhibit I was continuing to work on. Luckily, a modest grant from the Wassermann-Streit Y’DIYAH Fund of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation came at just the right time, affirming the worthiness of my historical project, and supporting my research at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. There, I learned more about Baron de Hirsch and his organization, including by reading the fading hand-typed minutes of the monthly meetings of the JAIAS, at the same time as I widened my list of Russian Jews who had received mortgage assistance to buy farms in the Ellsworth hills. As I went back and forth between the Center for Jewish History and the land records at Sharon’s Town Hall, I acquired evidence for some thirty Jewish families who had bought farms in Ellsworth between 1907 and 1925, more than half of whom used JAIAS mortgage assistance, and I began to understand Sharon’s experience as one small part of the American Jewish farming movement that began with the pogroms of the 1880s and would be revitalized by Jewish refugees from Nazism.
Although I was collecting names of descendants who still lived in the area, I was reluctant to contact anyone until I was sure that there really would be an exhibit. Then one day the new curator, Marge Smith, appeared. She had been curator at the Sharon Historical Society some years earlier, had left for another job, and was now returning part-time. Although a director still needed to be hired, and Marge would be doing both jobs during her two days a week at the Society, she was enthusiastic about my history project.
I remember our first organizational meeting about the exhibit we were already calling A CHANCE FOR LAND AND FRESH AIR. I had brought in an outline of the story to be told, along with my sense of how the three first-floor exhibit rooms might be allocated, starting with Jewish flight from the Russian Pale of Settlement at the end of the nineteenth century, continuing with the lives of the Russian Jewish immigrants in the stony Ellsworth hills, and ending with the Amenia period, when the families had established hotels and boarding-houses and built a synagogue, turning the village into a lively Jewish resort.
To clarify for myself the major events of the story, I had created a timeline that Marge affixed to the wall with masking tape. She also took some images I had brought in—photos of Baron de Hirsch and of Jewish boys selling The Forward, the Yiddish language newspaper, and a train schedule showing the New York Central’s stops in Amenia and Sharon— and affixed them all to the walls. She was already seeing the story on the walls of the Society!
Soon afterwards, I must have told Marge an anecdote I had heard from one of the descendants I had begun to interview. “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 the different family stories I was hearing. Now, I imagined making the immigration story personal through two families, and the stories of farming in the Ellsworth hills and the life of a Jewish resort village through additional families.
Responding to a Russian samovar a friend of Russian Jewish background had loaned me for the exhibit, Marge suggested that we set a table for tea, and then she added a pile of suitcases, the samovar and suitcases conveying both the pull of home and the families’ forced uprooting. Thanks to Marge’s knowledge of the world of history museums and public funding, we secured critical support for mounting the exhibit from the Connecticut Humanities fund.
Here I should thank the many descendants who generously shared their memories, family histories, photographs, and cherished material objects, from milk cans and a cow bell (used to call guests to dinner) to yarmulkes and mezuzahs. These descendants were receptive to my visits, emails and telephone calls; they patiently retold events I wasn’t sure of, and corrected what I had gotten wrong. Since some family stories are drawn from information and images provided by several individuals, I express my gratitude by family:
- Arnoff: Richard Arnoff
- Duby: Edy Duby and Judy Duby Slater
- Epstein: Barnett Epstein and Barbara Lubansky Scharf
- Gorkofsky: Sam and Estelle Gorkofsky and Terry Gorkofsky Kravits
- Lubansky: Margy and David Lawrence, Barbara Lubansky Scharf, and Barnett Epstein
- Marcus: Martin Klein, Benjamin Marcus, Jeffrey Marcus, Michael Marcus, and Neil Marcus
- Osofsky: David Osofsky, Dorothy Osofosky, Debra Osofsky, Joel Osofsky, Norman Osofsky, Rick Osofsky and Ronny Osofsky
- Paley: Charlie Paley, Emma Paley, Sarah Paley Coon, Lila Paley Zlotoff, Ron Paley Zlotoff, and Howard Zlotoff
- Rothstein: Elizabeth Rothstein Nachimson, Harriet Rothstein Cooper, and Gail Rothstein Gamble
- Shoifet: Shirley Shoifet and Laura Shoifet Yaffe
- Temkin: Nan Temkin, Ann Temkin, Liz Gruber Harris, and Steve Harris
- Weinstein: Audrey Lewis Ruge and Karen Weinstein Lewis
I am indebted to Betsy Strauss, archivist at the Amenia Historical Society. Through extensive investigation of old newspapers, census data and maps, Betsy constructed a time line for Amenia’s Jewish families, identified the locations of the resorts and businesses, uncovered old photographs showing how they had looked, and produced short biographies of their Jewish owners. When period photographs were unavailable, Betsy took photographs of the properties today. Finally, Betsy Strauss did critical research to identify the name of the African American family, the Carls, with whom Freda Osofsky, the first Jewish student to graduate from one of Ellsworth’s one-room schools, boarded during her freshman year at Amenia High school.
Ann Linden, a member of the Amenia Historical Society, made available her files on Amenia public schools and loaned the exhibit unique teaching materials from the days of one-room schools.
Joel Osofsky (grandson of Max Osofsky, who in 1907 purchased a farm in Ellsworth with his brother Nathan) volunteered countless hours to bring often faded or damaged photographs back to life, and to research and procure the latest presentation materials. It is thanks to Joel’s adherence to strict deadlines that we managed to complete and mount the massive array of images by the exhibit’s opening. Joel also referred us to Jack Reznicki, to whom I am deeply grateful for his invaluable production of the large storyboards.
Tim Euvrard, a former farmer on Sharon Mountain, enriched the exhibit with his extensive collection of hand-made early twentieth century farm tools.
Congregation Beth David, under the direction of Sherry Frankl, its president, lent precious ritual objects left from the early years of Beth David as an orthodox synagogue, as well as a beautiful plaque in Yiddish commemorating the Jewish farmers who contributed to the construction of the building in Amenia in 1929.
Robert Pittenger backed up my research on Jewish farmers by tracing the purchases and sales of their Ellsworth farms over time in Sharon’s land records. Brent Prindle, who grew up in Ellsworth and could remember where barns and farmhouses had once been, spent hours turning these records into a map of Ellsworth’s Jewish farms. As many times as we returned to look at the land records, Sharon Town Clerk, Linda Amerighi, and Assistant Town Clerk, Marlene Woodman, were always welcoming and helpful. Vera Dineen, Cornwall Town Clerk, willingly answered our questions on Cornwall and Jewish farmers like Hyman Paley and Barnet Shoifet who for a time lived there.
Since the exhibit opened, Jen Owens, the new good-natured director of the Sharon Historical Society has offered a range of important assistance, from ensuring ongoing care of the exhibit, fundraising and tracking funds, to reading the manuscript and page proofs.
Neither the exhibit nor the book would have been possible without the support of the Sharon Historical Society board members: Brent M. Colley, President; Maureen Kirby Dore, Vice President; Allen Reiser, Treasurer; Stephanie Plunkett, Secretary; as well as James Buckley, BZ Coords, Ed Kirby, David Moore, Barclay Prindle, Chris Robinson, Brian Ross, Jodi Smith, Maureen Smith, Eileen Tedesco, Rosemary Vietor, Charlene Whitney, and Michael Zients.
A CHANCE FOR LAND AND FRESH AIR, the exhibit, aroused more interest than either I or the Sharon Historical Society had dreamed of, and drew a stream of visitors, both local and from as far as Long Island and Pennsylvania,. Three special events—a conversation among descendants; a film on a similar Jewish farm settlement in central Connecticut; and a lecture on the current Jewish farming movement—all attracted large audiences. Twice I happened to be at the Sharon Historical Society just as a descendant of a family I hadn’t known how to contact visited the exhibit. In one case, it was Ann Temkin, who turned out to have a weekend home in Cornwall; in the other, it was Harriet Rothstein Cooper, who had driven up from Great Neck, and sat immobilized by the images surrounding her, and I was as moved as she, when she sighed, “This is my family’s story!”
Thus, while the exhibit opened with stories of ten families, I was able to add photographs and material objects of two additional families, the Temkins and the Rothsteins, to the display. Although it was too late to include their stories in the exhibit, the expansion of the exhibit into a book has allowed me to tell their stories in the pages that follow.
One Sharon resident, Ray Learsy, whose family fled the tiny country of Lichtenstein during the Nazi years, rather than the pogroms of giant Russia, nevertheless saw that the history told in A CHANCE FOR LAND AND FRESH AIR needed to be kept alive beyond the period of the exhibit. Although a number of descendants and friends contributed generously to the project of turning the exhibit into a book, it was Ray Learsy’s extraordinary commitment to offer “whatever is necessary” that made possible the bookyou now hold in your hands.
Several individuals contributed to the designing and editing of this book. Jessica Moody at Grey House Publishing, created the book’s lovely cover; Laura Mars acted as expert conductor, enabling the manuscript to move swiftly thorough the multiple stages of production; and David Garoogian, designer and editor extraordinaire, worked tirelessly as I rewrote, corrected and re-corrected sections, and found lovely ways to insert the plethora of images I wanted to retain from the exhibit into my text. My neighbor, Harris Dienstfry, a professional editor, read and edited the manuscript. As always, I am grateful to my husband, Robert Pittenger, who for forty years has generously supported my many projects in whatever ways I needed his help. All omissions and errors are my own.
—Carol Ascher, May 2017