Join us on Sunday, November 5th at 4 pm as we welcome our fall guest speaker Mary Donahue at the Easton Library’s Community Room. Mary is an author, historian and the executive producer of Grating the Nutmeg, the podcast all about Connecticut history. As a former assistant publisher of Connecticut Explored, she is also the author of A Life of the Land: Connecticut’s Jewish Farmers, published by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.
While current events demonstrate a shocking level of antisemitism in our world, it is significant to note that Jewish people were not welcome in New England when settled by the Pilgrims. In Connecticut, the earliest mention of a Jewish person occurs in 1659, when “David the Jew” was treated as a criminal in Hartford for peddling. For him, being a Jew in 17th century Connecticut meant being a heretic. The only acceptable faith was Christianity. It was actually illegal to offer food or lodging to a Jew, and our state’s royal charter explicitly denied them the right to build synagogues, worship as an assembled group, purchase land, vote or hold office.
Despite the hardships imposed on them, small enclaves of Jewish families did settle in larger cities such as Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford. Hailing mostly from Bavaria, these early immigrants were allowed to vote in 1818 only after Congregationalism was removed as the state’s official church. By 1843 they were able to lobby successfully for their right to public worship and our state’s first synagogue was founded that year.
When violent massacres of Jews occurred in Eastern Europe during the 1880’s and 90’s, many Jewish refugees found themselves resettling in American cities. With no money, no connections and nothing to return to in the old country, these newcomers were helped by those earlier established Jews who set up philanthropic societies offering assistance with homes, work opportunities, as well as language and educational training. Organizations such as the Society for the Aid of Russian Refugees, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society sought to help Jews leave the overcrowded, unhealthy cities and relocate to the countryside. Advertising farm life as a more wholesome environment for children to grow in their faith, these groups granted loans, published educational magazines in both Yiddish and English and established scholarships for Jewish children.
This wave of Jewish refugees came at a time when many New England farms were being abandoned, particularly in Connecticut. More arable land out west enticed farmers to leave our state and younger generations were leaving agriculture all together for work in the cities. Despite the fact that there was plenty of land for purchase, old prejudices still prevailed. Many realtors and landowners were unwilling to sell to Jews. To help counter this challenge, Jewish farmers established mutual aid societies, farm associations and credit unions creating a critical network of social and financial support. And when growing crops proved too challenging with Connecticut’s rocky terrain, Jewish farmers adapted with innovative approaches by pivoting to poultry and dairy farming.
Here in Easton, we happen to have two remarkable generational farms founded by Jewish families in the early 20th century. Originally from Russia and the Ukraine, the Silvermans and the Snows have been farming in our town for over 100 years. Both families have shared their histories with our Historical Society, and we look forward to learning more about their experiences in the greater context of Jewish agriculture in our state.
The Historical Society of Easton is proud to preserve the heritage of all peoples who have called our town home and in order to further our educational mission we are also digitizing old films and videos to share on our new YouTube channel. Please enjoy Irv Silverman’s wonderful recollections recorded at the Easton Senior Center in 2011. As he tells it, “Wanting to be a farmer didn’t happen overnight.” He describes the hard work of his parents, his memories growing up in Easton and the transformation of his father’s “truck farm” into a model of agro-tourism that continues to delight and educate visitors to this day!
If you are interested in learning more about Jewish farmers in Connecticut, please join us at the Easton Library’s Community Room this November 5th at 4 pm. This is a free event, but we do ask that you register so we can better plan for seating and refreshments.