Benyamin Cantz spent his recent days pruning a mountainside vineyard in central California, in the middle of a redwood forest overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
At the same time, Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz was opening trails in southern Vermont, chain saw in hand, in a maple forest near the Massachusetts border.
And David Jakobs was repairing some equipment, a ground leveler and fertilizer spreader among them, in a field in northern Illinois.That’s what farmers do. And Jewish farmers are no different. A demographically small part of the American Jewish community, Jewish farmers have roots in American Jewish history.
Since the 13 Jewish families who established farms in New York state in 1837, the American Jews who led agrarian lives here under the socialist-inspired Am Olam movement in the 1880s, the Jewish farmers supported by the Baron de Hirsch Fund in the late 19th century, the Eastern European immigrants who settled in the southwestern United States in the early 20th century under the Galveston Plan, and the Holocaust survivors who set up small farms in the Catskills and southern New Jersey in the 1940s and 1950s, some Jews have always turned to agriculture in this country.
Maybe nobody told Lawrence Summers.
Summers, president of Harvard University, drew fierce criticism for his speech last month at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference in which he suggested that women are under-represented in the sciences because of “innate aptitude” differences from men.
In his remarks, which he later called a “purely academic exploration of hypotheses,” Summers also made observations about what he sees as a paucity of Catholics in investment banking, Caucasians in professional basketball, and Jews in farming.
“Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and agriculture,” said Summers, who is Jewish.
“Why would he say something stupid like that?” asks Mike Tabor, a truck farmer from Needmore, Pa., two hours north of Washington, D.C.
“There are Jewish farmers,” Tabor said in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week. “I’m not the only one.”
And the numbers are growing, according to some Jewish farmers.
Tabor, a 1960s activist who was recently arrested for taking part in a protest at a power plant near Washington, lives on a 60-acre farm, raises 50 types of crops and Christmas trees, and, as a truck farmer, takes his produce for sale in farmers markets twice a week.
Summers’ stereotype about Jews and farming “is a fallacy,” said Andrew Muchin, a Milwaukee-based historical researcher who served as editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle and of the now-defunct Jewish Heartland magazine, which covered Jewish life and culture in the Midwest.
While “Jewish farmers certainly make up a small percentage of the American Jewish population, there are Jewish farmers to be found in every part of the country,” Muchin said, pointing to cotton farmers in the south, chicken farmers in the northeast and beef farmers in various locations. “Jews farm, and they do the type of farming that is appropriate to the part of the country they live in,” Muchin said.
No exact numbers about the number of Jewish farmers in the United States are available. All the information is anecdotal. The numbers may be hundreds or thousands. No organization compiles such statistics, The Jewish Farmer journal is long gone, and the informal ties between Jewish farmers are weaker than in past days.
“My father did a lot of networking,” said David Jakobs. His father, Norbert, a Holocaust survivor and third-generation cattle dealer, “came from Germany with nothing … worked very hard,” bought some land and became a success. Jews, Muchin points out, were farmers –– and shepherds –– as long ago as biblical times. “After they stopped wandering” in the desert, “they became farmers.”
More recent examples: The Jewish gauchos of Argentina. Israel’s kibbutz movement. Israel’s current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who is a successful farmer. And Dan Glickman, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who as a nine-term congressman from Kansas served on the House Agricultural Committee and subsequently was Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration.
The profile of Jews who become — or remain — farmers in the United States today is changing. They are younger, better educated, and often more idealistic than their predecessors. Many turn to agriculture in mid-career changes, trading the urban rush for the rural lifestyle. Many are Orthodox, taking hands-on control over the food they eat.
Think Greenberg Acres.
“It’s the kind of life that a lot of people would like to do,” said Cantz. Trained as a calligrapher, he became a winemaker in 1991, after he became religiously observant, because he wanted some acceptable wine for kiddush. “There was no dry kosher wine out here.”
His Four Gates winery (www.fourgateswine.com), situated on 3½ rented acres in Santa Cruz, produces 400 cases a year of chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir and cabernet franc that have won medals in local competitions. “This is micro-miniscule,” he said. It was “the cliché midlife crisis” that led Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz from entertainment law to maple farming on Sweet Whisper Farms in Readsboro, Vt.. Rabbi Simenowitz, a native of East Meadow, L.I., retained pleasant memories of riding horses on Sundays as a child in Van Cordtland Park. “Maple trees, that’s all we do,” and tapping the trees for syrup starts next week. An “environmental educator” with rabbinical ordination from Lubavitch, he runs educational programs on his farm, teaching city kids about agriculture and yeshiva students about the Talmud’s farming laws.
“They never saw a plough,” which is discussed in various Talmudic tractates, Rabbi Simenowitz said. “They don’t know what a plough is.”
In western Massachusetts, a group of Lubavitch Jews have turned a fish farm into Eretz haChaim (www.thelivingland.org), which bills itself as “a kosher organic farming community,” faithful to halachic and environmental concerns. Eretz haChaim, which also serves as an education center, may be the wave of the future, said Rabbi Chaim Adelman, a founder of the farm and a chaplain at the University of Massachusetts. “When the Messiah comes, we’ll all be farmers.” In the shadow of pending cuts in federal farm subsidy programs, which may make an already shrinking workforce of U.S. farmers even smaller, American Jewry is experiencing a revival in Jewish farming, some Jewish farmers say. “If anything, it’s a growth movement,” said Tabor, who was part of a few dozen young Jews who founded a commune-style “diaspora kibbutz” in 1972, and is “the only one” who remained, literally, in the field.
“We’re not talking massive numbers,” he cautioned. But every year several Jews, including some Orthodox, apply for jobs. “I’ve had to turn away a couple of lawyers.” They weren’t in good shape. “If you’re too idealistic,” and not strong enough, “it won’t work out.”
“There is a romanticism” about working the soil, being close to nature, Tabor said. “There is an interest in sustainability,” his preferred term for organic agriculture.
This is a change, he said.“This was an occupation of desperation for Jews who came here [from Europe] in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Tabor said.
His grandmother, raised on a farm in Bessarabia, near the Black Sea, disapproved when her grandson, who studied history and social anthropology in college, made a career choice. “She saw me going into farming, and said ‘This is what I escaped.’ ”