The Jewish Book Council Reviews “Speaking Yiddish to Chickens” by Seth Stern


Speak­ing Yid­dish to Chick­ens:

Holo­caust Sur­vivors on South Jer­sey

Poul­try Farms

Mark Welch – April 10, 2023

Seth Stern has a deeply per­son­al con­nec­tion to the sto­ry he tells about the Jew­ish refugees, Holo­caust sur­vivors, and immi­grants who set­tled in and around Vineland, New Jer­sey — once called the ​“Egg Bas­ket of Amer­i­ca” because it was there that poul­try farm­ing began. His grand­moth­er was one of those immi­grants, and Vineland was where his moth­er grew up.

Stern man­ages with deft prose and a light touch to link the refugee expe­ri­ence, the (re)creation of com­mu­ni­ty, the trans­plan­ta­tion of tra­di­tions into a new con­text (some of which take root and some of which don’t), loss, and unex­pect­ed bless­ings. He uses indi­vid­ual sto­ries and per­son­al inter­views to high­light the rich diver­si­ty of expe­ri­ence of what he calls ​“acci­den­tal farm­ers.” He mines oral his­to­ries, his own in-per­son inter­views, and impres­sive research to paint a por­trait that is by turns touch­ing and fun­ny, mourn­ful and solemn; it is almost like a Sholem Ale­ichem sto­ry, not least when it involves egg-lay­ing cham­pi­on Meg­gi O’Day, a four-pound, sin­gle-comb leghorn who once laid 354 eggs in 357 days (as a point of inter­est, her own­er, Gus Stern, had her stuffed when she died and put her on a pedestal above his TV). She is now at the Nation­al Muse­um of Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry in Philadel­phia, PA.

But the grine—green­horns fresh off the boat — were not the first Jews in Vineland. There was already an estab­lished Jew­ish farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty, formed as ear­ly as the 1880s, when they arrived. Vineland had all that a small town need­ed: three syn­a­gogues, a kosher del­i­catessen run by Isadore Gold­stein, kosher butch­ers (Wold­er & Sons and Rosen’s), Kotok Hard­ware, and Sil­ver­man the Tai­lor. Most of these ear­ly arrivals were Russ­ian Jews who had fled the pogroms and dreamed of build­ing a new soci­ety. Few, how­ev­er, wel­comed the new­com­ers, who did not seem to be pre­pared or have the skills for an agri­cul­tur­al lifestyle.

As a result, the grine began to devel­op their own orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing small­er syn­a­gogues and, impor­tant­ly, a lans­man­shaft, which com­bined the func­tions of a mutu­al aid soci­ety, a social club, and a cul­tur­al cen­ter. They first called it the Vineland Area Poul­try Farm­ers Far­band (Yid­dish for ​“asso­ci­a­tion”), and it lat­er became the Jew­ish Poul­try Farm­ers Association.

Despite its unpromis­ing begin­ning, the far­band grew in strength and influ­ence. It ran social events, such as dances and con­certs, almost exclu­sive­ly in Yid­dish. And unlike most oth­er rur­al Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, which shrank as their pop­u­la­tions migrat­ed to cities, Vineland flourished.

How­ev­er, by the ear­ly 1960s, poul­try farm­ing was not so prof­itable, and the farm­ers began to drift away. It can­not be known for cer­tain just how many chick­ens were waved over­head at High Holy Days — there would have been enough to go around — but it is clear that for a peri­od of about fif­teen years, the poul­try farm­ers of Vineland cre­at­ed a vibrant Yid­dish com­mu­ni­ty, almost by acci­dent. Now there is near­ly noth­ing left.

Seth Stern has cre­at­ed a nuanced, sen­si­tive, and even affec­tion­ate account of an impor­tant, albeit neglect­ed, out­growth of the Jew­ish dias­po­ra in North Amer­i­ca. It will be of great inter­est to any­one who has a per­son­al, social, or aca­d­e­m­ic inter­est in the post­war peri­od, oral his­to­ry, and/​or post-Holo­caust immigration.

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