"Great Opportunities for the Many of Small Means": New Jersey's Agricultural Colonies

Article excerpt

The year 1881 was especially difficult for Russian Jews. Pogroms across the Jewish Pale in southwestern Russia set off a wave of emigration, and by 1915 more than 3 million Jews had left the region. The largest number went to the United States, where they accounted for the second largest group of new immigrants. New York City's Lower East Side, with its intense crush of people, noise, and smells, became their new cultural landscape. My grandfather was a fairly typical member of this wave. A tailor, he arrived in New York in 1905 from Kiev, hoping for a better life. My mother remembered all the children sleeping in a bed in the kitchen at night, wandering through the pushcarts during the day, playing in the streets, and, after they had moved uptown, returning to the old neighborhood to reconnect, to shop and chat, and to eat knishes and pastrami in the familiar delicatessens.

This was a very American story--one that many waves of immigrants to America can tell--but with a difference. The narrative I absorbed growing up featured a form of Jewish exceptionalism within American exceptionalism. (1) Waves of immigrants were drawn to America's abundant, free, and productive land. With that land they produced other waves--amber waves of grain. These two different waves went together--except for the Jews--because, unlike other ethnic groups who came to America, Eastern European Jews were urban when they arrived and stayed urban afterward. (2) In most of Russia they had been prohibited from owning land and farming, so they worked instead as middlemen or craftsmen.

What I was taught, although it reflected much Russian Jewish immigrant experience, was incomplete and overdrawn both for Jews and non-Jews. Many non-Jewish new immigrants filled America's cities. And although most Jewish immigrants headed to the cities, some became farmers. Alliance and Woodbine, two agricultural colonies formed in New Jersey at the end of the nineteenth century with substantial funding from Jewish philanthropic interests, are particularly interesting because they were explicitly intended to provide a counterpoint to the Lower East Side, an alternative cultural landscape that would build a different cultural identity. The agricultural colonies were intended to bring people and land together in ways that would produce an environment that was pastoral, healthful, and productive and would thus shift perception and narrative.

An examination of these colonies enlarges understanding of the Russian Jewish encounter with the United States. This article looks at their cultural landscapes for what they reveal about how disparate values and ideas were negotiated in the making of place. Alliance and Woodbine were immigrant communities designed in a brief moment rather than evolved over time. They were very much a product of both the funding philanthropists' and the settlers' ideas about what communities should look and feel like and how residents should support themselves within them. Both of these groups were responding to intense pressures, and each set of participants had its own way of making sense of them. As the Russian Jewish migration heated up, American settlement patterns were already in the midst of enormous upheaval. Between 1881 and 1920 the nation shifted from predominantly rural to predominantly urban, from predominantly agricultural to majority industrial, from predominantly eastern to much more dispersed across the national territory. In establishing the Jewish agricultural settlements, the founding members weighed individualism versus communitarianism, agriculture versus industrialization, and religion versus secularism. To be successful, the Jewish agricultural settlements had to serve as a meeting ground between the ideology that gave rise to them and the practicality that would allow them to survive and find a niche in a tough market economy. The cultural landscape that arose reflected its builders' poor road map to the future, but it was their best effort at adaptation to a world in transition. …