A Chance for Land and Fresh Air

“These are my roots. This book put me in touch with the resilience and determination of people like my grandparents, Harry and Anna Marcus. Their hard work and resourcefulness made it possible for those of us who came behind them to do well. As a historian, it helped me understand better how ordinary immigrants enriched American life, sometimes overcoming discrimination and other barriers in doing so.”

— Martin Klein, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto

Beth David Synagogue, Amenia, NY 1929

In 1907, Russian Jewish immigrants began buying dairy farms in the Ellsworth hills above Sharon, Connecticut.  This is the story of thirty families, some of whose descendants still work farms around Sharon.  Since Ellsworth’s land was stony, many of the immigrants subsidized their farm incomes by offering room and kosher board to New Yorkers wanting a “farm vacation.”  However, in the 1920s the immigrants began leaving either for more fertile farmland or to purchase properties that could be turned into boarding houses and hotels in neighboring Amenia, New York.  Located on a train stop just across the state line at the “gateway to the Berkshires,” Amedia became a lively Jewish resort for the next several decades.  The village’s Congregation Beth David, built by the immigrants, remains a reform synagogue today.

“This book is not just about Elsworth and Amenia, nor is it just about a dozen Russian immigrant families adjusting to America. It is about all immigrants who flee, arrive, and struggle to assimilate into a strange new land, learn a new language, take up an altogether new way of life. It was a formidable challenge, ad they accomplished it – as so many others have. The books also tells the story of Baron de Hirsch, who saw people who had escaped Russia, and who, he believed, would escape future discrimination if they owned land. He set into motion this story, a part of which is the history of us all, the descendants of immigrants who assimilated, who moved from sweatshop work or ditch digging to farms or factories, to summer hotels, businesses, and professions. It’s an inspiring story – and a distinctly American one. ”

— Norman Osofsky

Russian Jewish farmers took place in other rural communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, as well as throughout the United States and Canada. 

A Chance for Land and Fresh Air is based on and expands an exhibit that Ascher curated for Sharon Historical Society & Museum.  The exhibit was on display at the Historical Society between October 2016 and April 2017. The exhibit is now permanently installed in Amenia’s Congregation Beth David

Read author, Carol Ascher’s post about the Ukrainian Yiddish farming song, Hey Zhankoye. The song was sung by Jewish immigrants, a connection to the homeland they left and recorded by American artists such as Pete Seeger. 

With Thanks…

The book and this website were made possible by a generous gift from Raymond Learsy, as well as contributions from the following descendants and friends of the Ellsworth families: Richard Arnoff, Joy Behr, Tina Bolton, Sarah and Chris Coon, Fern and Stuart Fisher, Alan and Gail Gamble, Samuel and Estelle Gorkofsky, Macey Levin and Gloria Miller, Jeffrey and Annette Marcus, Michael Marcus, Neil Marcus, Debra Osofsky, Charley Paley, Barbara and Brent Prindle, and Michael and Peter Roth. Audrey and Richard Ruge and Karen Lewis contributed in memory of their grandparents, Becky and Harry Weinstein.

With gratitude to the Connecticut Humanities and the Wasserman-Streit Y’DIYAH Fund, which made possible the original exhibition at the Sharon Historical Society & Museum.