A Catskill Catalog: July 18, 2012

Baron Moritz von Hirsch was a Bavarian nobleman and a Jew. That was possible in the enlightened Germany of the late 1800s, but impossible in the benighted lands of the Russian Tsar, where pogroms – mass killings: hate turned to sport – made Jewish life intolerable.

Baron von Hirsch decided to do something. He organized the Jewish Colonization Association, an extensive network that included an American component, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, established in 1889, to encourage eastern European Jews to immigrate to the United States to become farmers.
That’s right: farmers. Hirsch believed that “secular education could ameliorate the lot of his oppressed brethren,” and “De Hirsch hoped to regenerate them into a class of independent farmers and handicraftsmen in the New World.”

Gussied-up for an American audience that had admired the French since Lafayette, the Baron Maurice de Hirsch Fund was incorporated in New York State by leading American Jewish figures, including banker Jacob Schiff and political insider Oscar Straus. Over $2.4 million of the Baron’s money was allocated to the effort, the equivalent of something like $63,000,000 today.
The Hirsch fund established a farm school on Long Island and an agricultural colony in New Jersey. It lent support to the Jewish Agricultural Society, which encouraged many immigrant Jews to settle in the Catskills.

The Catskills were a natural. Direct train connections to New York made transportation easy, and the wreckage left by the timber industry made land cheap. In the 1890s and early 1900s, large numbers of Jewish immigrants made the long escape to freedom and security, from Russia, across the sea, to New York, and then to the Catskills to farm.

Rocky Catskill Mountain soil makes it a tough place to make a living, and the late-May-to-early-September growing season doesn’t help. Taking in boarders helps pay the bills, and many of the earliest Jewish farmers began, almost immediately, to supplement their meager income with paying summer-guests.

It was hot and terrible muggy in New York City, in those summers of 19 aught-something, before air conditioning was even a dream, and a block of ice seemed like salvation. Every workingman’s family needed a vacation. Often, a week on somebody else’s farm would lead visitors to return to stay, to try their own hands at farming and boarding-house keeping.

So, independently of the Hirsch Fund and of the Agricultural Society, many urban new immigrants made the city a way station, as they scraped and saved for a foothold in the Catskills.
That appears to be the case with Israel and Leah Kaplan, who, in 1912, bought, on borrowed money, 100 acres of hillside in Red Kill, just north of the Fleischmanns train depot. This weekend, many of the Kaplans’ 150 living descendents gather on the land they still call “The Kaplan Farm,” for a 100th anniversary celebration and family reunion.

Israel and Leah were hard working and devout. The language of the farm was Yiddish; the kitchen kosher; the milk, eggs, vegetables, and meat plentiful. Leah gave birth to 18 children. Nine lived to be adults.

There, on the farm, the children grew and kept coming, attending the one-room school, learning the three Rs from Mr. Berdine Streeter, the teacher there. As the kids grew, the boarders came, and soon Israel and Leah’s kids were running a boardinghouse, with Leah in the kitchen and Israel out in the barn.

By the ’20s, the old farmhouse had been added-on often enough to form a fairly substantial hotel, the Sunny View. Promoting “the health of the hills,” the Kaplan family succeeded in attracting a regular clientele, the kids grew and got educated, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were born.
In 1922, Israel Kaplan helped found Fleischmanns’ Congregation B’nai Israel. By the way, that beautiful building, damaged a bit by Flood Irene, recently got a new front stoop, done-up in finely-finished masonry by Norwick Brothers.

Israel and Leah continued to cultivate their land and their family until the day each died. Today, their descendents are doctors, artists, engineers, and teachers, folks much higher on the status chain than these humble immigrants. Yet, it is they whom history honors. The Kaplan family gathers on hard-scrapple land to honor those two poor, essentially unknown, farmers who scratched-out something from an unpromising hillside.

And they were not alone. There were 11 Jewish Farmer organizations in the Catskills in 1906, all of them situated in the Sullivan County portion of the mountains. The Livingston Manor Jewish Farmers’ Association had 16 members. The Hebrew Farmers’ Association of Fallsburg and Hurleyville had 140 members.

All told, 11 Catskill Mountain Jewish farmers’ organizations boasted a total of 775 members. Many members may have come from the same family. Families were large and extended, and many association members may have lived on the same family farm, so 775 Jewish farmers’ association members doesn’t mean 775 Jewish farms, but still, it’s a lot of folks farming. A lot more than you’d think.

If you look around, you’ll notice. Quietly, young people are trying farming. One hundred years ago, Israel and Leah Kaplan started out. Worked out pretty good for them.
billbirns@gmail.com