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Soil + Shul

A Jewish colony that came and went in the Berkshires



In their Sandisfield home, Lorraine and Steve German pore over photos collected of people who were part of the village's Jewish farm community.

Photo by Peter Baiamonte

Lorraine and Steve German, like many long-married couples, tell stories in stereo: He is eager and provides narrative momentum; she is precise and supplies detail. In their living room in North Granby, Connecticut, they sat down to discuss how Lorraine, a self-taught historian, came to document a largely forgotten period of local history in her upcoming book Soil + Shul in the Berkshires: The Untold Story of Sandisfield’s Jewish Farm Colony

Established in 1902 with backing from a European philanthropist, the Sandisfield colony peaked around 1940, when Jewish landowners comprised one-quarter of the town’s total population. How the colony came about and how Lorraine became its chronicler are tandem stories, one that begins in 1975, the other ending in 1976.

Lorraine first visited the Berkshires in 1975 with her boyfriend, later her husband, whose grandparents summered in a Sandisfield house. The marriage ended, but not her ties to the place. 

“I used to joke I got custody of his family in the divorce,” Lorraine says. She eventually went for a second go-round 17 years ago when she married Steve, her former husband’s cousin. The couple continue to summer in the same house, which Steve inherited from his mother. Lorraine contributed chapters to an earlier town publication, Sandisfield Then and Now, whose principal author, Ronald M. Bernard, encouraged her to further research the Jewish colony. 

Sandisfield once had been “the gem of Berkshire County,” says Lorraine. At its population peak in 1800, Sandisfield was an important stop on the Hartford-Albany stage route and profited from its mills, tanneries, quarries and exports of cheese, cider, and maple sugar. Over the next century, farmers left the Berkshires for richer tillage in New York and Ohio, and the railroads bypassed Sandisfield, a stroke of infrastructure planning that amounted to lethal neglect. By 1900, Sandisfield had lost half its population.

This is where the story of Soil + Shul, due late summer, picks up. At the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was perhaps the most overcrowded square mile on earth. Earlier Jewish immigrants from Germany were joined by masses of Yiddish-speaking Russians and Eastern Europeans who fled persecution and economic disenfranchisement at home. Anti-immigrant sentiment rose with the influx, and some Jewish leaders believed it crucial to get newcomers away from the city. The chosen name for the resettlement sites—farm colonies—suggested a goal of long-term Jewish self-sufficiency.

Sandisfield’s cheap land drew the attention of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society (JAIAS), a resettlement agency endowed by the late German philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. The colony began in earnest in 1902 when Jacob Goldberg and Elias Lipsitz each bought a farm with JAIAS support. Within two years, Jewish farmers had bought more than 30 farms, some 3,000 acres of land, in Sandisfield and adjacent towns. The first teacher at Sandisfield’s West Street School was hired because she spoke German and thus could communicate, if imperfectly, with her Yiddish-speaking students. The colony’s shul, or synagogue, was established in in 1922 in a former Baptist church (now the Sandisfield Arts Center). Steve’s grandparents arrived the same year. 

 Acting on a tip, Max Linder, a Jewish furrier from Austria and his Russian-born wife, Ida, bought an 18th-century colonial house in the Montville Village section of Sandisfield. The Jewish colony grew to include some 30 to 40 permanent families. Few had any agricultural training, and most failed with crops. Raising poultry required less skill and investment, and Sandisfield became a chicken town. “You couldn’t throw a nickel without hitting one,” Lorraine quips.

Many homeowners supplemented their income by taking in boarders. In the 1920s, Sandisfield’s summertime Jewish population doubled or even tripled as vacationers arrived from the Lower East Side. 

“My mother and aunt slept in the chicken coop to make more room for boarders,” says Steve. The Jewish influx provoked animosity in the hinterlands, as it had in the city. One local boardinghouse advertised “No Hebrews.” A group of Christian farmers in Sandisfield agreed to keep all property sales among themselves, although resolve failed when penniless sellers were offered cold cash by Jewish buyers. Perhaps the most virulent anti-Semitism flared in Monterey in 1926 when the KKK burned a cross after a contentious town vote to renew a Jewish butcher’s slaughter license. 

Still, anti-Semitism did less to erode the Sandisfield colony’s foundation than macroeconomic change. After World War II, the popularity of boardinghouses declined nationwide, and small-scale chicken farms were undercut by factory farms in distant states. Sandisfield’s last Jewish commercial chicken farmer, synagogue president Jack Sandler, retired in 1969.

The colony officially ended in 1976, when the Sandisfield synagogue could no longer raise a minyan, the quorum of ten men required for Orthodox worship. Perhaps a dozen descendant remain. Steve and Lorrain’s family house represent the longest-standing direct link to the colony’s early years.  Incidentally, Lorraine herself is not Jewish. “An Episcopalian is writing the book,” she says. “Go figure.”


Jewish settlers Samuel Shankman with his grandchildren, from left, Esther Charney, Sadie Charney and Morris Charney, 1923, and the Sons of Abraham synagogue in Montville.

 

 

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Kykuit
381 N. Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, NY  10591
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KMR Arts is proud to present MAYDAY, an exhibition of new photographs by Barbara Vaughn. Please join us for the opening reception with the artist on June 2, 2018, from 3-7pm, 2 Titus Road,...

Cost: FREE

Where:
KMR Arts
2 Titus Road
Washington Depot , CT  06794
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Architect and designer, Osvaldo Borsani (1911-1985), was a giant of Italian modern design and co-founder of Tecno. George Champion Modern Shop will celebrate...

Cost: free

Where:
George Champion Modern Shop
442 Main St. South
Woodbury, CT  06798
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Sponsor: George Champion Modern Shop
Telephone: 203-263-8442
Contact Name: George Champion
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SilverSource – the leading resource for older adults and their families– announced today that it is now accepting nominations for the 2018 SilverSource Awards.  The awards...

Cost: FREE

Where:
SilverSource, Inc.
2009 Summer Street, 3rd Floor
2949 Long Ridge Rd
Stamford, CT  06905
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Sponsor: SilverSource, Inc.
Telephone: 203-324-6584
Contact Name: Kathleen Bordelon
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Opening Reception: Apr 28 at 2:00 PM Date of Show : Apr 28 - May 27  See the artists website at www.erikacrofut.com Each month the Sandisfield Arts Center proudly...

Cost: Free

Where:
Sandisfield Arts Center
5 Hammertown Rd.
Sandisfield, MA  01255
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Sponsor: Sandisfield Arts Center
Telephone: 413-258-4100
Contact Name: Marcella Smith
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West Stockbridge Chamber Players’ Spring Benefit Concert   On Friday, May 25th at 6 p.m., Boston Symphony Orchestra members Sheila Fiekowsky, violin, Daniel Getz, viola, Oliver...

Cost: 35.00 per ticket

Where:
Old Town Hall
9 Main Street
West Stockbridge, MA  01266
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Sponsor: West Stockbridge Historical Society
Telephone: 413-232-5055
Contact Name: Carol Kuller
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Kick off your Memorial Day weekend with family fun under the stars with a FREE showing of the animated movie “Ferdinand” (rated PG) on Friday, May 25th at Jesse Lee Memorial United...

Cost: Free movie, food is for purchase

Where:
Jesse Lee Church
207 Main Street
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Sponsor: Ridgefield Chamber of Commerce
Telephone: 120-343-85992
Contact Name: Jen Mulhern
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The event, L.O.L. Love of Languages, will be a celebration of world languages and culture, and will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Foran High School cafeteria and courtyard. Teachers Pam...

Cost: Free

Where:
Foran High School
80 Foran Rd
Milford, CT  06460
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Peter and the Starcatcher is a play based on the 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, adapted for the stage by Rick Elice. The play provides a backstory for the...

Cost: $20 admission; $15 for seniors; $10 for kids

Where:
Western CT State University
Visual Performing Arts Center
Danbury, CT  06811
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With his unique blend of Blues and Americana, Keb Mo has garnered four Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues and Best Country/Acoustic Blues Albums plus five more nominations for Blues,...

Cost: $48-$88

Where:
Tarrytown Music Hall
13 Main Street
Tarrytown, NY  10591
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A community-based, family-oriented event with dance performances, professional dance instruction, bands, DJs, and social dancing for youths and adults.​ We are thrilled to continue our...

Where:
Hilton Stamford Hotel & Executive Meeting Center
1 First Stamford Place
Stamford, CT
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Website »

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The big glitzy musical Sister Act fared better than the original movie. It received four Olivier Award nominations for its original stage production at London’s West End Theatre. It...

Cost: $59-$89

Where:
Westchester Broadway Theatre
One Broadway Plaza
Elmsford, NY
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Website »

More information

The Pirelli World Challenge series serves up races from all 7 car classes from the Big Dogs (Cadillacs, Bentley’s, Lomborghinis & Porches) to the TC class of Mustangs and BMW 228is, and...

Cost: $60

Where:
Lime Rock Park
60 White Hollow Rd
Lakeville , CT
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Website »

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See the majestic beauty of the Hudson River on this 2-hour narrated river adventure from Newburgh to West Point taking in the sights of Washington’s Headquarters, World’s End, Mt....

Cost: $22

Where:
Blu Pointe Landing
100 Front Street
Newburgh, NY
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Are you just dying to get some dirt under your fingernails this season? Come to Back 40 Farm for Friday Field Days and help us out with weeding, transplanting, hoeing, harvesting, and more! Who:...

Where:
Back 40 Farm
Washington Depot, CT


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Heather Gaudio Fine Art is pleased to present “Melissa Meyer: Hitting the Right Notes,” her first solo exhibition with the gallery.  The show will open with a public reception...

Cost: Free

Where:
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840


Sponsor: heathergaudiofineart.com
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
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Join the Litchfield Historical Society for a Saturday walking tour on May 26 at 10 a.m. Explore some of the sites related to the famous Beecher family, residents of Litchfield from 1810 to 1826....

Cost: Free for members; $5 non-members

Where:
Litchfield History Museum
7 South Street
Litchfield, CT  06759
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Sponsor: Litchfield Historical Society
Telephone: 860-567-4501
Contact Name: Litchfield Historical Society
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The Washington Art Association & Gallery is pleased to present State of Abstraction, an exhibition of contemporary abstract art by Connecticut artists from May 5 - June 16, 2018. Co-Curated...

Cost: Free and open to the public

Where:
Washington Art Association & Gallery
4 Bryan Hall Plaza
P.O. Box 173
Washington Depot, CT  06794
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Sponsor: Washington Art Association & Gallery
Telephone: 860-868-2878
Contact Name: Barbara von Schreiber
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The US any Blue Angels headline the Jones Beach 15th Annual Memorial Day Weekend Air Show. Plus The Royal Canadian Air Force Snow Birds, the F22 Raptor the Air Force’s newest fighter...

Cost: Free

Where:
Jones Beach
895 Bay Pkwy
Wantagh, NY  11793
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Take a one-hour guided tour of the historic Lyndhurst mansion overlooking the Hudson River. The Gothic Revival mansion has been used as a movie set for six major motion pictures...

Cost: $18

Where:
Lyndhurst
635 S. Broadway
Tarrytown, NY  10591
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This hilltop paradise, now a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was home to four generations of the Rockefeller family. Read our review of the guided...

Cost: $25

Where:
Kykuit
381 N. Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

KMR Arts is proud to present MAYDAY, an exhibition of new photographs by Barbara Vaughn. Please join us for the opening reception with the artist on June 2, 2018, from 3-7pm, 2 Titus Road,...

Cost: FREE

Where:
KMR Arts
2 Titus Road
Washington Depot , CT  06794
View map »


Website »

More information

The first Litchfield County Zine Fest (and the first zine fest in Connecticut) is coming to Kent, CT! The fest is a free, all-ages, public arts event where self-publishers of all stripes will...

Cost: Free

Where:
Kent Community House
93 North Main Street
Kent, CT  06757
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Website »

More information

Architect and designer, Osvaldo Borsani (1911-1985), was a giant of Italian modern design and co-founder of Tecno. George Champion Modern Shop will celebrate...

Cost: free

Where:
George Champion Modern Shop
442 Main St. South
Woodbury, CT  06798
View map »


Sponsor: George Champion Modern Shop
Telephone: 203-263-8442
Contact Name: George Champion
Website »

More information

SilverSource – the leading resource for older adults and their families– announced today that it is now accepting nominations for the 2018 SilverSource Awards.  The awards...

Cost: FREE

Where:
SilverSource, Inc.
2009 Summer Street, 3rd Floor
2949 Long Ridge Rd
Stamford, CT  06905
View map »


Sponsor: SilverSource, Inc.
Telephone: 203-324-6584
Contact Name: Kathleen Bordelon
Website »

More information

Opening Reception: Apr 28 at 2:00 PM Date of Show : Apr 28 - May 27  See the artists website at www.erikacrofut.com Each month the Sandisfield Arts Center proudly...

Cost: Free

Where:
Sandisfield Arts Center
5 Hammertown Rd.
Sandisfield, MA  01255
View map »


Sponsor: Sandisfield Arts Center
Telephone: 413-258-4100
Contact Name: Marcella Smith
Website »

More information

Ridgefield Guild of Artists’ eighth annual Juried Member Show opens Saturday, May 26th, with a reception scheduled for Saturday, June 2nd from 4-6pm (due to the Memorial Day...

Cost: Free

Where:
Ridgefield Guild of Artists
34 Halpin Lane
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Oil paintings by Carol Brightman Johnson will be on display at the Smithy Store Loft Gallery from May 25 to July 7. Hours: daily from 10:00 to 5:30 Subjects include horses, dogs, orchids,...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Smithy Store Loft Gallery
10 Main St.
New Preston, CT  06777
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Sponsor: The Smithy Store Loft Gallery
Telephone: 860-868-9003
Contact Name: Susan Newbury
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A Benefit For Veterans Featuring exclusive footage of edisun on tour with US Armed Forces. 2005-2018 6PM doors 7PM Film and Musical Performance

Cost: $10.00

Where:
Wall Street Theater
71 Wall Street
Norwalk, CT  06850
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Sponsor: Wall Street Theater
Telephone: 203-283-5290
Contact Name: Jeanne Moore
Website »

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Peter and the Starcatcher is a play based on the 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, adapted for the stage by Rick Elice. The play provides a backstory for the...

Cost: $20 admission; $15 for seniors; $10 for kids

Where:
Western CT State University
Visual Performing Arts Center
Danbury, CT  06811
View map »


Website »

More information

Music: Boris Asafiev Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky, after Vasily Vainonen Cast The Bolshoi Principals, Soloists and Corps de Ballet In the era of the French Revolution, Jeanne and...

Cost: $25

Where:
The Ridgefield Playhouse
80 East Ridge Road
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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An evening of ribald, one-man comedy with Wet Hot American Summer actor and stand-up sensation Michael Ian Black. Fans of sketch comedy might know Black’s work from such seminal television...

Cost: $29

Where:
Fairfield Theatre Company StageOne
70 Sanford Street
Fairfield, CT  06824
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“Country Music’s Newest Star”, Jessica Lynn who has been called “Shania’s Successor” is coming to ChappPac. A Lakeland HS and Pace University grad, she...

Cost: $35

Where:
The Chappaqua Performing Arts Center
480 Bedford Road
Chappaqua, NY  10514
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Website »

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A community-based, family-oriented event with dance performances, professional dance instruction, bands, DJs, and social dancing for youths and adults.​ We are thrilled to continue our...

Where:
Hilton Stamford Hotel & Executive Meeting Center
1 First Stamford Place
Stamford, CT
View map »


Website »

More information

The big glitzy musical Sister Act fared better than the original movie. It received four Olivier Award nominations for its original stage production at London’s West End Theatre. It...

Cost: $59-$89

Where:
Westchester Broadway Theatre
One Broadway Plaza
Elmsford, NY
View map »


Website »

More information

The Pirelli World Challenge series serves up races from all 7 car classes from the Big Dogs (Cadillacs, Bentley’s, Lomborghinis & Porches) to the TC class of Mustangs and BMW 228is, and...

Cost: $60

Where:
Lime Rock Park
60 White Hollow Rd
Lakeville , CT
View map »


Website »

More information

See the majestic beauty of the Hudson River on this 2-hour narrated river adventure from Newburgh to West Point taking in the sights of Washington’s Headquarters, World’s End, Mt....

Cost: $22

Where:
Blu Pointe Landing
100 Front Street
Newburgh, NY
View map »


Website »

More information

The Loft Gallery will open an exhibit of fine paintings by Carol Brightman Johnson. Ms. Johnson's show opens on Saturday, May 26 and run through Sunday, July 8, and will feature...

Cost: free

Where:
Loft Gallery at The Smithy
10 Main Street
New Preston, CT  06777
View map »


Sponsor: Loft Gallery at The Smithy
Telephone: (860)868-9003
Contact Name: Susan
Website »

More information

Heather Gaudio Fine Art is pleased to present “Melissa Meyer: Hitting the Right Notes,” her first solo exhibition with the gallery.  The show will open with a public reception...

Cost: Free

Where:
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840


Sponsor: heathergaudiofineart.com
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

Do you wish you could read great literature but fear you just can't fit it in? Do you join book clubs only to find yourself not having enough time to read through the entire book? Do you love a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Danbury Library- Lower Level Meeting Room
170 Main St
Danbury, CT  06810
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