Review

Review of Seth Stern’s Speaking Yiddish to Chickens

Zeke Levine

Seth Stern. Speak­ing Yid­dish to Chick­ens: Holo­caust Sur­vivors on South Jer­sey Poul­try Farms. New Brunswick, NJ: Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2023. 288 pp. $32.95.


On a chilly January morning, my cousin Nathalie and I set off from Princeton, New Jersey, making our way to the southern part of the state, in search of remnants of the Jewish agricultural colony Alliance, just a couple of miles from Vineland, NJ. We fueled up with a stop at Wawa — I think anyone from this area would agree that Wawa is a road trip must — and an hour later we were face to face with the gravestones of Alliance’s founding families. Nathalie and I continued to seek out sights that suggested a Yiddish speaking, Jewish past for this rural enclave, inventing stories about what it must have been like to live a life in Yiddish on this land.

Our attempt to piece together an image of the vibrant Alliance and Vineland communities left us with more questions than answers, with more shadow than light. Seth Stern’s Speaking Yiddish to Chickens, a compelling portrait of Yiddish speaking refugees homesteading in 1940s and 1950s Vineland, brings vibrance and historical heft to this scene. As Stern himself notes in a contemplative epilogue, the traces of the community have vanished, but the memories of a bustling, complicated world remain. Through the book, Stern follows Nuchim and Bronia Green, his grandparents, and other members of their community. Drawing from oral histories with family members and other Jewish Vineland chicken farmers, Stern pieces together the story of these ‘Grine’ — his term for Yiddish speaking Holocaust survivors who settled in southern New Jersey, derived from the Yiddish word for ‘greenhorn’ — through their arrival in the United States as refugees to their decision to take up chicken farming, to the exodus of many community members as egg prices dropped to untenable levels in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Informed by his journalistic expertise, Stern breathes life into the oral history testimonies that constitute his central archive. Rather than simply reprinting respondents’ accounts, Stern aims to overcome the inherent limitations of memory. He identifies those limitations, for example, as he describes his grandmother’s attempt to apply for reparations from the West German government, noting “the challenge is disentangling what’s true in her applications from the fabrications that had compounded on top of one another for more than a decade” (147). In attempting to verify accounts, he supplements the oral historical sources with contemporaneous newspaper articles as well as scholarly sources on related topics. While Stern expertly weaves stories from the threads of oral history, the overrepresentation of these accounts detracts from the wider scope of the book as an historical investigation into the impacts and resonances of the Vineland ‘Grine’ community. Rather than oral testimony providing material for a larger project of history, in Speaking Yiddish to Chickens larger historical context serves only to verify or further illuminate the oral history. What results is a work that functions as a detailed group biography, but one that lacks historiographical sophistication. While the casual reader will find an engaging narrative, those expecting the type of reach consistent with academic standards will be left wanting. This, in its own right, is not necessarily a disqualifying characterization. After all, Stern provides a well-researched model for investigations into family genealogy, a practice gaining widespread popularity. My critique is grounded in the impression that Stern gestures towards scholarship as a means of bolstering narrative authority, but does not internalize the conventions such a register demands. My most pressing critique concerns Stern’s approach to the Yiddish language itself. Reviewing the book for In geveb, and writing as a scholar of Yiddish culture, I was impelled, throughout my reading of the book, to evaluate Stern’s work in terms of its relationship to the Yiddish language and to scholarship surrounding the Yiddish language. While Stern peppers his text with Yiddish terms and references, he tends to approach the language as largely a symbolic index of emotion and memory, which I contend limits the impact of his investigation.

Seth Stern introduces Speaking Yiddish to Chickens by outlining the stakes: “These farmers show how refugees struggle to assimilate while preserving their identities. They found ways to commemorate what they lost while trying to move beyond past trauma” (3). This statement demonstrates the threads that weave throughout the entire narrative — namely the twin processes of becoming American while negotiating both the joys and horrors of past lives. In an early section of the book, Stern ties the experience of his grandfather to a longer trajectory of Jewish agriculture, particularly in the United States, where, as he notes, “a few idealistic Russian Jews instead seized on the idea of establishing egalitarian farm colonies in places like Cicily Island, Louisiana, and New Odessa, Oregon… Only a cluster of colonies in southern New Jersey remained viable for long. It certainly wasn’t anything about the land that explained the survival of these colonies with names like Alliance and Carmel” (22). Of his relatives, he explains “The source of their optimism: an article or ad Nuchim had seen in a Yiddish newspaper, offering to help Jewish people settle on poultry farms” (19).

A key focus of this book is the specific attention to the experience of Eastern European refugees — the Grine. A notable strength of this book is the level of detail Stern offers, particularly when describing the survivors’ world outside of the farm. Stern paints a portrait of a rich cultural life in Vineland, which included concerts and lectures by Yiddish speaking performers. He describes, for example, “The inaugural event of the Jewish Farmers Social Club in March 1950 at Vineland’s H.L. Reber School featured a troupe of Yiddish performers, including singer Diana Blumenfeld, whose deep alto was a siren call to a lost world” (88). He emphasizes the power of this cultural connection, detailing, “Blumenfled’s voice remained undiminished, instantly reconnecting these farmers to the lives and loved ones they’d lost” (89). Yiddish voices would continue to resonate in Vineland; as Stern describes, “in the months ahead, the JPFA would host modern dance performances and Yiddish folk concerts” (98). The social institutions established by the Grine remedied a dual sense of social alienation from both the American and German-Jewish cultural sphere experienced by Yiddish speaking refugees. 1 1 For an investigation of German-Jewish refugees in agricultural settings, see Marion Kaplan, Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua 1940-1945 (New York: Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2008). He notes, for example, that German “refugees listened to chamber music, opera, and lectures in German by visiting philosophers” (42), forming a group called the Poultrymen’s Club. Stern emphasizes “Jack and Nuchim, like the German Jews before them, felt like double outsiders, uncomfortable not just in the larger community, but also among fellow Jews who had settled earlier” (43).

While highlighting the deep richness of cultural life among Yiddish speaking survivors in Vineland, Seth Stern is attentive to the instability of the poultry industry that led to considerable hardship for members of the community. For example, in chapter fourteen, Stern describes, in detail, how the downturn in 1954 of egg prices led several egg farmers to take their own lives. When a hurricane caused further damage to the already impoverished industry and Judge Harry Adler gave an optimistic speech, Stern ponders, “What would the survivors in the audience have made of Adler’s upbeat speech? Unlike the idealistic colonists, these survivors had no interest in building ‘a better world.’ They wanted only to make a living and support their families,” asserting that they “didn’t need any lessons in resilience” (137). In the later chapters of the book, Stern describes the fate of the community in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He details, “In 1966, the Jewish Agricultural Society published an elegy for the American Jewish farm movement that proved to be the organization’s own eulogy” (237). His grandparents, Bronia and Nuchim, moved to New York City — where they faced further economic and psychological challenges — and many others in the community followed suit over the next ten years, with Stern describing, in biblical terms, “The Jewish community’s exodus continued unabated in the seventies” (242). In spite of this demographic turnover, Stern identifies attempts among community members to document the history of Vineland and also to preserve the memory of Holocaust victims. In highlighting the challenges faced by Jewish Vineland poultry farmers, Stern demystifies the idyllic utopianism of life outside the city, emphasizing that despite the agency and fulfillment provided by this profession, outside forces mounted serious obstacles to farmers’ success. One notable approach in Speaking Yiddish to Chickens is Stern’s leaning on literature in psychology and sociology to better understand the motivations of his relatives and the other South Jersey farmers. Throughout the book he cites psychologist Aaron Hass, sociologists Benjamin Kaplan, Ewa Morawska, and William Helmreich (176, 233). His attention to the psychological and sociological realms aids Stern as he describes bridges among the generations. For example, he investigates the ways in which his mother’s generation negotiated life in Vineland, describing, “Just like their parents, the Grines’ children often felt more comfortable among themselves and recalled American-born Jews treating them differently” (220). Stern highlights, “In the 1970s, doctors who had treated survivors’ adolescent children began publishing studies chronicling the psychological toll of their upbringing” (225). The focus on sociology and psychology affirms Stern’s attention to the inner lives of both individuals and the community as a whole, a rich success of the book that speaks to his mission of developing a thorough and multi-dimensional portrait of the Grine’s experience in Vineland.

However, while Stern consistently cites a variety of historical scholarship throughout the book, he does not enter into meaningful dialogue with scholarly discourses rooted in the humanities. Notably, Stern fails to articulate an argument that effectively makes the case for the significance and relevance of the site beyond his personal investment and the assumed shock value of Jewish farming in the United States. In a passing statement, early in the text, Stern offers “the story of the Grines– who proved to be the final mass wave of American Jewish agriculture– has particular relevance today as public opinion has again turned against admitting refugees” (3). While he notes the relevance that this subject may have in a contemporary setting, he does not outline a program to connect the experience of the ‘Grine’ with global refugee crises–past, present, or future. Compare this approach with other texts, referenced by Stern, which are more squarely scholarly investigations of Yiddish ruralities in the United States. In each case, a clear argument is established that connects the chosen subject outwards. Jonathan Dekel-Chen, writing on Soviet Jewish agricultural colonies, outlines in clear terms, “until now, this story has been shrouded by the disappearance of the settlements themselves during the Holocaust, the inaccessibility of archives in the Soviet Union, and the focus of Jewish historians on the Zionist narrative. … With the fall of the USSR, we can now reassess this lost chapter of Soviet-Jewish history.” 2 2 Jonathan L. Dekel-Chen, Farming the Red Land: Jewish Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power, 1924 - 1941 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 1. Dekel-Chen’s exploration of Yiddish ruralities is rooted in larger scale questions of historiography and the archive. Ellen Eisenberg, writing specifically on New Jersey agricultural settlements, investigates the origins of the settlers, drawing conclusions from this research that illuminate the field in a novel way, stating “I argue that this change in the origin of new settlers is one important factor explaining the transformation of the settlements from agrarian colonies to mixed agricultural-industrial settlements based on ownership of private property.” 3 3 Ellen Eisenberg, Jewish Agricultural Colonies in New Jersey, 1882 - 1920 (Syracuse: Syracuse Univiversity Press, 1995), xxi.

The most adjacent scholarly work to Stern’s is The Land Was Theirs, penned by Gertrude Dubrovsky. Dubrovsky, who grew up in the Jewish agricultural community of Farmingdale, NJ, wrote passionately about her hometown, yet grounded her text as scholarship. Dubrovsky begins The Land Was Theirs, by noting “Community histories are the building blocks from which an authentic history of American Jews can ultimately be constructed.” 4 4 Gertrude Dubrvosky, The Land Was Theirs: Jewish Farmers in the Garden State (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992), preface. Attending a similar scope as Stern, Dubrovsky sets out a program to tie the dynamics of Farmingdale to larger questions of Jewish American life.

Where Stern does engage with scholarship, the results are often clunky. For example, he notes, “for decades, conventional wisdom held that American Jews largely ignored newly arrived survivors. More recent scholarship has upended that myth of indifference” (60). To bolster this claim, he cites only one source, historian Hasia Diner. He then further details Diner’s perspective without ever citing her numerous texts — many of which deal squarely with topics relevant to Stern’s investigation. In many cases, Stern is not sufficiently critical of various terminology — missing inroads to more pressing debates. For example, in writing that “Elite philanthropists such as de Hirsch believed that agriculture might blunt anti-Semitism by dispersing Jewish immigrants and proving Jews could lead productive lives outside of cities” (23), Stern does not engage with the contested idea of productivity — he simply reports the term as neutral. Similarly, he misses an opportunity to investigate the term “homestead,” (82) which he employs to refer to a suburban dwelling. The term “homestead,” in Jewish New Jersey agricultural history, is a significant designation. It was, for example, the original term of the Jewish colony at Roosevelt, NJ, which was termed the “Jersey Homesteads.”

The title Speaking Yiddish to Chickens is captivating — particularly to someone invested in scholarly perspectives on the Yiddish language. As I opened the book, I prepared myself to engage deeply with a number of topics relevant to the subject, such as Yiddish in the United States, Yiddish in the post-war period, Yiddish ruralities, among others. As I moved through the text, I discovered that Stern’s mobilization of Yiddish and Yiddish scholarship is largely superficial. Consider, for example, Stern’s rather casual use of the term ‘landsman.’ Stern first offers the term describing how community members learned of New Jersey’s agricultural communities, noting, “more often, it was a landsman from their hometown they’d known before the war” (49). In describing the model for fraternal organizations in Vineland, Stern defines landsmanshaftn as “usually organized around a common hometown back in Europe” (88). Later, Stern offers a gloss of the term provided by one of his interlocutors. In this case, “landsman” is translated as “‘Yiddish for ‘my people’” (190). Stern uses the term again towards the end of the book, describing a family friend who “connected [Nuchim] with a landsman who was a leather goods wholesaler in New York” (215). There is little technically wrong with Stern’s use of the term, though he does not provide a stable definition. However, he misses an important opportunity to think about the role of landsmanshaftn in structuring Jewish-American communal life, and especially misses the importance of Eastern European hometowns in post-Holocaust memory. Given that this is a major theme of his book, one would expect engagement with the genre of yizkor books, publications generated from communal memory of towns and cities destroyed during the War.

While Stern clearly identifies Yiddish as a regularly spoken language among his community of study, his analysis implies that the role of Yiddish was largely symbolic. For example, he describes, “To survivors, the Yiddish-speaking singers, poets, writers, and actors offered more than an occasional evening of entertainment. These performances provided a way to stay connected to a language with deep emotional resonance. Yiddish reminded some of lost childhoods, families, and hometowns” (156), highlighting Yiddish not as a dynamic means of everyday expression, but as an emotional mnemonic. I suggest that a more thorough investment in Yiddish studies would have expanded Stern’s approach to spoken Yiddish beyond its role as an index of nostalgia, memory, and emotion. This would have marked a particularly valuable intervention, given that an influx of Yiddish speakers to the United States cuts against the post-WWII trend of diminishing communities of vernacular Yiddish speakers.

Jeffrey Shandler’s framework of “post-vernacular Yiddish” — the trend in mid-twentieth-century American life towards the presence of Yiddish as symbolic — characterizes Stern’s approach throughout the book. Despite the vernacular usage of Yiddish within the community, Stern tends to evaluate Yiddish in terms of its post-vernacular or extra-vernacular function, which signals Stern’s own conception of Yiddish as predominantly a symbolic mediator between old and new worlds. For example, Stern notes, “Cultural differences could further complicate awkward living arrangements. Two Jewish families from Ukraine and Lithuania who settled together in one south Jersey farm had trouble understanding each other’s Yiddish accents — or appreciating each other’s recipes” (46). This observation gestures towards a study of communal origin, such as the one offered by Ellen Eisenberg. 5 5 “That different immigrant communities might have been drawn from disparate migrant pools suggests that tracing the origin of an immigrant community might help account for its cultural, social, and economic characteristics. … This information about settler origins and views can then be used to explain the development of the immigrant community in the colonies, which differed considerably from other American-Jewish communities.” Eisenberg, Jewish Agricultural Colonies in New Jersey, xx-xxi. Instead, the challenges in communication, which might have been probed for their cultural and historical implications as an important site of conflict within American Jewish communities, is likened merely to different food preferences. Describing Bronia’s family roots in the town of Bilgoraj, Stern evokes Isaac Bashevis Singer, explaining, “Singer later depicted the small town as a mythical paradise” (83). Singer, a notoriously complex individual whose relationship to both Eastern Europe and the United States has garnered a great deal of scholarly attention, is referenced uncritically, without reference to the insights that Singer offers, particularly in regards to the constructed Yiddish life in Europe. When Stern describes another community member, who “remembered his childhood in Alliance as something out of Fiddler on the Roof” (58), he misses an opportunity to investigate the image of the shtetl as a constructed repository of value that mediates a relationship between Jewish past and present. 6 6 See, for example, Sheila Jelen, Salvage Poetics: Post-Holocaust American Jewish Folk Ethnographies (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2020). Such an analysis would have been particularly salient given the conflicted relationship to urban modernity that motivates and characterizes the contemporary nostalgic vision of the shtetl.

This critique of Speaking Yiddish to Chickens may appear unduly harsh. After all, Seth Stern tenderly illuminates the Grine’s world, offering a compelling model for engaging with oral history and other accounts of since-abandoned communities of Jewish life. In dedicating himself to the details, Stern affirms the complexity of individuals and communities. Still, I contend that it is important to challenge works of history to imbue the facts, figures, texts, and testimonies of their subjects with the power of mobility, to draw significance from the details and to expand the particular towards the universal. We must affirm Yiddish not only as a shorthand for a bygone world of warm memories, but as a language and culture whose serious investigation yields valuable and consequential insights.

MLA STYLE
Levine, Zeke. “Review of Seth Stern's Speaking Yiddish to Chickens.” In geveb, February 2024: https://ingeveb.org/articles/review-of-seth-sterns-speaking-yiddish-to-chickens.
CHICAGO STYLE
Levine, Zeke. “Review of Seth Stern's Speaking Yiddish to Chickens.” In geveb (February 2024): Accessed Apr 22, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zeke Levine

Zeke Levine is a PhD candidate in historical musicology at New York University, with a research focus on Yiddish song in mid-20th century America