Jewish Chicken Farmers

 Benjamin Bottner
October 11, 2014

Not too long ago my mother said I was not old enough for “chicks,” get it – girls. But this past May, something happened that transformed my life.

You are here because you have a deep connection to me and to my family. You know that I am an Azerbaijani, Jewish, New York kid. Many of you know that I love airplanes – anything to do with flying. I love to travel and have been to many places around the world. Many of you know that I love making things with my hands and when I am interested in something, I study and read about the topic I’m passionate about until I can master it. But did you know that this past May, I added something else to my identity? I became an urban Jewish chicken farmer. My farm was my bedroom and for two months, it was the home of seven chickens. How did this ever happen? When and how did I find a love for raising chickens? Well here’s how it all started.

It all started in January 2014 with a text. Our friend Paul mentioned that his one-week old chick was doing well. Then he said something that intrigued me. “You seem like the right person to raise chicks. Would you ever want to do that?” At first I was a little skeptical – you know -having chickens in an apartment?? Paul lives on 200 acres in the country. I live in a third floor loft space in Brooklyn. But, as Paul explained more and more about his wonderful experience and how easy it is to raise a flock of chickens, I became totally enchanted by the idea. After months of reading, researching and learning the ins and outs of chicken hatching, I decided I could do this too. My one obstacle was having my mother say, “YES”. I needed to convince her that hatching chickens in a NYC apartment was a good idea. After figuring out the logistics – that is, what would become of these chicks after they became fully grown, my mother agreed to this crazy idea. On May 1st, the eggs arrived and I put seven eggs into the incubator. For 21 days, morning and night I checked up on my eggs to make sure that they were doing well. Every day I would check that the two thermometers in the incubator were reading the same temperature. I also needed to make sure there was proper humidity in the incubator by checking the water level in the water tray. While my eggs were growing from just a few cells, to embryos, to chicks with a heart, eyes, and wings, my mother and I prepared for the day they would hatch.

I need to back up a little because there’s more to this story. I was supposed to be researching another topic for my Bar Mitzvah. BUT, once the chicken idea came into view, all I did was read and research chicken raising. Believe it or not there is a connection between Jews and chickens. Central and Southern New Jersey were known for their many small Jewish chicken farms and the region became one of the largest egg producers in the nation. As a matter of fact, I have relatives on my grandmother’s side who were chicken farmers in New Jersey.

Back to my story! On our way home from checking out Baku Palace for my Bar Mitzvah venue, my mother started screaming my name. “Ben, Ben, Ben.” Her voice became louder and I was wondering what I was doing wrong now. Finally, she blurted it out, “Ben, another connection. Remember the song Jujalarim?” Jujalarim is a well-know Azerbaijani children’s song about baby chicks. Juja in Azerbaijani means “little chick.” When I was younger, my mother used to play this song for me. The connection was complete – Jewish, Azeri, family, chicken farmer – it all made sense.

For my research on the history of Jewish chicken farmers in New Jersey, I read parts of the book The Land Was Theirs: Jewish Farmers in the Garden State by Gertrude Dubrovsky. The book tells the history of American and immigrant Jewish farmers in Farmingdale, N.J. from 1919 to the 1970’s.

I also read many articles including a New York Times article by Joseph Berger called “Film Set on Jewish Farmers in Jersey.” Mrs. Dubrovksy made her book into a movie and my mom and I watched it. I also visited the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, in Freehold N.J. This is where my relatives, Mollie and Izzy Warshaw, had their chicken farm.

My story starts at the turn of the 20th century because that’s when my family came to the United States. The idea of Jews owning their own land was a taboo in Eastern Europe. Only four percent of Jews had any connection to farming. In the late 1800s, there were several pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and Jews began emigrating west to the other parts of Europe, the US, Canada and South America. This worried many wealthier Western European Jews, and they began relief efforts to help. Baron Maurice de Hirsch from Germany decided to put his fortune into helping Jews own land and settle into their new countries. De Hirsch financed projects in the US, Canada and Argentina. In 1891 De Hirsch’s fund bought 5,200 acres in Woodbine, NJ. The mission of the project was to take Jewish boys from the city slums, and train them to become farmers. In 1894, the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural College was founded in Vineland, NJ to train future farmers.

At the turn of the century, the only working Jewish farm colonies on the east coast were in south Jersey. They were collective farms founded by Russian and Eastern European Jews between 1882 and 1892. Southern New Jersey was a good location near to Philadelphia and New York markets, and near to friends, family and Jewish institutions.

In 1900 another aid organization was established – The Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society later shortened to the Jewish Agricultural Society or JAS. Its mission was similar to the De Hirsch fund – to take Jewish immigrants out of the city, and train them to be farmers. It loaned Jewish immigrants the money to start a farm, and eventually farmers would have to pay back the loan.

Most Jewish immigrants started off in crowded slums in cities like New York. Many worked in factories for someone else. They dreamed of being their own bosses. In 1919 the Peskin and Friedman families were looking to get out of the crowded city and moved to Farmingdale, in central NJ, to work the land. Mr. Peskin became very ill from the 1918 influenza pandemic. His doctor advised him to leave the city as soon as possible. The men had read that the JAS was helping Jewish immigrants become farmers. They thought that as a farmer, and being your own boss, there would be no exploitive labor as there was in the factories. A farmer had independence owning land. Peskin and Friedman went to the JAS office for help and after many discussions were told to go to central New Jersey to “scout the area.” That is how the Farmingdale Jewish chicken community started. Peskin was determined to convince other urban Jews to come to the area. He even became a real estate agent, another way to earn an income. In those days, chicken farming alone could not support a family.

It was really in the 1920s that the poultry business took off. The soil in Orange and Monmouth counties was poor quality for traditional farming. JAS decided the land was better suited for raising chickens. They started funding individual chicken farms and came to the conclusion that collective farming was not the answer. They offered farmers loans and gave them the necessary supplies and support to start new farms. Many of the farmers were new to the business and had no farming knowledge. The JAS agents spoke Yiddish and went around to the different communities to give advice in farming techniques.

From 1907-1956, the JAS published a monthly magazine DER YIDDISHER FARMER in both Yiddish and English. The magazine was informative and community related. There were articles about the latest agricultural advances and about other farming communities. The JAS also gave the different farming towns money to build community centers that served as synagogues and cultural meeting places. JAS realized how important a social life was to the community. Without a community center the Jewish chicken farmers in places like Farmingdale or Freehold were nowhere. They needed a social life and a place to gather. The Farmingdale Center was built by 12 farming families in 1928. Gertrude Dubrovsky said, “The community center was small and modest, but it had a heart and soul.”

Jewish immigrants with no farming experience established a community of small family owned farms and New Jersey became the most successful egg producing state in the U.S. According to Dubrovsky, the real success of the Jewish chicken farmers came down to the sense of “…community, brotherhood, and cooperation”. Without this the industry would have failed. This is also a great example of how farming values went together with Jewish values. When Jews had lived in communities and in shtetls they had to rely on each other. The same was true on the chicken farms. Say if one family needed help vaccinating their chickens and they needed to do it all in a day, but there was no possible way to do it, their neighbors, fellow Jews, were there to help.

As one farmer explained, “Everything we did, we did communally. Everything. That’s what made it so exciting. For example, when we had to take the chickens in from the range we would all come together in the morning, and we would be working at each other’s farms, bringing the chickens in from the ranges into the chicken houses. Then the women at the farm would prepare a huge breakfast. This went on for years. It was a combined social time and work.”

New Jersey, sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia, was a perfect location to raise chickens. For as little as $2,000 you could get a loan from the JAS and buy a five-acre farm, and bam! It took five months for you to be in business. A chicken would bring in $2 a year, and let’s say you had 2,000 chickens, you could earn $4,000 a year. This was not bad in the 1950’s. Mrs. Dubrovsky wrote: “The Jewish chicken farmers took chicken raising out of the backyard and made an industry of it.”

By the early 1960s the chicken industry was declining. There were many reasons for the downfall. One of them was the overproduction of eggs. The US government stopped price supports and chicken farming became very expensive. Also competition was moving south. Many farmers sold their land to developers to build subdivisions in Monmouth and Ocean counties. As the market went down, people had to find other means of making a living. In 1979 the state of New Jersey converted a large part of Farmingdale into a reservoir. So many chicken farms now lie beneath the waves.

My great grandfather Morris Markowitz’s sister and brother-in-law were chicken farmers in Freehold, New Jersey. Mollie and Izzy Warshaw ran a roadside gas station and restaurant in Nyack, New York. Izzy decided to retire and become a chicken farmer. I talked to his granddaughter Nina Skolsky Metz, and I learned that Izzy liked being his own boss. Nina said: “I think Izzy had a dream of retiring to what he thought would be a more relaxing life raising chickens on a farm, again his own boss. So in the late forties-early fifties Izzy bought his own farm. Unfortunately, raising chickens was not a cakewalk. It was almost as hectic and tiring as running the gas station-restaurant. After several years Izzy sold the chickens to another farmer who kept them on the farm, and rented the coops from Izzy. The coop was a large one-room building, and the chickens were not kept in cages. I suppose you could say they were free-range indoor chickens.”

So following in Izzy and Mollie’s footsteps let us return to my bedroom farm in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Alas! Day 21 was here – the day the chicks were supposed to hatch. It was a normal morning, I went to school… but I could hardly wait. The moment the teacher dismissed the class, I raced home like Usain Bolt, flew into my apartment, said a quick hello to my mother, and burst into my room.

I heard a cheeping noise. As I approached the incubator, I saw one egg. The next thing that caught my eye was the chick’s beak slowly breaking into this world, as the light from my lamp glared on its innocent eyes.

Since I was the first thing it saw, I became the mother of this chick. It was now my job to teach the chick what food and water were. I dunked the chick’s head into a spoon of water, letting it drink. Next, I had to teach the chick about food. I literally shoved a spoonful of food in front of the chick’s beak and he instinctively pecked at it a few times. After a few pecks, he got it.

Shortly after midnight, a noise woke me up. It was the rest of the chicks poking their way out into the world. By the morning six more had hatched. Again, I took on the role of their mother and taught them each what food and water were.

Their home was made out of cardboard boxes taped and clamped together. It sat on top of wooden boards, a large plastic tablecloth, and two inches of pine shavings. For seven weeks, every five days my Mom and I cleaned out their coop. Kids and chicks don’t have the same DNA, but the way they treat their room is really similar – messy!!

On July 6th, ten weeks after I placed seven eggs in an incubator, the chicks started a new life at Bushwick City Farms. Bushwick City Farms is a small community farm in Brooklyn that educates children about growing and eating healthy food. They maintain a chicken coop, beehives and huge planters for urban farming. A core value at Bushwick City Farms is to help feed people in the nearby community and teach them about food production. Their motto is: give-as-you-can, take-only-as-you-need. My chickens will provide for people who need eggs to feed their families. This ties into some of my values, “Tikun Olam,” or bettering the world, generosity and giving. Hunger is not gone but I am glad that my chickens will help fight hunger for those people who are under served by the system.

Gertrude Dubrovsky wrote, “In a larger sense farming gave new Jewish immigrants an identification with America that made them a part of the land. Rural living allowed the best of their values to flourish-a strong sense of family and community, a belief in cooperation and a strong commitment to human rights and social justice for all.”

I have to say, raising a flock of seven chickens has not made me feel more or less Jewish. However, it did help me make a connection to the secular values of many Jewish farmers. I have observed that those secular humanistic values such as social justice and cooperation are tied into this project. This experience didn’t make me feel more or less of a Jew, but it did make me feel very proud.