Judaic Treasures of the
Library of Congress:
Back to the Soil
Nineteenth-century America looked upon the
independent farmer as the quintessential American, the backbone of
the nation. For Jewish immigrants to remain dwellers in self-created
ghettos in the Northeast metropolises was not in the interest of
America, the Jewish community, or the immigrant himself. in the
middle of the century, back-to-the-soil movements were already
stirring in Russia and being proposed for immigrant Jews in the
In the Library's collection is a four-page
circular in Hebrew and Polish issued by the Warsaw
rabbinate at the end of 1841 in support of such endeavors in the
Czarist empire. Little more than a compilation of Talmudic
statements favoring agricultural pursuits, it was issued to counter
widely disseminated assertions that the rabbis forbade Jews to
"labor in fields and orchards outside the borders of the Holy
Land." The rabbis feared that such views might be upsetting to
the Czarist government, which was then favoring Jewish return to the
soil. The tenor of their appeal can be gauged from the following
excerpt from the compilation:
Rabbi Eleazer said, "He who does not own
land is not fully a person." The rabbis of the Talmud were all
persons of stature who could have chosen any vocation, yet they
concluded that the best pursuit of man is to work the land.... this
was never an undesirable occupation; we were forced to leave it.
But now that God has privileged us to live under the sovereignty of
a virtuous czar and his administrators who, solicitous for our
welfare, are encouraging us to turn to agriculture, so that we may
support our families in prosperity and honor, it is incumbent on
those who are able to take advantage of the opportunity.
In the middle of the century plans were
promulgated for Jewish agricultural colonies in America. In the first
issue of The Occident, April 1843, Julius Stern of
Philadelphia proposed the establishment of a Jewish colony in one of
the Northwestern territories, where Jews might devote themselves to
"agriculture and the breeding of cattle, which occupations are
the best props of every state." Stern hoped the colony might
eventually grow to become a Jewish state within the United States,
"for never will [our holy religion] be able to appear in all its
dignity, glory and greatness, so long as our people live dispersed
among the followers of other creeds."
The most interesting and comprehensive proposal
came from Simeon Berman (1818-1884) who, before he went to America in
1852, founded an agricultural settlement society in his native Cracow.
In New York, Cincinnati and St. Louis he pursued his life's passion,
the colonization of Jews on the soil. His infectious enthusiasm and
vision won adherents to his cause, but he lacked the organizational
skills to turn plans into reality. A dozen years after his first
attempt to organize an agricultural society, he still had not
succeeded. In 1865, in St. Louis, Berman published Constitution
und Plan zur Grundung eines Judischen Agrikultur-Vereins (Constitution
and Plan for the Founding of a Jewish Agricultural Society), in which
he discusses how the Society is to be organized, how the settlers
need to work together to provide for their present needs and plan
their future well-being.
The purpose of the Society was to direct the Jews'
attention toward farming and to provide the indigent among them with
an opportunity to find independence on the land through cooperative
efforts and with minimal expenses. "Ten thousand acres are to be
bought in one of the states, fertile land in a good climate," he
writes. "Cities are to be laid out, ten lots to an acre."
Nor will the Jewish cultural and spiritual needs be neglected.
"The staff of the colony's school should consist of two Hebrew,
two German and two English teachers, with a rabbi as
What remains of the plan is an exceedingly rare
German pamphlet recently acquired by the Rare Book and Special
Unsuccessful in the New World, in 1870 Berman left
for Palestine, where he spent the last fourteen years of his life in
colonization efforts. With the aid of the American consul, Berman
persuaded the Ottoman government to grant his request to be allowed
to purchase land. He settled in Tiberias and founded the Holy Land
Settlement Society for the establishment of a cooperative colony on
Lake Kinneret, and lived to see the establishment of the first Jewish
settlements in the Galilee and in Judea.
Colonies were established in America as well.
Members of the Am Olam (Eternal People) movement for
cooperative living on the land went to the New World, and in spring
1882 thirty-two families founded a colony at Sicily Island,
Louisiana, which a Mississippi flood wiped out. A dozen regrouped to
found the colony Crimea in South Dakota in the fall of the
same year, and Bethlehem of Judea was soon established nearby,
but heavy debt and lack of farming experience took their toll.
Both had to be liquidated three years later. The same fate overtook
New Odessa, near Portland, Oregon. Report of Mr. Julius Schwartz
on the Colony of Russian Refugees at Cotopaxi, Colorado, established
by The Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society of the United States, New
York, 1882, tells of the founding of an immigrant
The tyrannical illiberality of the Russian
Government overflowed the free shores of our country with suffering
refugees. The desire to colonize these refugees, to make them
farmers ... to resave them from the ... chains of poverty and
desolation ... speedily became a sentiment among our thinking
co-religionists ... It was decided that Government land be taken up
in Colorado, and an experimental colony be founded ... Proper
persons, amongst them some trained farmers, were selected and on
the third of May, the Colony consisting of thirteen families, left
for Cotopaxi ... the headquarters of a rich mining district ...
Opposite on the Arkansas River ... land covered with fresh green
grass forms the first link in the chain of farms that are under the
cultivation of the expatriated Russian Jews.
The land proved arid, impossible to cultivate
without irrigation, and the colony did not last three years.
Mr. Julius Schwarz on the Colony of Russian
Refugees at Cotopaxi, Colorado . . . 1882.
New York: Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society of the United