Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Q&A with Seth Stern




Seth Stern is the author of the new book Speaking Yiddish to Chickens: Holocaust Survivors on South Jersey Poultry Farms. He is also the coauthor of the book Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, and is a legal journalist and editor for Bloomberg Industry Group. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: What inspired you to write Speaking Yiddish to Chickens, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: This was a project 25 years in the making that began when I started interviewing my grandmother about her experience as a Holocaust survivor. I gravitated to the question of how my grandparents - and roughly 1,000 other survivors - wound up settling as poultry farmers in southern New Jersey.


The title comes from the fact that so many survivor farmers later joked that part of the appeal of raising chickens was that they didn't mind if you spoke Yiddish to them.


These refugee farmers had come to the US after losing everything during the war, which interrupted their education. Very few knew English when they arrived. So they didn't have many options for supporting themselves.


Most also didn't know the first thing about farming. In theory, farming seemed like an appealing way to be your own boss and own your own land in a quiet, bucolic setting.


The reality of a tough life on family farms was quite different, although they also joined a uniquely robust rural Jewish community and made it their own. 


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I interviewed dozens of survivors and their children and relied on many more oral history interviews. Everyone was so generous in sharing their time and memories.


I also did extensive archival research and read through years of the local newspaper and the Jewish Farmer, the world's only Jewish agricultural magazine published in both Yiddish and English. 


Holocaust survivors tend to get typecast as either a story of triumph over adversity or the enduring burden of trauma.


I learned that survivors weren't monolithic. They varied in how much success they had in this country, how they dealt with the trauma they'd experienced, and whether religious observance remained an important part of their lives. I hope the book gives a sense of that.


Q: Rokhl Kafrissen wrote in Tablet about the book, “Speaking Yiddish to Chickens is much more than one man’s story about his grandparents. Stern’s journalistic expertise allows him to broaden his scope, deftly layering different perspectives and narratives throughout the book.” What do you think of that description?


A: That nicely encapsulates what I was trying to do: tell both a deeply personal story as well as a broader story about this unique Jewish community at a particular moment in time and the history of Jewish agriculture and rural settlement in America.


Although it might seem strange today, Jews farmed in all 48 then existing states in the 1930s, with most concentrated in communities in the Northeast stretching from the Berkshires down to south Jersey.


Most had begun shrinking by the time the survivors arrived after World War II, but their influx combined with an earlier wave of German Jewish refugees helped create a community with few parallels in postwar rural America, full of kosher delis and butcher shops, synagogues and shtiebels, and performances by visiting Yiddish poets, comedians and singers. 


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book?


A: I gained a better understanding of the challenges my grandparents and other refugees face in adapting to life in America. They kept a foot in a lost world while trying to become fully American. They took on dirty, difficult jobs with often meager pay with the hope their children will do better.


In that sense, it's a very American story even if one that's unusual for Jewish Americans.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My first book I co-authored was about a Supreme Court justice (William Brennan) who grew up in Newark in northern Jersey. This book is about a community in south Jersey. I actually have an idea for something in the middle of the state, which is an unexpected turn for someone like me who was raised on Long Island. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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