A Living Link to Our Jewish Farming Past

— by Hannah Lee

Dressed in the modest garb of an observant Jew, Nachum Helig may not be what you’d expect of a farmer, especially if you’re only familiar with the young hipsters of Adamah and Jewish Farm School.  However, he’s the fourth generation to till his family’s land in southern New Jersey and he spoke last week at Lower Merion Synagogue, after a showing of the 1993 documentary, The Land Was Theirs.

More after the jump.
Baron Maurice de HirschAfter the assassination of Alexander II of Russia in 1881, the Jews were persecuted and displaced. To counter these pogroms with his utopian vision of a better life for Jews, the German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch funded farming communities in Argentina, Canada, and Palestine. He also set up a smaller trust for the United States. Of the 100 Jewish or so farming colonies eventually founded in this country — from South Dakota to Connecticut — the most enduring one was in southern New Jersey.

The first group of 43 families arrived in Alliance, New Jersey in 1882. They had no farming skills, but they wanted a healthier alternative to the stifling factory work available in the major cities where most immigrants landed. Land was relatively cheap because the soil was either of a sandy loam or clay — the latter is worse, because it doesn’t drain rainwater — both of a low quality avoided by the experienced farmers. The first year, everyone lived together in three barrack-style buildings. The following year, they divided the land into 15-acre plots and they built two-room houses with a cellar. The colony’s main advantage was its location, 40 miles south of Philadelphia and along the tracks of the Jersey Central Railroad, which carried their produce to markets.

Still shot from This Land Was Theirs, The National Center for Jewish Film.

It was grueling work for these earliest pioneers, and one elder recalled, “cooperation was key. There was no competition.” Monthly meetings of the cooperative consisted of long, loud arguments, said another elder, by “people whose intellect was 40 times greater than what their [farming] jobs required.” A third senior recalled her father plowing the fields while reading a book propped up in front of him.

In the early years, they worked for non-Jews while they learned to farm. Later, the Jews accepted outside funding to build side businesses that generated income: cigar production, garment piecework, and canning. By the 1920s, raising chickens became the profitable source of income, and southern New Jersey became known as the “Egg Basket of America.” Prior to World War II, most egg production came from farm flocks of fewer than 400 hens, according to the American Egg Board.

As a boy in the 1950s, Nachum Helig raised steer as a member of the local 4H agricultural youth organization and worried his mother by sleeping in their stalls at the county fairs. At age 10, his father gave him 1,000 broilers (chickens raised for meat, not eggs) to raise; with his earnings, he bought more of his beloved steer. He was already driving a tractor by then, long before he was eligible for a driver’s license.

The Helig family became respected members of their community. Helig’s father, Jacob, served as mayor of Pittsgrove Township for 28 years and also a justice of the peace. He built a courtroom in his basement; when the policemen would traipse through his house in their shiny boots, his mother would point to them as her enforcers of good behavior.

At the first Yovel (golden jubilee, 50th) celebration in 1932, Isaac Helig, son of the pioneers, Sarah and Simcha Helig, served on the reception committee; at the second Yovel (centennial, 100th) celebration in 1982, Jacob Helig served on the planning committee.  Of the fourth generation, Nachum Helig attended Rutgers University, earned a degree in industrial engineering, and served in the United States Army. He remained involved with the farm while working in industry, returning full-time to farming in 1995. At the farm’s peak, the Helig family farm had 25,000 egg-laying chickens, 25 beef cattle, and 80-100 acres of land devoted to corn, soybeans, and hay. These days, his biggest cash crop is alfalfa hay, grown on 70 acres. His newest customer is the Cape May County Zoo, where his hay is favored by the giraffes.

Devorah Helig grew up in Vineland as the daughter of a dry-goods merchant and is also a descendent of Jewish farmers who settled in Connecticut. Nachum Helig drives twice each work day to pray with the small community at the Vineland shul, located 7 miles from their farm, but for Shabbat and holidays the Heligs come to the Yeshiva of Philadelphia. A remarkable couple, Nachum and Devorah Helig represent the long tradition of Jews tilling the land while maintaining Jewish practice with integrity.

A Prisoner of Hope

Irish Poet Micheal O’Siadhai’s Response to the Shoah

West Chester University Poetry Conference is an international poetry conference that has been held annually since 1995 at West Chester University, Pennsylvania.  It hosts various panel discussions and poetry craft workshops, which focus primarily on formal poetry and narrative poetry. The conference was founded in 1995 by West Chester professor Michael Peich and poet Dana Gioia with 85 poets and scholars in attendance.  

On June 9th, Former poet Laureate Robert Pinsky was interviewed by Dana Gioia.  Pinsky emphasized the visceral nature of poetry, stating, “like dancing or singing, I produce it even when reading silently – it’s physical.”   Pinsky spoke of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Long Branch, New Jersey and how, despite the beauty of the cantorial singing, he grew bored sitting through three hours of praying on Shabbat.   If we are to start with The Sounds of Poetry, the title of his 1998 prose collection, we need look no further than Irish poet Micheal O’ Siadhail, whose 2002 poetry book, The Gossamer Wall, is composed of a sequence of poems about the Holocaust.

More after the jump.
Michael O’Siadhail (pronounced, mee-hawl o’sheel) is an Irish poet who has published ten collections of poetry. He was awarded an Irish American Cultural Institute prize for poetry in 1982 and in 1998 the Marten Toonder prize for Literature.  He has given poetry readings and broadcast extensively in Ireland, Britain, Europe and North America. He has been a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin and a professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Among his many academic works are Learning Irish and Modern Irish.

At the West Chester Poetry Conference, I spent over an hour with O’Siadhail speaking about poetry, writing, language, history, bearing witness, Judaism, Ireland, teaching – and I must say being in his presence, I felt I was in the company of a man who lives poetry and language viscerally in his body, through his body.  To spend just a few minutes in the company of O’Siadhail, is to spend time with a poet who embodies Pinsky’s dictum that poetry is physical.   A tall, intense man in his 60s, O’Siadhail exudes a nervous energy and was generous with his responses to my questions.  I was, at times,  overwhelmed by the spark – the daimon — of language that erupts from him – for it seems to come, as does his poetry, from a place of unabashed necessity.   Micheal O’Siadhail does not only write poetry, he lives and breathes poetry with his every word.

In The Gossamer Wall, which takes its title from Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, O’Siadhail has written a 124 page book filled with elegantly structured poems on the many facets of the Holocaust, inspired by testimonies such as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, and Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life. O’Siadhail spent over four years immersed in the literature of the Holocaust (which he lists in his extensive acknowledgments) researching his subject.  When I first came across O’Siadhail’s work, I thought – what voice could an Irish man contribute to post-Holocaust literature.  

LG: How did you, an Irish man, come to write The Gossamer Wall: Poems in Witness to the Holocaust?  

MO: There are two levels – visceral and intellectual – which inspired my to write about the Holocaust.  Intellectually,  my youth was overshadowed by writers such as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Bertolt Brecht, and Harold Pinter who were pessimistic and had lost faith in humanity.  I came from the other side.  During my youth in the 1950s I was searching for a celebratory note.  As a goy, I understand that you could feel that I’m muscling in on your suffering!  

On the visceral level, I had seen a survivor’s tattoo, a friend of mine – and this struck me deeply.  I also read Etty Hillesum’s memoir, An Interrupted Life – an account of her last years in Amsterdam before being sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Finally, there was an incident in Norway where I had studied as a student.  When I returned to meet a friend, I got off the train to be accosted by a group of drunken Neo-Nazis who began to heckle me.  I realized this could happen again.

LG: In The Irish Times, Patsy McGarry, writes The Gossamer Wall “is an exceptional achievement, evidence of the poet’s wounded fascination before such human evil and testifying to a painstaking labour of something akin to outraged love for all those who suffered.” The German critic Theodor Adorno famously said “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  Clearly, you don’t agree.  How did you need become embittered by your immersion in this literature?

MO: I am a prisoner of hope.  I wouldn’t let the Nazis have the last word.  I also identify very closely with the Jewish people. When I was on tour with the book, and visited many synagogues to speak about the book, I was very well received by the Jewish community. Happiness is, in the end, a decision. I’m not a grey person either.  If I were to give into despair, I knew I would become suicidal. And my wife was worried about my immersion into these dark realms.  So I took up sailing on the weekends as an antidote.

LG: I see you have read Philip Hallie’s, book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, about the Holocaust.  He was immersed in the archives and read about the operations done on children and he became suicidal.  Le Chambon was a remarkable community of French Huguenots who provided shelter to approximately four thousand Jews, many of them children, during the war. You devote an entire sequence of poems to telling the story of Le Chambon. Pastor Trocme was a pacifist who led the community’s movement of resistance.  

In the poem “Pastor Trocme”, you paint a portrait of the pastor in a small village in France called Le Chambon:

Death, death, death, his sigh on arrival,
‘I’m entrusted with helping a tiny village die.’
Through the ashen stonewalls of a presbytery
deep slanted windows ration their sunlight
on a Basque style tablecloth.  Yellow, red, black.

Can you discuss the tone of the poems in this volume?

MO: I wanted to strike a factual tone in The Gossamer Wall.  To discuss another man’s wounds is a very delicate thing.  I wanted to avoid histrionics, to tell the story with a flat voice.  This story does not need embellishment.  I employed a zig-zag internal rhyme scheme between the lines to create unity.   I wanted to get out of the way of the poems as much as possible.

LG: Are you a man of faith?

MO: I am a practicing Catholic.   But this is, in a sense, a sect of Judaism!  I love the Psalms and the Song of Songs, and I say the Amidah, the main Jewish prayer, daily.  

LG: It is evident you have a love affair with language and culture.

MO: I was trained as a linguist and can read in 10 languages, including Japanese.  How can a poet not love and celebrate language?  

LG: I find a lot of hope in the formal nature of the poems, particularly the sonnet sequence in the middle section on the camps called Figures.   The writer Sander Gilman said, “the language damaged in the Holocaust was the universal language of humanity, not merely the language of the Jews.”   Although some people might protest that writing about the Holocaust can aestheticize the experience of suffering, that the Shoah is untranslatable into language, I feel you have managed to bear witness in your formal poems.  

MO: Thank you.  I am, as I said, a prisoner of hope.  I have the madness of devotion too which costs nothing less than one’s life, if taken seriously.   I was fortunate that over 20 years ago, I was able to retire from teaching and devote myself full-time to writing.   After this book, I wrote a long erotic sequence called Love Life, about my 35-year relationship, a sustained romance, with my wife.  

LG: Contrary to Adorno’s bleak statement about not being able to write poetry after the Holocaust, Edward Jabes said we must write poetry but “with wounded words”.   This seems to be more along the lines of your project here in The Gossamer Wall.

MO: Yes, I’m holding up a community.  Hope involves other people.

LG: In your poem “Waking” you write:

No closure.  No Babel’s towering interview;
with each fugitive testimony to begin anew.

Memory a frequent waking out of forgetfulness;
Dissonant cries of silence refuse to quiesce.

The West Chester Poetry Conference allowed me to re-visit critical questions about poetry, community and bearing witness. Who will bear witness for the witness is a critical question we must, as Jews, and as citizens of the world, continue to ask ourselves. From Jewish poet Robert Pinsky to Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail I was a willing prisoner of hope celebrating language, culture and memory this spring.