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Excerpts from Billie Notkin Tannenbaum Oral History, as told to her granddaughter Sharon Bray:

My father [David Notkin] must have been influenced by A.D. Gordon. Gordon believed that you have to go back to Palestine to rebuild the land, and not just the land, but rebuild yourself, working the land. He glorified labor and working the land with your own hands. Well, by that time we were already a family of six children, he was no youngster, and he couldn’t take the family [to Palestine] there. Most of the ones who went there were youngsters, not married men with families. So he applied to the Baron de Hirsch Society for a farm in New Jersey. He bought one that was 250 acres, 30 miles south of Philadelphia. My cousin Nina Frank, her father, Barney, and brothers Morris and Simcha had already left Russia and come to the U.S. Her brothers Morris and Simcha also bought farms in New Jersey, but not her parents Barney and Civia, who lived on the Lower East Side with their seven children. Anyway, Sol and Abe used to live with the Frank family (on the Lower East Side), but my father had already bought the farm, so within a short time Sol was sent to the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School in Vineland, New Jersey. [We arrived at Ellis Island in 1909 from Belarus, and stayed for a short time with Barney and Civia.] Sol had gone ahead to the farm, and my parents sent him a letter telling him when we were coming. And I remember when we started out..-it was dawn –to get to the ferry to get to the railway in New Jersey. It was a whole day–those trains were not like our express trains. It was a long, long day’s trip with our bundles and everything, and finally we got to that station. And when we got off it was pouring, just teeming. It wasn’t a railroad station like today– it was just out in the open. A little distance away there was a private home. We walked over to that home and asked them if we could come in and just seek shelter out of the rain. They wouldn’t let us into the house, but they had this porch, so we stayed on the porch. My mother used to have these voluminous skirts, and’ got under her skirt (Iaugh)–that was my protection from the rain.

My brother, Abe, remained in the city. He was not going to join us on the farm. My father went ahead to what would be the main street (I don’t know what the name of the town was, I think Norma, N.J.), and my father found a grocery, apparently a Jewish grocery. He looked in and asked if anyone spoke Yiddish. They said yes, and he told them our plight. So there we were–six of us, Manya, Fanny, Lou, me, and my mother and father. And we said, “Look, is there anywhere we can stay over–we can’t possibly get to the farm tonight in the dark”. And this grocery man, who doesn’t know us from a hole in the wall, says,”Of course, you can stay over here”, and he gave us their bedroom. And ever since then I have always enjoyed the feel of fresh, clean linens. I mean these people just gave us their bedroom with beautiful white sheets. Of course our family became their steady customers, because that’s where my father always went to buy our food supplies. And the next day we got to the farm. The farmhouse was a typical farmhouse, with just a big coal stove in the kitchen, an iron sink with a pump, no heating upstairs (and of course it was colder up there than outside in the winter) and an outhouse, naturally.

The farm, almost from the beginning, was not productive. We had one horse, one cow, a lot of chickens, and grew potatoes, corn, some wheat for the cow and the horse, string beans, strawberries and tomatoes.

My brother, Lou, my sister, Manya and I attended school full-time, but also did many chores. The burden of the farm work was on my father and Sol. My mother was a kind, gentle, humble, beautiful woman, utterly devoted to her family and responsibilities. My oldest sister, Fanny, helped her. As the youngest, my assignment was to pick the strawberries, string beans and tomatoes. I ate half the crop while I picked them right from the field. I don’t know how much was left–big, luscious strawberries. And you know the big Jersey tomatoes. Sometimes as I was picking them I’d find a little crack and I’d say “That wouldn’t be good for shipping, so I’d eat it right then and there, sans salt, you didn’t need anything, they were luscious.

This farm was one of twelve farms built like a pie, twelve Jewish farmers. For our sake, this little community had a one-room schoolhouse of fresh pine, and I’ve always loved the smell of fresh pine. It was brand new ,with a potbelly stove, and one teacher. We were thirty pupils of all ages, grades 1 to 8. Everybody was in the same classroom, and I’ll tell you something, you read about people going to these tittle schoolrooms in the country, they’re a lot of fun. Everybody enjoyed it. We’re all there, and the teacher would say, “First grade come to class”. They were just front seats, we’d get our lesson, everybody heard. Everybody sitting in the back would either work or throw spitballs (laugh) There were five of us in our class, and f remember four of the names, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the name of the 5th person. One was Goldberg, there was Emma Wolinsky, Isaac Brooks and myself. So we’d go to the back of the room, and what do you think we would do–play games. At recess time we would go out to the woods, and we’d look for the “Trailing beautees”?? (Arbutus? FB)And the teacher with the older pupils would play croquet. Then the bell would ring and we’d all rush back. Everybody heard each other’s lessons, and you know, in one way you can learn a lot. And on the blackboard you’d see what all the answers were. And we’d celebrate the holidays. For Thanksgiving we’d decorate the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse became the focal point, like the community center. So occasionally we’d arrange some kind of program in the schoolroom. The name of our particular farming community, 30 miles south of Philadelphia, was called “Six Points”, and I’m wondering if it doesn’t refer to the Star of David. And we were eight miles from BeilIin( ??)where the main shopping was done. It was also chicken country. I mean if you mention Beillin to anyone they’d know that’s where the chicken farmers are.

Well, we had one horse who one day suddenly fell and broke his leg and had to be shot. We still had the one cow. We had bought the land sight unseen, and maybe if we saw it— how can you tell–it turned out to be very rocky and stony, and so it was very unproductive. We tried to raise all kinds of crops, but we were not making any money, and after a few years we just couldn’t go on. We had to abandon the farm, losing every cent of investment, and left to settle in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. [1912]

Linda M. Casson and Sharon P. Bray, 2022.