Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

New York



My paternal grandparents, Sarah Siegel and Bennet Rosen, were married in Albany, New York, on Lag B'Omer (May 9, 1890). They were both immigrants. My grandfather came from somewhere in Poland or Russia to Troy, New York. I don't know where my grandmother was born, but she was living in Albany at the time of their marriage. They bought a small farm in East Nassau, New York (which is approximately twenty miles from both Troy and Albany). East Nassau was a small village with a population of about 200 or 300, with a shirt factory and farms surrounding the village.

I'm not sure why my grandparents chose to live there except that my grandfather was a dry goods peddler and that was available territory. My grandmother worked in the shirt factory. They were the only Jews there in the early days.

Sarah and Bennet Rosen had seven children, six boys and one girl. They were Louis, Morris, Albert, Solomon, Nathan, Rachel, and Samuel. Morris was my father. My mother, Lena Olkan, was born in Voronova, Vilna, Russia and immigrated to New York City at the age of eleven with her mother, Dora Schloposnik Olkan, and her youngest brother Louis. My maternal grandfather, Isaac Olkan (Olkanitzky), arrived earlier, followed by his son Harry, and, later his daughter, Rose. My grandfather Olkan worked as a presser.

By 1924, many more Jewish families arrived in East Nassau to purchase farms (aided by the Baron de Hirsch Society). My parents met when my mother came to spend a vacation with her brother Harry and his wife in East Nassau. Harry worked in a coat factory in New York City, with a man who owned a non-working farm in East Nassau (where the wife rented rooms for the summer). Lena and Morris met at a dance and were later married on September 5, 1925.

My father was employed at the General Electric plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. They moved, for a short while, to New York City where I was born on August 21, 1926. My father disliked big city life, and in 1927 they bought a thirty-acre farm in East Nassau.

In those days the village of East Nassau consisted of a small group of houses with two general stores (one owned by a Sephardic Jew and the other by an Ashkenazi), a post office, and a central school. The school had grades one through ten, with two grades to a classroom. The population was about 50 percent Jewish. There were also Jewish farms scattered in a radius of about ten miles. We lived one-half mile from the village. My father sold milk to a dairy and my mother sold eggs, butter, and cheese, which she made herself, to people from Albany who had "camps" in the area. The dairyman, the doctor, and one of the teachers were Jewish. This teacher was one of the best I ever encountered and he was liked and respected by everyone.

Some of the Jewish farms were only occupied in the summer when the owners arrived from New York City. Some, who had large old houses, rented out rooms to other Jewish families from New York. The wives and children stayed the summer and the husbands came for the weekends. Many of these children were my playmates. Whether the farms were worked or not, usually the Jews turned to second sources of income. Some were house painters, some took in roomers, and in my father's case, he became a cattle-feed dealer for Purina Mills.

Some of the non-Jews in the community were also recent immigrants in the years before World War II (Czech, Polish, German). The remainder of the residents were descended from long-time residents.

Became we had no close neighbors and I was an only child, my playmates were usually the cats and dogs on the farm, until I entered first grade at the age of five. We had no electricity or indoor plumbing until about 1932. I still recall the excitement when we first turned on all the electric lights at once!

After I adjusted to the school experience, I loved it. I felt no different from the Christian children until holiday time. When I stayed out of school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the teachers in the lower grades made it obvious by remarks that they resented having to help me make up lost lessons. At Christmas, I had very ambivalent feelings about singing carols, being in Christmas plays, and exchanging names for gifts (Chanukah was definitely not equated with Christmas at that time). I remember a minor scandal in the Jewish community one year when a Jewish boy was cast in the role of Jesus in the annual play and his parents did not object. There were times then when I wished that I had been born into a Christian family.

 I rarely went to the movies because the nearest theater was ten miles away and showed films only twice a week. Radio was the home entertainment medium--battery operated until we had electricity. Sports were school oriented--softball, volleyball, and ping-pong. In the winter the hill in the field next to our house was ideal for sledding. I had piano lessons because the wife of the school principal was a music teacher.

The synagogue was built about 1930 in the village with the support of the village Jews plus the scattered families in the ten-mile radius. There was no rabbi so the local shochet usually led the holiday services. There were no Shabbat services or daily minyanim. My parents were very involved in the synagogue, with fund-raising and social activities. At the same time, we had good relations with the non-Jews, Perhaps we interacted more because my father was a native and had fought in World War I.

There were isolated incidents of anti-Semitism that involved name-calling, but no violence or vandalism. I was called a "dirty Jew" one afternoon when I stepped in front of a boy getting on the school bus (I retaliated with a swift kick). Another time one of our neighbors, who was frequently drunk, came to visit and called my mother a "dirty Jew." He was promptly shown the door.

We visited my father's parents regularly and my Rosen uncles, who lived in Albany and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, visited us every weekend. My father's sister married a non-Jew and converted to Christianity, but she and her husband continued to have close ties with her parents and her brothers. A few other women in the community intermarried, but I recall only one family sitting shiva. I don't remember any of the Jewish men marrying out of the faith, nor were there any converts to Judaism.

My mother's parents arrived every May from the lower east side of Manhattan to stay with us until the High Holidays. I loved having them: My Bubbe spoke no English, so at an early age I learned to speak Yiddish. My Zaide became friends with a neighbor of my Rosen grandparents who was half-Indian. They would sit on his front porch and sample his "home brew."

Periodically, my Aunt Rose, my mother's sister, came from Brooklyn with my two cousins to visit. Also my mother's brothers and their wives and children would spend a week or so with us. I enjoyed having them because I had someone to play with all day long, and they brought an air of sophistication with them from the big city.

I did not see most of my school friends over the summer because we lived too far apart. The exceptions were the three daughters of the shochet, who lived about one half mile away. We spent every Shabbat afternoon together, and we are still friends today.

In the weeks before Passover our house was scrubbed from top to bottom. Usually there were only my parents and I at the Seder table. But one year we shared the Seder with another family who also had one daughter and who was my friend from school. Occasionally, my mother and I would take the night boat down the Hudson River to New York City to spend the Seder with my mother's family. (My father stayed home to take care of the farm animals). A few times when we traveled by train, we arrived just as the door was opened for Elijah.

Almost all the Jews I knew kept kosher homes and observed the High Holidays in shul. A kosher butcher came around once a week from the next larger village of Nassau, dispensing meat from the back of his truck. There was also a Jewish baker in that town. In the later years, my parents bought a car (a DeSoto) and then a truck; they then drove into the farmer's market in Albany every Thursday to sell chickens and eggs. After the market was over, they went to the Jewish section of the city to buy meat and bread.

During the Depression, we didn't have much money, but because we lived on farm produce we always had food. My clothes were hand-me-downs from a cousin in Brooklyn. I recall men walking the state road past our house, looking for work or sometimes just asking for something to eat. My mother always gave them a sandwich and a glass of milk. A few times, when it was hay harvesting time, my father hired them to help. One man from Canada stayed with us an entire summer.

The good aspect about living in a small town was knowing everyone for miles around and attending a small school--one of the teachers had also taught my aunt Rachel, so there was a sense of continuity and belonging. I had friends who were not Jewish, but even then I felt closest to my Jewish friends. The difficult times occurred when I reached adolescence and Gentile boys I liked wanted to date me. Of course, that was out of the question in our house. When World War II began, the community-Jews and Christians were involved in civil defense, rationing, and of course, men going off to fight and some to die. We were aware of bad times for the Jews in Europe, but not how bad they really were. I think that everyone somehow felt that the stories/news were exaggerated. Also, we trusted Franklin Roosevelt to do what was right! There were two German Jewish families who escaped in 1939 and came to a nearby community to live.

For my last two years of high school, I had to travel fifteen miles to a town where there were almost no Jews. After graduation, I entered Teachers College in Albany. There was a large enrollment of Jews, but mostly women because the war was still on. In my senior year, I met my husband-to-be, Charlie, who was recently discharged from the Army. After college graduation, I taught in a small Yeshiva in Albany. In 1948, Charlie and I were married and settled in Albany, where Charlie was in the furniture business. When our daughter, Rita, was born in 1949, I stopped working to raise my family. Our first son, James, was born in 1952, and our second son, Richard, was born in 1961.

My parents stayed on the farm for another five years and then sold it to move into Albany. The village where I grew up gradually "faded away" as far as the Jewish population was concerned. The children--my contemporaries--moved to the nearby cities to work and their parents slowly followed. The shul was eventually sold and converted to a private residence because the building was in need of repairs and there were no longer any members around.

My daughter remembers the farm with fondness, but my sons knew it only through their grandparents' recollections. My parents continued to visit East Nassau periodically and, after my father died in 1978, my mother went alone to visit old neighbors (non-Jews) until she died in 1989.

When our daughter was old enough for Hebrew school, we joined Temple Israel of Albany, where we have been members ever since. Our children were Bar and Bat Mitzvah there, our daughter was married there, and soon our first grandchild (a girl) will be named there. Never having attended Hebrew school, I learned to read Hebrew in Temple Israel. We are part of a very active Jewish congregation and socialize almost exclusively with other Jews. Our friends are our extended family.

The village I knew has changed. Our old house has been remodeled and the fields of my father's day are being allowed to revert to woodlands. The daughters of the shochet still own the house they inherited when their father died. They live in Brooklyn and Florida, but every summer they open the house to their children and grandchildren and we all have a reunion. The patina of forty years has, of course, graced the memories of my small-town life. But this is how I remember it.     

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