Want to get a new perspective on being Jewish? Try living on a farm in Maine.
I’ve been visiting an organic vegetable farm in the remote northeastern corner of Maine almost every day for the past ten years. When I’m there, I get caught up on the latest weather and insect reports, soil conditions, tractor repair techniques and the ins-and-outs of keeping the deer and rabbits at bay. I am well acquainted with the more than sixty varieties of Maine potatoes and the beauty of a wood-burning stove used for both heating and cooking. In the main house, protected from the wind and the rain, I’ll often grab a Gemara and get lost in the sea of Talmud for a while.
OK, I confess: I live in New Jersey and “commute” via phone to Maine. For the past decade, I’ve learned Torah on the phone with a farmer named Avraham Pearlman. I met Avraham at a Bar Mitzvah in Passaic, New Jersey. The ba’al hasimchah, a friend of mine, was Avraham’s “Partners in Torah” chavrutah (a phone-based partner study program sponsored by Torah Umesorah). Seated next to each other for the duration of the celebration, Avraham and I decided to start learning via phone as well.
A Day in the Life
I call Avraham at 7:45 a.m. six mornings a week for our daily combination of Talmud learning and wide-ranging discussion on life. By the time I call, Avraham has been up for hours. He wakes up at 3:30 a.m., davens Shacharit, and learns Daf Yomi, Chumash with Rashi, Hilchot Shabbat and mishnayot with his various phone chavrutot.
Avraham’s evening learning schedule is also rather full. He learns Chovot HaLevavot once a week, although he’s already gone through the entire work twice. Some evenings he learns mishnayot with his son Yaacov; other evenings he learns Orchot Tzaddikim or Michtav MeEliyahu.
When Avraham makes a decision, he means business. Entering the world of Torah learning and observance, together with the all-consuming responsibilities of managing a farm, is a monumental challenge. When I realized that I was just one of Avraham’s many daily chavrutot, I was humbled; my white-collar job as a financial planner requires a fraction of the effort required to run a farm, yet my Torah learning schedule was nothing compared to Avraham’s.
To bolster his learning skills, every winter, Avraham makes a pilgrimage to Monsey to learn at Ohr Somayach. At the yeshivah Avraham makes new religious connections and finds chavrutot to broaden his learning schedule.
In the Beginning
Thirty-five years ago, Avraham and his wife, Dina Bracha, drove to Maine (as Arnold and Bonnie) and bought a twenty-acre plot of land, which was covered in snow, for $800. At the time, property taxes were $14 a year. Arriving at their newly purchased property, the Pearlmans parked their van at the end of the road, unable to drive to their homestead on the unpaved road.
“The land was scrubby and poor,” Avraham says. “It had never been developed. We walked through two feet of snow with a hand bucksaw and an axe and started to clear the trees and bushes.” Although clearing the land took years, the Pearlmans weren’t discouraged. “We lived in the van and walked back and forth … basically camping. We started building a structure to live in,” says Avraham. “I had a book, The Homebuilt House, which showed how to build a house on wood piers. We got logs from the river; we built the root cellar from rocks that we gathered from the surrounding fields. We salvaged parts from a one hundred-year-old barn that was made without nails. Everything was recycled. Even the windows! The house cost us $1,400 to build.”
The couple had a windmill erected to generate electricity that could be stored in batteries. To this day, the Pearlmans are not connected to the electric grid, which would cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
The early years, says Avraham, were “subsistence farming,” a low-cost business practice. They used only hand tools and tried to live simply. “By the end of the winter, we were down to a ‘mono-diet’ [of] potatoes and maybe some dandelion greens,” Avraham says.
The city-raised couple survived against all odds to build a life and raise a family. Having a shared work ethic helped them succeed despite the constant challenges of poor soil, flooding, deep snow, and deer, rabbits and insects that would eat the produce.
“All of our water, whether for drinking, bathing or washing clothes [is] drawn from our well,” Avraham says. “We use about a gallon for a sponge bath. The location for a well was divined with the help of a man who claimed to be able to locate underground water with a forked stick. He held the stick and walked around the property. When the branch started bouncing up and down violently that was an indication there was water there. We drilled and found water coming through the sandy substrate.”
In 1973, Delia was born on the farm, followed by Liza in 1978, who died of crib death. Part of the farm was used to form a family cemetery where Liza was buried. One year later, Yaacov was born.
“The Jewish Presence Was Always There”Despite their limited Jewish knowledge, the Pearlmans always felt different from their non-Jewish neighbors, and observed some of the Jewish holidays. “Our children were the only Jews in school,” Dina Bracha recalls. “People would come by to buy vegetables [from our farm]. But we always remained outsiders.”
Yaacov, now in his twenties, remembers that “the Jewish presence was always there.”
“We knew when it was Yom Kippur,” says Yaacov. “We had a Seder—we just didn’t have much knowledge. I always had an innate pride in who I was; we were different from everyone else anyway: our diet [vegetarian], no television, and I was home-schooled on and off,” he says. Yaacov, who is religious, is currently married and lives in Passaic.
Romantic would-be farmers came and went over the years, ultimately succumbing to the comforts of modern life. The Pearlmans stayed because the farm was “real,” a refuge from the materialistic rat race of contemporary society. “We didn’t have entertainment or vacations. The struggles were monumental,” says Avraham. “The farm was very consuming.”
Ten years ago, when Avraham was fifty, “all my illusions shattered,” he says. “It was a gift of clarity from Hakadosh Baruch Hu. All the farming, all the accomplishments, what were they leading to? I didn’t feel a sense of movement anymore. We had taken it as far as it would go. A huge part was missing. I had nothing to really look forward to any more. Nothing was really permanent, uncompromised, a real foundation. At the end of the day, what was the real difference between what we were doing and a nine-to-five job?”
Avraham started driving to an Orthodox shul an hour and a half away in Bangor, Maine, looking for something to fill his void. He eventually obtained a few cassette tapes with lectures by the late Rabbi Avigdor Miller, and heard truth emanating from them.
Avraham contacted Rabbi Miller, and maintained a relationship with him that lasted until the rabbi’s death in 2001. “Rabbi Miller asked me three questions when I first spoke with him,” Avraham recalls. “‘Are you married? Do you have a job? [and] Why do you live there?’ [After my response,] I saw from his silence that he understood and he never asked again.”
“I gave him three reasons why we stay on the farm. First, we can’t just give the key back to the landlord—our whole lifestyle is tied into the farm. We’d have to buy a [new] place to live and earn a lot of money to sustain ourselves. We have a lot fewer bills living on the farm than most frum people who live in an urban setting,” says Avraham. “Second, the farm is fertile ground for working on the great product of bitachon—all of the failures and successes we have—losing an entire crop to deer and insects, or having the topsoil, built up over thirty years, wiped out by flooding last year .… A person comes to realize that his greatest failures become his greatest successes; it all depends on how he views it. And third, you love what you put your effort into. We’ve been able to take some of the worst soil in the world—gravel and rocks on top of marine clay—and turn it into … some yields that are probably world records.”
Farming is the perfect mashal (metaphor) for life, according to Avraham. He uses his daily tasks to increase his awareness of his life goals. A tiny seed is planted in the ground, but a hundred things can go wrong on the way to your dining room table. Too much rain rotted the potatoes one year, and another year, pests destroyed the entire apple orchard. Equipment failure is a constant challenge, requiring endless improvisation and ingenuity. Weeds proliferate out of nowhere and demand removal. Similarly, says Avraham, our purpose in life is to perfect our character traits. Innumerable challenges arise, and we need to harness our spiritual and emotional energy toward constantly improving our character. “A Yid has to do his hishtadlus…. We have a job in this world to return the neshamah at least as good as we received it. No, that’s not good enough. We have to return it better.”
Avraham envisions building a yeshivah for teenagers or young adults on his property, combining Torah learning with work on the farm. But currently, there just isn’t enough time in the day to organize the project.
Some years ago, I visited the Pearlmans over Labor Day Weekend. The first thing that impressed me was how long the drive was from New Jersey! Portland, Maine is only the halfway point. Of the ten-to-twelve hour drive from my home in Passaic, the last hour and a half is off the main highway, the earthy and remote passageway to the county of Washington, one of the poorest in the United States. The farm is so far north and east in Maine that it is only an hour’s drive from New Brunswick, Canada. Wages in the county are low, and the locals improvise by deer hunting and burning the abundant firewood to keep warm.
After the long drive, I finally arrived at the entrance to the mile-and-a-half long road leading to Crossroad Farm. I drove through dense underbrush to a clearing marked by several buildings, scattered vehicles and a towering windmill marking the high ground. I entered the main house, which had the cozy ambience of a well-worn ski cabin, as the woodsy aroma of the wood-burning stove seeped into the living area. I soon discovered that Dina Bracha is a gourmet cook. My plate looked like a floral arrangement by Picasso and smelled like the Garden of Eden.
I spent a week helping the Pearlmans with the endless work of running the farm. I picked potatoes and string beans, and watched Dina Bracha race around the farm both in her golf cart and on foot, washing vegetables and packing boxes for the market with the gusto of a schoolchild at recess. Avraham’s job is, simply, everything. He repairs fences and vehicles, decides which crops to grow, tills the soil with his tractor, arranges for deliveries to restaurants as far away as Bar Harbor (a two-hour drive) and constantly prioritizes a heavy workload.
By the time I went to bed each night, I was so exhausted I drifted off into a delicious drunken sleep.
Committed to Orthodoxy
In some ways, the Pearlmans believe that life on the farm may be more conducive to religious life. “You can have all the introductions to Judaism … a Shabbos meal … but a lot of people feel turned off by their experience with urban Yiddishkeit,” says Dina Bracha. “Many people think it’s impossible to lead a Torah lifestyle with no electricity, no plumbing, [no] showers or running water and no community,” Avraham adds. “But we have less of the distractions of modern society here. It might be intimidating to live in an uncluttered house—without a computer! You have to work on enjoying your mind.”
Of course, the Pearlmans obviously lack the amenities that come with living in a Jewish community. “After the radical change of becoming authentically frum, we have no real friends in the area,” says Dina Bracha.
“To sustain this lifestyle, to live as a committed Orthodox Jew without a community support system is only possible if one has absolute clarity that there are no other solutions,” says Avraham. “Without that level of total clarity, it’s too hard.”
Indeed, Dina Bracha admits that adjusting to Orthodox life was no simple matter. “Learning to farm—that was easy,” Dina Bracha says. “We were so ripe for that. That part was natural. But moving into [a religious] lifestyle—that part is not natural. That’s a challenge!”
Mr. Jaffe lives with his wife, three children and a cocker spaniel in Passaic, New Jersey. During the day he works as a certified financial planner.