Jewish farmers to recall life on ‘their land’
In 1938, Wolf Bienstock fled Nazi Germany, leaving behind a prosperous men’s clothing company. Three years later, after being chased through Belgium, France, Spain, and Portugal, he and his family landed in New York.
In 1942, Bienstock traded his tailored suit for a pair of jeans and became the owner of a five-acre chicken farm on Casino Drive in Howell, NJ. The driving force behind the enterprise was his 22-year-old son Josef.
Today, Wolf’s grandson Marshall, 61, continues to operate the farm, which has grown to 40 acres and now boasts soybeans as its featured crop. Josef, 92, still helps out, running errands and occasionally assisting his son in the fields.
On July 14, Josef will tell his story at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County. He’ll be joined on the program by Dr. Mark Sisskin of Ocean and other local farmers. Sisskin’s family had its own farm less than a mile down the road from the Bienstocks, and Mark and Marshall have been lifelong friends. Both boys attended the Farmingdale Jewish Community Center — then located at the intersection of Casino Drive and Peskin Road — the synagogue where their families were members. Marshall also attended day school in Lakewood for a time.
The Bienstock/Sisskin appearance ties in with the museum’s current exhibit, “The Land Was Theirs: The Story of the Jewish Farmers of Monmouth County.” In addition to the talk, the museum will rescreen a documentary film — also titled The Land Was Theirs — that was cowritten and codirected by the late Gertrude Wishnick Dubrovsky. A former farm girl, she is now recognized as one of the foremost historians focusing on Jewish farm life in New Jersey. The film was previously shown when the exhibit opened on March 20.
In a phone interview, Marshall told NJJN about a significant interruption in the farming history of the Bienstock family: “In the early 1960s, when I was about 10 or 11, the bottom fell out of the egg market, and the Jewish farmers — most of whom were chicken farmers — were hard-pressed to make a living.”
The Bienstocks held on for a while, until, Josef recalled, “We sold our last chicken in 1963.” After that, the farm went dormant, although the family continued to live on the homestead.
Through all this and his college career at the University of Delaware, where he majored in agricultural engineering, Marshall clung to a dream that he could revive the family business.
One effort to fulfill that dream involved converting the enterprise to a “dirt farm,” raising crops like rye and wheat at first, and corn, soybeans, and hay later on, using no hired workers. The approach succeeded and, Marshall said, “in 1972, I began to rent added acreage.”
Nevertheless, since he and his wife, Janis, have no children, he acknowledged, “I will probably be the last Bienstock to farm this property.”
The Sisskin family farm was located on Lemon Road in Howell. “We had about 12 acres, but half of it was thickly wooded,” the 61-year-old physician told NJJN. “We didn’t need a lot of space, since we concentrated on chickens and eggs, with no planted crops.”
“It was a great way to grow up,” he said. “There were few distractions. I’d come home from school, do my homework, then go out and help my dad with his chores. We had good bonding time.”
Farmers learn to be self-sufficient, Sisskin said. “We had to handle our own electrical repairs, and plumbing. I learned a lot of things I continue to use.”
Unlike his friend Marshall, Sisskin never longed for a future in farming; his dream, he said, was always “to be a doctor.”
Still, Sisskin admits to an occasional need to return to the fields, where he can get in touch with his farming roots. “When that happens,” he said, “I visit my friend Marshall and sit with him on his tractor.”