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Ascent to Bethel

You can take the Jew to the wonder, but you can’t make him think

 

Six years ago, I spent a spirited, enlightening day with Refoel Franklin on his farm near the upstate New York town of Bethel, home to his Pelleh Poultry slaughterhouse and Bethel Creamery dairy. I had come there to write about Refoel’s fascinating life story for the magazine, and I remember my first question for him, as he stood against the backdrop of acre upon acre of picturesque farmland: “What are you doing here?”

But like a fliegel after shechitah, Refoel was unflappable. He answered with a story from one of the tours he gives, sometimes conducted in his rich heimishe Yiddish (picked up no doubt during his years spent in the Montana wilds). He leads visitors around the farm, explaining patiently what he does, from the making of hay to the spreading of manure and much more. They watch as he milks his cows for the second time daily — the first time was at six that morning.

“So this chassidishe Yid from Williamsburg enjoyed the tour very much, but when it was over he said to me, ‘Ich farshtay nisht ein zach. Farvoos hut ihr oisgevelt aza mudneh parnoossa — There’s one thing I don’t understand. Why did you choose such a strange livelihood?’ I asked him, ‘Zeit mir moichel, vos toot ihr ah maseh — Pardon me, but what do you do?’ He says he’s a building manager in the Bronx.

I said, ‘Ich hub oisgevelt ah mudeneh parnoossa?! Ihr dreytzich dorten in Bronx tz’vishen halb-nakete menschen mit shmitzige lift, und ich bin du mit’n niflu’os haBoireh. Vus iz mudneh — I chose a strange livelihood? You go around in the Bronx among half-dressed people and filthy air, and I’m out here surrounded by G-d’s wonders. What’s so strange?’”

That anecdote came to mind last week when our family capped a few days’ getaway in the Catskills with a brief visit to reconnect with Refoel at his Bethel homestead. I would say I returned to the scene of the grime, except that when you’re in the company of someone like farmer Franklin, even cow manure seems sublime. He says he asks visitors a hypothetical question: If you had to choose either gold or manure to be the one substance to exist in abundance on earth, which would it be? He says far too many people reflexively choose the glitter over the ostensible litter, but of course it’s the latter that makes life possible.

For most of us, the stirring words of the Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) about the path to love and fear of Hashem — “When a person focuses on His wondrous deeds and creatures and sees His endless, incomparable wisdom, he immediately loves and praises and has a powerful craving to know His great Name” — are just words. If we’re fortunate, we can relate to them a bit as we peer heavenwards from our urban backyards, straining to glimpse the stars through the air and light pollution.

For Refoel, that Rambam is an ongoing, lived reality. As we stand watching a few dozen of his cows huddled together, he remarks that if ever the baal davar comes along and puts a rebellious thought in his head, all he needs to do is contemplate a simple question: How is it that from these animals eating some grass, we get life-nurturing milk? He reviews all the steps in that miraculous process, and all of a sudden, the notion of disconnecting from Hashem becomes unthinkable again. Here, learning lessons in emunah from a cow is par for the course.

The farm is located on a road called Happy Avenue, and when I ask how that name came to be, Refoel explains that originally there were four Jewish families up and down this road, including the Hellers, from whom he bought his farm. The first-generation Hellers were two shomer Shabbos brothers from Lita who bought the farm together in the 1920s, with one brother operating a dairy farm on one side of the road and the other, a vegetable farm on the opposite side. On Motzaei Shabbos, the older folk in these families would gather in a barn for Melaveh Malkah, replete with spirited singing and imbibing of spirits. And when the non-Jewish locals would ride by and hear the ruckus, they’d say to each other, “It’s the Jews’ happy hour” — hence, Happy Avenue.

But now, a half century later, there’s little Jewish affiliation left in those families: The second generation still kept kosher homes and some semblance of Shabbos, but the third generation all intermarried. Even the Rambam’s prescription for ahavas Hashem isn’t a guarantee, because you can take the Jew to the wonder, but you can’t make him think.

As for the Franklins, they raised a family here on love of G-d and His beautiful world, and have benefited their fellow Jews too with their combination of high standards of kashrus and quality healthful food. And there’s still nowhere they’d rather be than Happy.

 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 824. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

 

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