Living the Legacy


Jews and Agricultural Labor

Unit 1 , Lesson 6

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

Jews and Agricultural Labor

Notes to teacher: 

This lesson on Jewish agriculture in America includes several themes. Teachers may choose to focus on just one, several, or all of the following ideas.

  1. First, Jewish agricultural pursuits are a little-known part of American and American Jewish history. The accompanying essay addresses four periods in this history, from the late 19th century to today. This theme can be explored exclusively, as well as by comparing primary sources on agricultural labor with industrial labor (see Lesson 1 and Lesson 2).
  2. A second theme addresses questions about personal health regarding food choices.
  3. Thirdly, the lesson explores the connections between food and Jewish spirituality and ethics. Again, comparisons can be made with Jewish values about labor that are explored in Lessons 1 and 8. Closely connected to this theme are ideas about Jews’ connection to the land and to each other in community, as expressed in American Jewish farmers’ historic settlement practices. Another aspect of this theme is the question of popular attitudes toward immigrants in the dominant culture, which could be explored with students in conjunction with Lesson 7.
  4. The fourth theme in this lesson explores values about the treatment of laborers and the religious significance of agricultural labor. This last theme is easily tied in with some of the issues discussed in Lesson 8, which looks at questions of the value of work in traditional Jewish sources.

Teachers should be sure that students understand what is meant by “utopia” and “utopian.” Our intention here is to acknowledge that utopian ideals may not be achievable but may, nevertheless, be important to hold up as ideals toward which we are working. A synonym for “utopian” is “edenic.” Like the Garden of Eden, utopian values may be beyond our reach yet psychologically worthwhile to hold onto. Utopian values guided the formation of 19th and 20th century Jewish farm communities, and in some cases may also have been responsible for the ultimate downfall of those communities.

Depending on your students’ (and your own) experience studying traditional Jewish texts, you may wish to give some background on the different sources featured in Part I of the lesson. Teachers may also find it helpful to brainstorm a list of values on the board or a large piece of paper so students have something to choose from as they categorize each of the texts.

Some teachers have suggested to us that the text from Avot de Rabbi Natan, while a very rich text, is difficult to teach to kids or teens because they find the breastfeeding imagery too distracting. You may want to take this recommendation into consideration when selecting texts from the Jewish Statements about Food to use with your students.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Jews and Agricultural Labor." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <>.