REMEMBER THE PAST

My father’s East Side farm

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A number of years ago, my friend and colleague Eleanor Horvitz and I wrote two articles for the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association’s Notes about farms owned by Jewish families in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts. We interviewed family members and friends who remembered the original farmers. We spoke to people who spent vacations on these farms – taking in summer boarders provided an additional source of income for farmers and offered an affordable experience for city folk. We wrote about group outings that were hosted by farm families.

 

One farm we did not mention was my father’s farm, and therein lies my story. 

My father, Bernard Segal (better known as Beryl), wore many hats. Although an immigrant, he mastered English, majored in biology at Brown University, and earned a master’s degree in entomology from the University of Rochester and a degree from the Rhode Island College of Pharmacy, all while supporting his wife and child. 

For three decades, Beryl Segal was The Miriam Hospital’s chief pharmacist. He visited the floors every day and was often hailed along the way by patients needing a word of cheer, a visit, or a schmooze.

To children at the Summit Avenue School, he was the man in the white uniform who appeared at recess time to see his grandchildren and greet their classmates, who rushed to the fence, shouting, “Hi Zayde!” when he appeared  – until banished by Miss McGwynn, the principal.

He composed poems and stories in Yiddish for children, wrote weekly columns for the Jewish Herald and articles for RIJHA’s Notes, and was, in fact, one of the seven founders of RIJHA.

During the week, for several years, he taught bar mitzvah classes at Temple Beth-El, in Providence, and on Saturdays discussed Talmud and Torah with his good friend Rabbi William Braude, until his death.

At heart, however, my father yearned to be a farmer.

The Segal “farm” was located on half of a 52-by-80-foot family lot next to their home on Overhill Road in Providence. A huge flowering cherry tree dominated the other half of the lot.  Each spring, my father planted rows of carrots, green beans, tomatoes, scallions, corn and radishes. Each summer he harvested radishes, green beans, a scallion or two, and a few stunted ears of corn.

He refused to build a fence to keep out bunnies and chipmunks. Nor would he use pesticides or artificial fertilizers because they endangered insects. He would say, “When we need food, we can go to a store. Nature’s creatures have no markets they can patronize. If they are hungry, let them eat.” And they did.

One year the corn was attacked and almost decimated by a small black insect. I called the Department of Agriculture to ask what could be done. How many fields of corn? I was asked.  One. Where is this field located? In Providence. Where in Providence? 

Was that a note of incredulity I detected in his voice?

When I replied, “On the East Side,” the incredulity became anger as he shouted, “On the East Side, NOBODY grows corn!!” And slam went his receiver.

The small black insects had a field day (no pun intended) and all the other insects and the bunnies came to eat their fill. But my father’s green beans and radishes, and his few scallions, still flourished. The green beans he passed on, but his radishes and scallions, with a slice of good cissel bread – who could ask for anything more.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360. The RIJHA office and library is now open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to noon and 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., as well as the second Sunday of each month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.