For my parents, as for many New Yorkers, the countryside was invested with almost magical healing and protective powers: it was the only safe place for young children to spend the summer months, especially in the years when polio threatened all of us and seemed to lurk with greatest menace in crowded urban areas. Those perennial enemies, city dirt and city crowds, were deemed especially dangerous in hot weather; and the wholesome features of country life, including fresh milk and eggs, obligatory exposure to sun, and brisk walks, were expected to extend their benign blessings throughout the bleak winter months of cold and snow. We were growing youngsters, after all, two five-year-old boys—twins—and our seven-year-old sister.
My father had opened his dental office only two years before, when we arrived in New York from Jerusalem, but those were hard times for any fledgling practice, and he was in addition burdened by heavy medical expenses for my mother, whose health was uncertain. By the spring of 1939, the economy was still fragile, and so were household finances, but my parents were determined that we children would not be confined to the city in July and August. As summer approached, my father’s search for suitable accommodations took him on long weekend drives, without the rest of us, through farming areas in New Jersey and northern New York. He found several cash-poor farmers eager to rent rooms to a city family for the summer months, but few who could meet his standards for hygiene, accessibility, and plausible cooking. His choice fell at last on the Grinbergs’ farm, a ramshackle place off a meandering dirt road in northern New Jersey, not far from a lake. The Grinbergs had immigrated after the first World War from the Ukraine, fleeing pogroms and revolution, assisted by one of Baron de Hirsch’s charities to settle on the land and become small farmers. Despite their grinding toil and the Baron’s grants, their farm, like so many others at the time, was sinking under the burdens of debt, unsalable livestock, and low prices for milk and produce. We city children had no idea, of course, that the Grinbergs were struggling: we saw green fields and rejoiced as if we’d arrived at some earthly Eden.
There was a large old wooden house with a sagging porch and white painted walls, peeling in places, shaded by a few trees. Beyond, there were broad grassy fields loud with summer insects, in which cows and two horses grazed, confined by barbed wire and shaky post fences. Nearer the house, chickens scratched and squawked underfoot, and two cats, plump with rodent meals, emerged from somewhere to give us a condescending feline inspection. Most alluring to me [End Page 66] were the barns, one with a vast hayloft, dimly illuminated by shafts of sunlight slanting down through holes in the roof. In a smaller outbuilding, apparently not much used, I discovered dusty wagons and buggies, festooned with swaying cobwebs. I’d climb up to the cracked leather seats and lose myself in the fantasy of holding the reins, urging on the horses, clattering down the dusty roads. Those barns were to become a favorite destination and playground, their secret spaces and strong, sun-warmed scent of horses, hay, and old leather at once unfamiliar and irresistibly attractive.
Our family occupied several neat, sparsely furnished rooms at one end of the house, and there was at least one other family of summer tenants at the other. Mrs. Grinberg, an elderly large woman I never saw without an apron, wore her gray hair in a knot, spoke rudimentary Yiddish-accented English, and spent most of her days in the kitchen, cooking old-country kosher meals. Everything about her was faded, from her shapeless cotton dresses to the split old shoes she wore. Farmer Grinberg was out in the fields from first light till evening; we saw him at close hand only when he’d come to the barn to yoke his horses to farm machinery or wagons of hay. Sunburned and wrinkled, he wore clean but frayed...