- a very nice tribute to a Franklin Commune founder by his niece
We were sitting on the front porch outside the house early one summer morning, more of a six foot wide deck than a porch, with no railings and no steps, the porch an idea incomplete in actualization, like so much in our lives then, in front of the main door to the living room, the door we never used in winter because it let cold air directly into the belly of the house, and never used in summer because it had no screen and let all the flies into the house. Everyone was there to begin the morning meeting on what was a warm, glorious, bright, sun filled summer day, Vermont at its stunning, fecund best. The dogs and cats cruised around the dangling legs of the people seated on the edge of the deck. They rubbed themselves and wove in and out of people’s legs, porch support posts, and standing children. They snapped at flies and lolled in the sun. They gazed down the road. It was going to be a scorching hot day.
The chickens scratched around looking for grain and bugs. The flies buzzed the half empty breakfast dishes. People were rolling and smoking cigarettes, or quitting smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee or giving up drinking coffee, finishing breakfast or fasting, everyone awaiting to start the meeting so we could get on with the day, at least twenty of us sitting or leaning on the edge of the porch, standing on or near the porch, watching the horses in the field, playing with the kids, brushing their long hair, petting the dogs and cats. A most beautiful Vermont summer morning. And there was much work needing to be done, fields to be planted and harvested, horses to be hitched, trips into town, machinery needing repair, construction and maintenance projects, animal husbandry projects. Kids care. House care. We had discussed this all in last night's meeting and were waiting now to make a few last minute accommodations, when far down the long driveway leading to the house we noticed a black Volkswagen driving slowly towards us, hardly kicking up dust.
No one we knew had a black Volkswagen. Natives of northern Vermont and hippies didn't do little Volkswagens. VW vans maybe, although parts were hard to come by, but not bugs. Never. We were Dodge Dart, Volvo, and Chevy people.
By the time the Volkswagen reached the sugarhouse we saw that there were New York plates on the car. By the time the VW reached the remains of the animal carcass and the car engine hoist in the side yard we could see that there were two men with dark clothing and heavy beards in the car, two men wearing big black felt hats, big black beards with curly sideburns, and long black coats. The car stopped right next to the porch. The engine was turned off. The men stepped out into the dust of our driveway and the bright Vermont sunshine in their long black coats and shiny black dress shoes. It grew totally still on the deck, all eyes drawn to the VW. No one said a word. You could hear the flies buzzing. Our mouths were opened in anticipation. This is not a dream, I thought, although I wondered for a moment.
"We are here to find the Jews," the shorter bearded man said.
"A CIA ruse," whispered Charlie under his breath.
"We want to know why so many Jews are joining communes," the taller bearded man said. "We are traveling around Vermont, visiting communes, trying to find out why so many Jews are drawn to live on them. We've been to Glover, and to Packer's Corners. The people there told us the Franklin commune was rich and prosperous.
One by one people started to drift away from the porch, molecules dispersing from the center. Tasks all of a sudden seem urgent. There were so many things to do, and talking to two crazy guys in long black coats from Brooklyn who are looking for Jews was not one of them. I looked around and within sixty seconds there were only three of us left on the porch, the only Jews on the commune.
"Why don't Hasidic women have equal rights?" Leslie asked them with her fierce, deep, and abiding feminist attitudes on florid display as she walked away before they could even answer.
"I don't believe in god," Hutcher said. You could tell from his pronunciation alone that he'd spelled it with a small letter gee.
"How can you not believe in God?!" one of the Hassids asked, quite genuinely shocked.
"Just a question of which myths and fairy tales you choose to believe in," Hutcher said, and he too walked away.
"So, how many Jew live on this commune?" the taller one asked me.
"Well, three," I said, "the gorgeous woman with the dark hair who just walked away from you, the guy with the bushy beard who just told you god didn’t exist and walked away from you, and me, who has a lot of work to do and is now also going to walk away from you."
"Wait, please," the tall one said earnestly, "we really do want to see your commune, to understand why you are living here."
I’m thinking about this when two year old Maia comes running over to me from around the corner of the house. She has a smile on her face stretching from ear to ear. Her hands look like they haven’t been washed in days. She is carrying a piece of toast with honey dripping from it. Her clothes are filthy. Her mouth is ringed with crumbs. A squadron of flies is following her looking for breakfast. She is still the cutest sweetest creature I have ever known. And more than that, she has clearly been sent to rescue me.
"They need you over there," she says, pointing to Barbara and Libby who are watching their little messenger and grinning while preparing to hitch the manure spreader to the old John Deere tractor. They have clearly sent Maia as their emissary.
"You are the sweetest little pumpkin I have ever seen," I say to her. "Come on, we're going to show these gentlemen our farm, okay." I look at Libby and wink.
"Okay. Let's show them Piggy and her babies first," says Maia, who I pick up into my arms as we walk from the porch toward the big garden.
The way our farm is laid out, in a pattern established generations before we ever set foot on it, like so many Vermont dairy farms, the barn stands between the house and the nicest vista on the property. The idea being that when you look out from the front of the house, from the kitchen, from the living room, or from the deck, what you would see is the barn. After all, the barn was the lifeblood of the family farm, and apparently you needed and wanted to see it when you look out from the comfort of your home. Industry before beauty. The problem, of course, is that if you are hippies and the massive red structure is all you see when you look out the window you know you are being cheated of a view. And in order to see the stream at the bottom of the meadow behind the barn, or to even see the rolling hill rising behind the stream into the hardwoods where the sun sets and the moon rises, you have to stand inside the barn with the door to the manure pile open.
We walk on the rutted dirt road between the house and the barn, me in my overalls and big boots, Maia her floral dress and flip flops pulling me along by the hand, the Hassids in their black long coats and no longer so shiny shoes beside us.
"The field you see in front of you is our vegetable garden,” I say, “we have over three acres of vegetables under cultivation. Lettuce, tomatoes, summer and winter squash, potatoes, onions, string beans and pole beans. We planted it by hand. We weed it by hand. We fight the bugs off by hand. No chemicals."
"It is so very, very beautiful," says one of the men.
"You are truly blessed," says the other.
And as I look out over the field in that moment it does feel as if we are blessed, although I have never thought of it that way. The sunflowers have started to bloom. Incredibly beautiful golden sunflower petals glisten in the morning sun. The light pouring trough the petals reveals their translucence. Drunken bees, drawn to the cornucopia of sunflower pollen, are stumbling into the aura of the flowers. In the movement of the sunflower heads on the tall stalks you sense the breeze.
At the end of the barn is the cattle run. At the bottom of the run are Piggy and her babies, a dozen of them grunting and rutting and crawling around on their mother who has been laying against the fence her belly fully distended. When she senses our approach she shakes off her slumber and the piglets to raise up on her stubby legs, alert for food. I show the Hassids the pigsty feeling a bit defensive.
“Run up to the garden and grab one or two of the tomatoes that have fallen on the ground, Maia, would you,” I say.
“We bred this pig,” I tell the Hassids. “The boar is in the barn. He’s just too big and nasty to let out. Takes seven or eight people and the better part of an hour to get him back in if he’s free. Tried a leash but couldn’t hold on to him. A very tough old man, Arnold. That’s the boar’s name.” I’m smiling. “We’ll sell some of these piglets before winter and slaughter the others for meat. They never cost us a penny. The first pigs were given to us. I know they’re not kosher, but they can be mighty tasty.”
“God is good,” says the tall one.
“You are richly blessed,” says the other
“This is so beautiful,” they say. “My God, look at this wonderful place you have here. It is a gift, a mitzvah, a sign from God. Look at those hills, those fields, those wonderful animals. Oh, God must love you so much!”
I like these guys. They see the place as it is, beautiful as it is. Even in its dirtiest aspect.
Maia comes running down to the pigpen. She throws the tomatoes inside the fence. There is joyous squealing and grunting before the tomatoes are turned into pork. She is laughing. I am laughing. The Hassids are laughing.
I take the Hassids inside the barn, show them the horses, and give them the independence from technology rap. They are attentive and appreciative. They seem to understand why this place and the choices we have made here make sense to us. I am struck by their enthusiasm. It is earnest and genuine. Our farm is, of course, spectacularly beautiful and they are seeing it for what it is. They do not see the warts, the mess, the broken down machinery. And if they do, they’re not saying anything about it.
“What magnificent animals they are,” says the shorter of the men. “And so many little ones. God must love you. It is a sign. A gift. You are so blessed. It is a marvelous wonderful marvelous wonder.” You gotta like this guy.
They ask me more about the farm, about how many people live here, about what we really do, about what inspires us. They are surprised we appear to have absolutely no spiritual or religious practices. They keep saying, “God loves you,” as if the fact they really believe it quite simply means it is true. I am a bit in awe of their affirmative positive energy. I show them the rest of the barn, the chickens, the hay we have harvested. I talk about self-sufficiency and political relevance. The dogs follow wagging their tails. I am aware of my dirty overalls, my hair, untended and uncut for months down around my shoulders. I see myself through their eyes, a rural Jewish giant who needs a shave with a beautiful two-year-old child in my arms who is still smiling across an entire continent.
“I really have to get to work fellows,” I say, “people are waiting for me.”
They nod. We start back toward their car. They continue effusive in their praise and enthusiasm. It is ridiculous, but I too am still smiling.
We reach the house. They shake my hand earnestly. Passionately. They climb into the VW.
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” I say, “good luck on your journeys.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” they say. “You have such a gift here. God is so good to you.” They are bubbling over with excitement as they climb back into their car. “Count your blessings,” they yell with that same ridiculous enthusiasm from the rolled down car window. “Remember God loves you,” they shout. “You are blessed one thousand times,” they say. “Remember to pray. Give thanks,” they say. They start their engine.
“Say a thousand prayers!” they are shouting. “Remember that God loves you. Tell God you love him! The world is good! The word is good. God is the word. God is good. Lay on your phylacteries every day! Remember!”
“You know,” I say, almost as an after thought I could have sworn I’d said to myself, “I’ve never put on phylacteries in my entire life.”
“What?” they shout in unison, “you have never worn teffilin? It is a blessing, a mitzvah, something that must be done. It is an honor, a duty to do so.”
It’s like a Charlie Chaplin movie. The car which had started to roll slowly forward down the hill screeches to a halt. It grinds backs up to the porch. The two guys in the black beards and coats jump out of the car and run over to me.
“But you are Jewish, yes?”
“And you’ve never laid teffilin?”
“Laying tefillin is a mitzvah, a blessing. Please, if you would be so kind, perhaps we could lay tefillin on you here and now.”
I think about it for all of two seconds. “Sure,” I say, “Why not?”
So the short one goes back into the car and takes out a beautiful deep blue velvet pouch with gold embroidered lettering on it. From inside the pouch he removes the phylacteries, the small black leather boxes with the lengthy leather straps attached.
“Let us say the morning prayers together,” the short one says.
“This will be good,” the tall one says. “It is an honor for us, a blessing to be able to do this for you.”
“Stand here,” one says. “Give me your left arm.”
For me this has all become a little embarrassing. But it is also strangely moving. I put Maia down. I stand in front of them facing the early morning sun arisen over the distant hills as they wrap the ritual boxes and thongs around my arm and fingers. They say words in Hebrew, rocking back and forth, eyes closed, enraptured.
“Repeat after me,” one says. And I repeat the sounds that seem so familiar, even if their literal meanings are completely obscure.
The prayers are soon over. My arms are unwrapped. The ritual objects are placed back in their ritual containers. I pick up Maia who has been standing there watching this entire process eyes wide. The men are smiling. Their eyes are shining. We shake hands again.
“God is good,” they say for the hundredth time.
“God is good,” I say back.
They get in the car. They start the engine and roll slowly down the driveway yelling out the windows, “God is good.”
I hold onto these images. The incongruity of the Hassidic men in their black long coats standing in the mess that is our commune that morning, seeing the beauty that I saw, perhaps even seeing more beauty than I saw, showing me the very beauty they have seen, opening my eyes to a kind of enthusiasm I do not usually feel. It is good to have had this moment of phylacteries being wrapped on my arms as the working day is about to begin. I take Maia’s hand. We walk together toward the manure spreader.
The men call back once more, a faint echo that runs up the driveway and thru our land to end in the hills behind us. “God is good. God is very good.” I hear it softly. I see them looking at one another in the VW. They are laughing joyously. Giddy.