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First Jewish farmers in Delaware

Imagine the shock a parent would experience. You’re at your desk, at work. The postal carrier brings in a package. You open it. It contains the dead body of your daughter. You had no idea she had even died.

Surely one of the most haunting events in the long life of Isaac Jacob Benioff.

Benioff was born, we’re going to assume, in 1840, in Kyiv, Ukraine. His 1934 obituary in the Morning Call [Allentown, PA] listed him as 92, which would put his birth date in 1842. The 1900 census listed him as being born in 1849. But his gravestone says 1840.

Benoiff learned the fur trade at age 12. He first turns up in the record in 1873, when his son Benjamin was born in Russia, to Benioff’s first wife Molly. Benioff’s second son Alexander was born 5 years later, this time in Poland, and after that Molly drops off the radar.

Isaac married his second wife Anne (born Fierkelman in 1864 in Rostov, Russia) somewhere between 1878 and 1883, when George Henry was born. Their second son, David, like George Henry, was likewise born in Russia.

Isaac Benioff in 1931.
Isaac Benioff in 1931.

The family came to the USA in 1886 (1900 census), persecuted by the pogroms back in Russia. Benioff told the Morning Call in 1931 that initially as an immigrant to America he worked as an itinerant tailor, carrying his sewing machine on his back from customer to customer, sewing at the customer’s home. 

Isaac and Anne’s first child born in America, Bertha, was born in Cleveland, 3 years after the family arrived from Russia. The next child, Ida Lea, was born in New York City in 1891, where the family lived for the next 6 years. Isaac opened a retail fur store in Manhattan during this period.

Their fifth and last child, Fred, was born in 1892. Anne died in 1894. By this point in his life Isaac still has 5 children living at home. He wastes little time getting married in 1895, a third time, to another Russian immigrant. Ida (born Bayliss) was born in 1864, coincidentally or not, like Isaac’s recently departed Anne. He’s now 57, she’s 33. 

The couple soon conceives Sarah, born the following year. But she’s sickly from the start. And so Isaac & Ida remove to Viola, DE in 1897. The hope is that the country air will help Sarah (who likely had tuberculosis). Why Delaware? The Jewish Agriculture Society of NYC is making low cost loans available encouraging New Yorkers to move to targeted areas as part of a ‘back to the soil’ movement.

But Isaac’s a farmer only by happenstance, a furrier by trade. And so he continues trips back to his West 14th Street shop in NYC regularly to sell furs, to keep the farm afloat. Then, Isaac brings sons Al & Ben (remember first wife Molly?) into his wholesale fur trade in 1898. 

Isaac and Ida’s daughter Clara is the first child born on the new Viola farm, in 1898, followed by Herman in 1900. Ida’s sister and brother-in-law buy a nearby farm that year. 

That brings us to 1902. Isaac’s at his Manhattan shop. A package arrives from Delaware. “Upon the breast of the dead child was a note from his wife,” reported the Baltimore Sun. “She wrote that she had been unable to find a Jewish cemetery at Viola and had accordingly sent the body to New York. The little corpse is now at the morgue, and because it was shipped in from another State there may be complications before a death certificate can be issued.” 

Dear reader, I can’t tell you what happened to poor Sarah’s remains. There’s no further record of her. 

Isaac and Ida continue building their family in Viola. Shim Simon Benioff was born 1903, Abraham Jacob Benioff in 1906.

Isaac’s 12th and final child, Ida’s 6th, died shortly after birth, unnamed, in 1910.

In 1912 Isaac’s son Fred opens Benioff’s Furs in Allentown, PA. All Isaac’s sons, in fact, eventually go into the trade. Two years later Isaac, Ida, and the remaining children at home in Viola pick up one last time and relocate permanently to Allentown. 

The first Jewish farmers to move to Delaware had lived there 17 years.

Fur coat from Fred Benioff's shop in Allentown, PA. 1913 Allentown postcard in background.
Fur coat from Fred Benioff’s shop in Allentown, PA. 1913 Allentown postcard in background.

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