By Arno Rosenfeld
On the wrinkled sheet of paper, a black-and-white Mike Tabor looks away from the camera with a grimace. Through the graininess of the tiny photograph you can make out his full beard and shock of white hair jutting out from under a baseball cap. The photo accompanies a dense block of text that starts: “Michael Tabor — Tireless activist, organic farmer, justice-seeker, husband, father. The ultimate pot-stirrer. A non-conformist.”
But unlike most obituaries, this one is written in the present tense. And Tabor is seated at his dining table, looking at the piece of paper.
Last winter, Tabor went to the doctor with back aches. Routine tests flagged an irregular heartbeat and Tabor was hospitalized. He quickly underwent surgery to replace a damaged heart valve, a procedure that requires “turning off” the heart for several minutes.
Tabor didn’t know if he would live.
At some point during the eight-hour surgery, Tabor said that he perceived a conversation in which God asked what he’d done with his life to make his children proud and to make the world a better place.
Though the recovery has been long, Tabor, is back to holding court in his Maryland home and overseeing the vegetable harvest at Licking Creek Bend Farm in southern Pennsylvania. In many ways, it’s business as usual for the 79-year-old Tabor, who has split his time between the farm and home since the 1970s.
But the brush with death spurred Tabor to start putting his life down in writing, attempting to answer the question posed to him during the surgery: What has he done with his life?
The would-be obituary, penned by a friend for a party held shortly after the successful surgery, hits the highlights: Tabor helped create the Freedom Seder in the late 1960s, co-founded the Fabrangen chavurah and Jewish environmentalist group Shomrei Adamah, and created the now-defunct radical Jews for Urban Justice and the still-active Maryland political organization Progressive Neighbors.
Rabbi David Shneyer, who has known Tabor since the 1960s, said Tabor has had unique influence during his decades of work.
“He’s a sage of Jewish activism,” Shneyer said. “What can I say? He’s a pleasure to hang out with and he’s a pleasure to get arrested with.”
Tabor was raised in a “Conservadox” household in Brooklyn. His undergraduate experience at SUNY Oneonta in upstate New York was his first exposure to rural culture, as the college drew students from two-year agriculture school programs.
Those students didn’t get much respect from Tabor and his friends back then. “If you had told me then that I was going to become a farmer, I would have been in complete disbelief,”
After Oneonta, Tabor enrolled in graduate school at the University of Maryland, planning to become a teacher. The 1963 March on Washington took place on the weekend after Tabor’s first week of classes.
“I went to it and everything became irrelevant after that,” he said.
A few weeks later, Tabor invited a black classmate to grab beers together in College Park, Maryland.
“They wouldn’t serve him because it was all segregated,” Tabor said. “I was shocked coming from New York City — I didn’t know I was going into the Deep South. I immediately got involved in everything: the sit-ins, working in the South on voter registration.”
Tabor was active in Hillel during college and continued leading an observant Jewish life during his first few years in Washington, D.C.
“Throughout all the civil rights involvement, for a long time I kept on going to shul on Saturdays,” Tabor said. “I kept a strong identity but I was really unable to fuse that identity with a sense of change happening in the world.”
It was in this context that Tabor headed north with a
contingent of fellow Jews looking to reconnect with the faith on their own terms.
“It came out of yiddishkeit and a basic feeling that we were going in the wrong direction as a community of Jews,” Tabor said. “What’s this heritage about? Where’s it coming from? Why don’t we dig deeper?”
On the Farm
Tabor started farming in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s as part of the “Diaspora kibbutz” movement, helping create a communal farm with Jewish activists from Washington, D.C., who wanted to escape the bleak political scene during the height of the Vietnam War.
“It was the time of communes,” Tabor said. “The war didn’t want to seem to end, no matter what we did, and there was an attempt to look at other avenues for resolving our mental and existential distress.”
Tabor decamped to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and set about creating a sustainable community. The group wrote to the Baron de Hirsch Society, which helped develop Jewish agriculture in pre-state Israel, for advice, and sought guidance from a handful of similar communities in New Jersey. In the end, it was a short-lived effort kept afloat with funds from Tabor’s side job as a columnist in the Jewish press and paid speaking engagements.
“We didn’t know how to make a living farming,” Tabor said.
But Tabor stayed, struggling through a series of lean years to build what is now a successful fruit and vegetable operation. The farm raises its harvest “naturally,” but eschews the organic label, and accepts food stamps and even the occasional barter.
In recent years, Tabor has taken on a mentoring role for younger Jewish farmers. He said he deepened his relationship with Judaism through closeness to the land.
“As we became more and more involved in farming, I
realized there were overlays with the holidays,” he said. “We were a nomadic people, and then became a pastoral people, and so Pesach is the barley harvest and then 49 days later Shavuot is the wheat harvest.”
But even with a slight uptick in the number of young Jews getting into farming, American Jews remain a decidedly urban people. Tabor recognized early on that he was largely on his own at the farm.
“Right from the beginning, it was very difficult being in a rural Protestant area,” Tabor said. “You learn the taboos of rural culture: You don’t talk politics and you don’t talk religion, so it was very difficult to talk about the things I believed in.”
The isolation got him interested in the success of Jewish peddlers, who used to frequent rural areas like the one where his farm is located.
“A peddler’s purpose was to have a 50 mile circuit, get back by Shabbos so he could be with other Jews who spoke Yiddish, save money and bring his family over,” Tabor said. “There’s something very noble about that to me. That’s very appealing.”
As part of the writing project he began after his heart surgery, Tabor has been researching the history of peddlers in his county and nearby areas.
Tabor believes the story of these peddlers, who may have traversed some of the same roads he uses, is being lost to history. Peddling, he said, offered new immigrants a path to economic stability — spend a few years on the road before opening a store of one’s own — while exposing rural Americans to a variety of goods they otherwise wouldn’t have had access too, especially in the case of women and African Americans often shut out of traditional retail consumerism.
“It’s a remarkable history of Jew and non-Jew getting benefit from each other in a positive way,” Tabor said.
Tabor is on the farm most months of the year and attending conferences and traveling for his book research during the off season. And if he has any second thoughts about having worked a life of manual labor interspersed with political agitation, well past the age that most of his peers have retired, he doesn’t show it.
“Had I gone through the normal path of taking a job and then in my 50s retiring and, I don’t know, being in Florida, what would I do? I just can’t conceive of that,” he said. “It’s a good way to die early.”
Arno Rosenfeld is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. A longer version of this article first appeared in Washington Jewish Week, an Exponent-affiliated publication.