Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains

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"Calof’s [story] has the ‘electricity’ one occasionally finds in primary sources. It is powerful, shocking, and primitive, with the kind of appeal primary sources often attain without effort.... it is a strong addition to the literature of women’s experience on the frontier." —Lillian Schlissel

In 1894, eighteen-year-old Rachel Bella Kahn travelled from Russia to the United States for an arranged marriage to Abraham Calof, an immigrant homesteader in North Dakota. Rachel Calof’s Story combines her memoir of a hard pioneering life on the prairie with scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background and show her narrative to be both unique and a representative western tale. Her narrative is riveting and candid, laced with humor and irony.

The memoir, written by Rachel Bella Calof in 1936, recounts aspects of her childhood and teenage years in a Jewish community, (shtetl) in Russia, but focuses largely on her life between 1894 and 1904, when she and her husband carved out a life as homesteaders. She recalls her horror at the hardships of pioneer life—especially the crowding of many family members into the 12 x 14’ dirt-floored shanties that were their first dwellings. "Of all the privations I knew as a homesteader," says Calof, "the lack of privacy was the hardest to bear." Money, food, and fuel were scarce, and during bitter winters, three Calof households—Abraham and Rachel with their growing children, along with his parents and a brother’s family—would pool resources and live together (with livestock) in one shanty.

Under harsh and primitive conditions, Rachel Bella Calof bore and raised nine children. The family withstood many dangers, including hailstorms that hammered wheat to the ground and flooded their home; droughts that reduced crops to dust; blinding snowstorms of plains winters. Through it all, however, Calof drew on a humor and resolve that is everywhere apparent in her narrative. Always striving to improve her living conditions, she made lamps from dried mud, scraps of rag, and butter; plastered the cracked wood walls of her home with clay; supplemented meagre supplies with prairie forage—wild mushrooms and garlic for a special supper, dry grass for a hot fire to bake bread. Never sentimental, Caolf’s memoir is a vital historical and personal record.

J. Sanford Rikoon elaborates on the history of Jewish settlement in the rural heartland and the great tide of immigration from the Russian Pale of Settlement and Eastern Europe from 1880–1910. Elizabeth Jameson examines how Calof "writes from the interior spaces of private life, and from that vantage point, reconfigures more familiar versions of the American West." Jameson also discusses how the Calofs adapted Jewish practices to the new contingencies of North Dakota, maintaining customs that represented the core of their Jewish identity, reconstructing their "Jewishness" in new circumstances.

Indiana University Press

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Editorial Reviews

"I came upon Laura Ingalls Wilder's prairie stories as an adult, while reading them to my son. I was as captivated by Rachel Calof's autobiography Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains... which I read in one sitting, mesmerized by a Jewish pioneer spirit as strong and as compelling as that of her Christian counterpart.... This beautifully written testament is a reminder that we have much to bless, every day, for a world with washing machines and sewage systems and separate rooms to put mothers-in-law." —C. Devora (Viva) Hammer, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University, LILITH, Fall 2009

— C. Devora (Viva) Hammer, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University

LILITH - C. Devora (Viva) Hammer

"I came upon Laura Ingalls Wilder's prairie stories as an adult, while reading them to my son. I was as captivated by Rachel Calof's autobiography Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains... which I read in one sitting, mesmerized by a Jewish pioneer spirit as strong and as compelling as that of her Christian counterpart.... This beautifully written testament is a reminder that we have much to bless, every day, for a world with washing machines and sewage systems and separate rooms to put mothers-in-law." —C. Devora (Viva) Hammer, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University, LILITH, Fall 2009

From the Publisher

"I came upon Laura Ingalls Wilder's prairie stories as an adult, while reading them to my son. I was as captivated by Rachel Calof's autobiography Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains... which I read in one sitting, mesmerized by a Jewish pioneer spirit as strong and as compelling as that of her Christian counterpart.... This beautifully written testament is a reminder that we have much to bless, every day, for a world with washing machines and sewage systems and separate rooms to put mothers-in-law." —C. Devora (Viva) Hammer, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University, LILITH, Fall 2009

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1894, the 18-year-old Calof, a Russian Jew, was shipped to the U.S. to marry an unknown man and stake a homesteading claim with him in North Dakota. She later set down her memories of that time in fluid prose that occasionally reveals a biting sense of humor. Although her circumstances were often pathetic, Calof never is. She writes matter-of-factly about her 12'x 14' dirt-floored shanty, her husband's unappealing family and their unsanitary living arrangements. Each winter, her husband Abe's parents and brother would join them in their home in order to save fuelan arrangement revealed only on her wedding day. There are pleasurable moments here too, like an impromptu supper of wild garlic and mushrooms (Calof does a taste test to see whether they are poisonous``It didn't burn or taste bad, so I swallowed it''). Childbearing is particularly difficult: Calof seems to be constantly pregnant, and her superstitious mother-in-law keeps her secluded after the birth of her first child until she begins to hallucinate about demons. An epilogue by Calof's son, Jacob, picks up the courageous author's story in St. Paul, Minn., in 1917, while an essay by J. Sanford Rikoon on the phenomenon of Jewish farm settlements provides fascinating background. (Oct.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253209863
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/1995
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 320,850
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

J. SANFORD RIKOON is Research Associate Professor in the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author of Threshing in the Midwest, 1820–1940. ELIZABETH JAMESON, Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, is co-editor of The Women’s West.

Indiana University Press

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Read an Excerpt

Rachel Calof's Story

Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains

By J. Sanford Rikoon

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1995 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-32942-4



Rachel Bella Calof

I was born in Russia in the year 1876, and when I was four years old my dear mother died, leaving me a half orphan in company with an older brother, a younger sister, and a baby brother of only eighteen months. My father did not marry again for some time because he wanted to be sure, he said, to select a wife who would be a good stepmother to us children. In the meantime he brought a Jewish servant girl into our home to care for us. This event proved to be a disastrous development for us youngsters; from that day onward, unyielding misfortune became our lot.

The first initiative of our new supervisor was to reduce the children's food supply, and other requirements for the care of small children were simply ignored. How well I recall the pangs of hunger which attended all my waking hours. Hunger and dirt dominated our young lives. Our overseer gave our food away regularly, but although I knew this I never learned who the lucky recipient was. This sad state of affairs continued for four long years.

When I reached the age of eight, I had already fully assumed the role of protector of my brothers and sister. Now I decided that our lives could no longer continue in this way and I determined to take action. I spoke to my father about the intolerable conditions under which we lived. The servant girl, learning of the trouble I was causing her, beat me mercilessly, but I persisted and continued to appeal to our father upon his return from work as a farmer at that time.

Because of the terrible life that his children were enduring, father made the decision to remarry quickly to provide us all with a better home life, he said. Unfortunately the event of his second marriage marked an even further deterioration of our childhood existence.

My father married a woman with two children, a boy and a girl, both older than us. Our stepmother proved to be a nasty, cruel person with no love or accord for her new husband's children. As the saying goes, "When a father chooses a stepmother for his children, he himself becomes a stepfather." Another old belief is that a husband is more in love with his second wife than his first. In any event our father gave all of his devotion to his new love, to the exclusion of all else.

The new lady of the house quickly took full control of everything and everyone. She assumed absolute power and did with Us children as she wished. She punished us continually, without reason and without mercy, beating us daily.

As soon as my father left for his work she would lock the bread away in the cupboard. The best that the household afforded she gave to her own children, and she dealt with us as did Pharaoh with the ancient Jewish slaves. She ordered us to do the heaviest kind of work which required effort beyond the capacity of small children. My eldest brother, then eleven years old, once was forced to lift a heavy load far beyond his physical ability. I recall the incident so vividly. He cried out and fell to the ground in pain so great that he fainted, and when he recovered his senses he complained of stomach pains. I realize now that he probably suffered a hernia. My poor little brother had always been sickly and weak, and unable to further cope with our long-standing pitiful life now spent all his days in bed. And I, now nine years old, sat many hours each day with him, both of us crying forlornly.

My father was always greeted upon his return from his work with complaints about our behavior. My stepmother stated once that my little brother, who was always in pain and pale as death, was getting on her nerves and that consequently her health was affected. My father, I am saddened to say, sympathized with his new love. I went into the bedroom where my little brother lay and I and the other two children sat on his bed and cried inconsolably. My father, goaded by his wife, entered the room and without ado seized my little brother from his bed of pain and beat him without mercy. He bloodied the child who then fainted. My screams reached the heavens. My father declared that he would deal similarly with all of us. We children shook and shivered in shock, and when I saw my brother's blood on the floor, my childish heart turned to stone and I cursed my father with deadly curses.

That evening, huddled around our little brother's bed, we were afraid to cry though our hearts were breaking, fearful that we would invite more abuse if we made any sound. Later my sister and older brother and I were forced to sit at the dinner table while my little brother, also commanded to come to the table, was not able to leave his bed and consequently went without food.

We four orphans occupied one room which contained two beds, one for my brothers and the other for my sister and me. But this night I did not go to bed. I put the two older children in one bed and my sick and beaten brother in the other. I sat beside him and wept bitterly, but silently.

The poor child slept restlessly and when I touched him I realized he was feverish. I dipped a rag in water and applied it to his head. I continued this treatment throughout the night while I silently cursed my stepmother and her children. But most of all I cursed my father from the bottom of my heart.

My little brother was in bed for a week following this incident and then was only able to totter on his feet. From that time he showed no interest in anything. He remained silent and weak and pale. He had no energy and no longer joined his brother and sisters in any activity. My heart broke and tears would come to my eyes just to look at him.

In about a year after their marriage my father and stepmother began to quarrel. One time I overheard her tell my father that she no longer wished to stay with him. Soon after she left with her children, even while my father begged her not to leave him.

Following this happening, our father decided to break up his home and give up his children. His plan was to go to America as soon as he could get rid of us. He proceeded with his plans to dispose of us. I was sent to my paternal grandfather. My older brother was given to my mother's brother who had a sack store and he was immediately put to hard work to earn his keep. My young sister was sent to my mother's sister and was immediately set to work fit for a grown person rather than a little girl. She had developed a stomach ailment and was unable to keep much food down.

My youngest brother, unable to work, found no welcome with any of our relatives and was disposed of to a Talmud Torah, a religious school. He was kept there until his health improved and after a time he was taught there to be a locksmith. The three children were all in the city of Belaya Tserkov. My new home was in a village called Chvedkifka.

How I longed for my brothers and sister. Occasionally my grandfather would permit me to visit them. It was a long trip, requiring two days for the round-trip, but to see my brothers and sister was worth any hardship. Indeed, it was the most important event in my life. However, at the same time these visits disclosing the hard lot of each of the children, especially that of my little brother dirty and sweaty from his work and always so sad, brought me tears and blood, as the saying goes. His bed was covered with rags for a quilt and the food was bad. This was a charity institution and these were the conditions found in such a place. I would start my visits with such happy anticipation of seeing my poor orphans but would return heartbroken at what was revealed to me.

And so my childhood years passed in tears and suffering. My life was shattered and wasted and I never knew love since I was four years old, except from my little orphans.

I was in my grandfather's house for six years and it wasn't very good for me there. My grandfather was very strict and a religious fanatic. He saw me as a sinful person who required constant watching. I couldn't raise my head up without reproof. He thought I had it too good, and he constantly reminded me of my lowly position while he tried to make life harder for me in the belief, I guess, that it would improve my character.

My grandmother, actually my stepgrandmother, on the other hand was more tolerant and kinder to me than my own grandfather.

At age seventeen I petitioned my grandfather to allow me to seek permission to go to my aunt, my father's sister, who I had heard was rich and, more importantly, lived in the same city as my brothers and sister. I learned that this aunt wanted a maid and I decided that I would ask for the maid's job. If my plan succeeded, I would be independent with my own money while living in the same city as my brothers and sister. With money I would be able to improve their lot.

I arrived at my aunt's house and was given the maid's job. The work was hard. This was truly a palace. It contained eight rooms and a number of hallways, all of which I was required to wash and wax each day But the best meals I ever ate were cooked in that house.

I was green at my job. I had never been in a house before that required this kind of care. I tried hard to please my aunt, who was very particular, but within a few months I was doing my work satisfactorily. During this time I was able to see my dear sister and brothers more often than before. Their situations had not improved at all and it was heartbreaking to see how hard their lives were. I was able to help them somewhat but still their condition was bitter. My sister was ill and being treated at a free dispensary, but they were unable to improve her health. My little brother's suffering was heartrending to see. At least, though, I could see them all quite often and help them.

One of my new duties was to buy the meat at the butcher shop. The butcher with whom my aunt traded had a fine, good-looking son. As to myself, at this time, I had heard it said that I was pretty and no fool. The butcher's son often waited on me. He was very gentle and friendly. I used to get a funny feeling inside of me when he was filling the order, but of course 1 didn't know how he might feel about me. I liked him, I must say, and soon I sensed that he liked me too. I was painfully aware, though, of the danger of developing a friendship with this fine boy. In Russia, at that time, the occupations of butcher, tailor, shoemaker, or musician were considered inferior trades and those engaged in such work were socially unacceptable. Certainly I felt no such distinction as I was of low status myself.

Although I was nothing in the world myself, I was the granddaughter of Eda Velvel Cohen and because of this fact a friendship with this boy was out of the question. It appears that although I was no joy to my relatives, I was capable of bringing them disgrace. A butcher was considered hardly better than a convict, and especially so to my grandfather. Still, we, a boy and a girl, in spite of the disapproval and contempt which others felt for us, were drawn to each other.

The young man was a few years older than I. One day he approached me and asked me to go for a walk with him. I was shocked at such boldness. Yes, I loved him, but I looked at him in bewilderment. I could only believe that he did not know that because of my family I could not associate with him. I thought it best to discourage him as quickly as possible and to not demean him in doing so. I told him that my grandfather lived here and that I was only a visitor in the city. It was a badly conceived lie, for he saw how poorly I was dressed and belatedly I realized that he knew I worked for the wealthy Beolicks. He appeared to take me at my word though, listening politely to my lie, and I returned to my quarters.

As I discovered later, however, the boy fully realized my helplessness and immediately took the initiative. He found out my grandfather's address and wrote him a letter in which he proposed that my grandfather make the necessary inquiries about him. He asked permission to call on me. He said that I was a fine girl and that he was very fond of me and felt that he could bring me happiness. He offered to marry me as I was without a dowry or wardrobe.

I was unaware of my friends action, but I did know that 1 loved him and longed for him. Still I knew that I couldn't go walking with him under any circumstances as this would endanger my job and blacken the family name, which in turn would bring terrible consequences down on my head. I was made rudely aware of what was transpiring when my aunt received a letter from my grandfather. Of course he wouldn't even consider writing directly to me. The letter instructed my aunt to take any measures necessary to prevent me from disgracing the family name. He stated that my marriage to a butcher would defame the family name forever.

My aunt summoned me and handed me the letter. This woman was more modern than most people of that time. She did not wear the traditional wig and her children drank milk with meat meals. She would light the samovar on the Sabbath and her children attended public school.

She really looked at many things differently than most women of that age, But although she may have felt some sympathy for me, her main concern was her father and she would do nothing to hurt him. She asked me if I understood everything about this boy. I did not know the meaning of this question but I knew I was blushing for shame and hurt.

My grandfather was still not content with the damage he had done to two young lives. He dispatched a letter to the boy's father telling him not to have hope that he could ever be associated with our family.

I longed for the boy and I know that he yearned for me, but I avoided seeing him again and this episode in my life ended. The butcher boy was my dream and now the dream was over.

So time passed. I reached my eighteenth birthday and my prospects for the future were now very poor. Most girls of eighteen were married in those days, and here I was a servant girl in my aunt's home without resources. I was ashamed of my status as a menial. I had no dowry to enable me to marry anyone of status. My future seemed hopeless.

I secretly hoped that my father had reached America and would send for us children. But this hope was crushed when news was received that the ship in which he had sailed had sunk. I never learned whether he had been saved and I never heard from him again.

Meanwhile God sits above and sees all that happens below, and God finally understood that He had to do something in my behalf. His plan for me was quite complicated.

Another relative of mine, a great-uncle, lived and owned several houses in a distant city. One of his tenants was a girl named Chaya who through a series of amazing events was destined to become my sister-in-law. Chaya had parents and brothers in still another city. Many guests, mostly family members, came to Chaya's house.

She and all of her family were very close to my great-uncle. One of her brothers [Abraham] was in America and had no wife. He had written to Chaya, commissioning her to pick a wife for him and prepare the prospective bride for the passage to America.

Chaya had already decided upon the daughter of the local shochet (an authorized slaughterer of animals according to kosher law). The daughter's name was Rachel, as is mine. The arrangement had already been made with Rachel's father, but after further consideration she decided that she didn't want to go to America after all.

My great-uncle was quick to recognize the opportunity of disposing of my embarrassing presence to my relatives and volunteered me as a substitute for the other Rachel. In all justice, he probably felt that this move might also be favorable for my future as well. My great-uncle described to Chaya all my good characteristics and, I am sure, was careful to omit anything detrimental. In short order the decision was made to send me if I was able to pass personal inspection.

I was dispatched to my great-uncle's house where Chaya waited to look me over. What an inspection. She checked me out as one does a horse. Apparently I passed muster because it was decided that my picture should be sent to the boy in America. His name was Abraham [b. July 16, 1872]. He was requested to send his picture in return. After this was accomplished my great-uncle and Chaya would decide if anything would come of it.

I hoped that I would be accepted. I realized that I had to take the chance of going to a stranger in a strange land. No other avenue was open to me. I was already eighteen years old and time was against me.

Finally the exchange of pictures was made. I liked his looks and he wrote that he was pleased with my appearance as well. I then corresponded with him, and although he eventually became my husband, the way was neither quick nor easy.

Chaya now decided to examine me in greater detail. She said she wanted to know me better and to visit her for the next Sabbath. I didn't have a proper dress for such an invitation, but I was anxious to make good and was finally able to borrow a dress for the occasion. I spent three days under close observation and undergoing various kinds of testing. As an example, I was handed a ball of tangled yarn to unravel. I didn't understand the purpose for this, but I succeeded in unraveling all the yarn. My future sister-in-law was quite pleased. She explained that this was a way of testing my patience and good nature. She said that had I become angry or frustrated in attempting to unravel the thread I would have lost the opportunity of marrying the boy in America. Thank God I passed all the tests. God was watching over me and I won Chaya's approval.

Chaya wrote to Abraham that I was a treasure of a girl and recommended me to be his wife. In return, my unknown and unseen fiancé sent me what passed as a passport in those days of open immigration. It was actually a passage fare and it cost him twenty-one dollars. This was for steerage passage, which was the best he could do. He had no money for better accommodations.

The time involved from when I became a servant girl in my aunt's house through loving and losing my butcher boy and preparing for my journey to America was nine months. As the time for my departure approached, my sorrow at leaving my dear brothers and my sick little sister grew What can one say? We knew that we would probably never see one another again. Words cannot express my anguish at the prospect of leaving them.


Excerpted from Rachel Calof's Story by J. Sanford Rikoon. Copyright © 1995 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Development of Jewish Farm Settlements in the Heartland and North Dakota
My Story—A Life Worth Living by Rachel Bella Calof
Epilogue by Jacob Calof
Rachel Calof’s Life as Collective History by Elizabeth Jameson

Indiana University Press

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2014

    Must read if interested in ND history!!!

    I read this book when it first came out after an acquaintance lent me her copy. I was fascinated with Rachel Calof's story. I decided I wanted to read it again after the play was performed at Devil's Lake this summer. I did not get to see the play, much to my dismay, but the idea of rereading it came to me.. It is hard to imagine someone surviving against the harsh life on the prairie in the 1880's.. If nothing else, it makes me appreciate my life now!

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