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Discovering a Hair-Raising Pioneer Memoir

In the 1890s, a Jewish “Little House on the Prairie”

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 (Indiana University, $13.95), which I read in one sitting, mesmerized by a Jewish pioneer spirit as strong and as compelling as that of her Christian counterpart.

Rachel Calof wrote her memoirs for her children when she was 60, in Yiddish. A translation of her writing was discovered by a post-doctoral fellow in the Hebrew Union College archives, who realized the value of publishing her work.

Rachel Bella Kahn lost her mother when she was four, and she and her siblings suffered violent maltreatment from a servant, stepmother, and their father. They were distributed amongst relatives and orphanages when their father decided to emigrate to the New World, and they never heard from him again. Rachel became a servant for a rich relative, and her family refused to grant her freedom to marry her sweetheart, the butcher’s son, because such a match would bring shame upon them.

By 18 she was an old spinster, and agreed to cooperate when an acquaintance suggested she might marry her relative in America. After passing several tests and exchanging photographs, Rachel received money from her intended, Abraham Calof, for the passage to New York. She describes the hair-raising complexities of the journey from a small Ukrainian town to Hamburg and the ordeal of getting onto the ship (her ticket and passport had different names on them).

Abraham may have been the first piece of luck in Rachel’s life. After paying for her trip, he told her she shouldn’t feel beholden to him, and he would not insist that they marry. She trusted him, and agreed to make the trip to North Dakota with him in 1894, the same year Laura Ingalls Wilder abandoned that droughtridden area for Missouri.

Rachel discovered that Abraham was joining his family in their homesteading venture. Initially, and every winter for the first few years of their marriage, the lack of privacy was the most appalling privation of pioneer life, Rachel says. Seven people shared a 12 by 14 foot home with chickens (whose coops were under the beds) and a calf. “The chickens were generous with their perfumes and we withstood this, but the stench of the calf tethered in the corner was well-nigh intolerable.”

Some of Rachel’s stories of the prairie are strikingly familiar. The U.S. government gave away “free land” to those who could tolerate five years of hell on it, including 40-degree-below-zero winters without enough fuel or food, and hailstorms, cyclones, and drought. But the Jewish elements are very fresh. The Calofs were not consistently observant — accordingly to Rachel, her spouse worked on the Sabbath, for example. But they did circumcise their sons and ritually slaughter their animals, both of which involved expense and significant effort. Rachel also mentions that after the family succeeded on their farm, they made large celebrations of Jewish holidays, and Jews came from far away to be with them.

Rachel’s sufferings in the Ukraine and North Dakota are difficult to imagine. She had no toilets, no running water, no regular food supply, and no birth control. She bore and raised nine children through many accidents and serious illness, helped only by a mother-in-law who frightened her with tales of the devil taking newborn babies. But her energy, her gumption, her extreme will to survive are familiar to anyone who has lived through challenges, and who at some point says “I cannot go on.” Rachel says, “In just two brutal days the pioneer life had brought me to the brink of desperation. Yet, as always, a spark of resistance to my lot and a core of determination remained within me… Despair gave birth to courage.”

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 (vivahammer@aol.com) is a partner at the law firm Crowell & Morning and a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University.