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

RACHEL CALOF’S STORY: JEWISH HOMESTEADER ON THE NORTHERN PLAINS by Rachel Bella Calof [Indiana University Press], $20 Hardcover, $12.95, Paperback.

This is no Little House on the Prairie. A Jewish immigrant homesteader in the newly formed state of North Dakota at the turn of the century, Rachel Calof gives us a very different picture of pioneer life on the Northern plains. In 1894, Rachel Bella Kahn elected to leave her life as a poor orphan in Russia in favor of an arranged marriage to Abraham Calof. Upon meeting her fiancé, she agreed to travel with him to the frontier, where most of his (also immigrant) family already lived, “to avail I themselves of the offer of free land.” Rachel gives us telling descriptions of the one room shacks in which the families lived (and which in some winters two families were obliged to share not only with each other but with their livestock as well); of the primitive conditions under which she had to give birth; of her quarrels with members of her husband’s family. Throughout all her ordeals, she “stood shoulder-to-shoulder” with her husband, and maintained a sense of dignity and a sense of humor.

Although she had little formal education, she writes with a clear, almost poetic voice and a shrewd sense of satire. Her own story is accompanied by an epilogue by her son, Jacob Calof, and academic essays by J. Sanford Rikoon and Elizabeth Jameson. Like Gluckel of Hamein, writing three centuries earlier. Rachel Bella Calofs autobiography is an inspiration for the strength, independence, and intelligence her life exemplifies.