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

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Calof, Rachel Bella. Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteaders on the Northern Plains. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995.

This review was written by Edna Boardman. If you wish to reprint it and have not already asked, please send a message to eboard@minot.com It is being included here because Rachel Calof and her husband's family also spoke a German dialect and originated in the same area as most of the people who subscribe to the Germans from Russia Heritage Listserv (GR-Heritage). This review appeared originally in the magazine, "Kliatt," in late 1995 or early 1996. "Kliatt" is a source of professionally-written reviews of softbound materials and audio books for high school, university, and public libraries.

When Rachel Bella Kahn, a Jewish girl living in the Ukraine, immigrated to the United States in 1894, she was already 18 and past the accepted age of marriage. Her mother had died when she was but four, and her life had been one of physical hardship and psychological abuse. Young Abraham Calof, who had earlier come from the same area to the United States, was in need of a wife, and sent her a steerage ticket. Soon after her arrival in New York, he took her to the family homestead near Devil's Lake, North Dakota, where she joined Abraham's brothers and their parents on adjoining claims. The years that followed involved the struggle to find enough to eat, to devise ways of keeping warm and clean, and to keep the faith. She joined the battle against the elements to raise enough wheat to survive each year. She was beset by almost annual pregnancies (Rachel had 9 children), by childbirths on a hard bed covered with straw, then the care of those children. In all this, Rachel realized she craved privacy most of all. After 23 years and increasing prosperity, the Calofs left the farm in 1917 for city life. She died in Seattle at the age of 76. This diary, made available by Rachel's son Jacob, is accepted as having high value by scholars seeking out the role and experiences of women in the American west. The diary is followed by a brief epilogue by Jacob in which he fleshes out the details of his parents' lives after they left North Dakota. The book also contains two essays by professionals. One, by volume editor and sociologist J. Sanford Rikoon, treats Jewish settlements in the American heartland. He found that Abraham Calof had received aid from city-based Jewish relief societies, though Rachel does not mention it. The other, by historian Elizabeth Jameson, seeks to locate Rachel in her historical context. Jews took up land near where this reviewer grew up. Painted Woods, another Jewish settlement area mentioned in the book, is labeled along Highway 83 some 25 miles north of Bismarck, North Dakota and the marks of their digging are visible from the road. But few Jews remained farmers or stayed in the state. How fine to capture their story with this excellent book. More than a regional interest book.

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