When Rachel Bella Kahn was a girl growing up in Russia, she certainly never imagined that one day she’d end up as a pioneer woman on the prairies of North Dakota.
She was born in 1876, and almost from the beginning of her life, she knew no love. Her mother died when she was only 4, and her father left her and her three younger siblings in the hands of a cruel nanny. Her stepmother was no better than Cinderella’s stepmother, and eventually, she was sent to live with her exceptionally strict and religious grandfather. To escape his household, she obtained work as a maid for one of her aunts. When, in 1894, the opportunity arose for an arranged marriage to Abraham Calof in America, Rachel took it, even though she knew not a soul in the U.S., including her own husband-to-be.
Rachel met Abraham and his family after she disembarked in New York City. Fortunately, the young couple seemed compatible. But New York was not the family’s intended destination.
A Jewish ‘Little House on the Prairie’
The Homestead Acts, established following the Civil War, drew scores of citizens to Middle America. The government granted free land to citizens, provided they would cultivate the land over a period of several years, after which they’d be granted full legal possession of the land.
For reasons that were probably unclear to Rachel, her husband’s family decided to take advantage of this opportunity and moved near Devil’s Lake, N.D.
The culture shock she felt upon coming to New York City was nothing compared to what she experienced in North Dakota, according to her memoir of that time period. They set up house in hardly more than a shack, often crammed in with Abraham’s family, who were strangers to Rachel.
Resourceful, outspoken and plucky, Rachel was determined to make a good life for herself and her family, despite the numerous obstacles placed before her, the least of which was the frigid, inhumane weather conditions each winter. Most winters they were forced to share their quarters with Abraham’s parents and brothers to conserve fuel, something that became increasingly difficult, as Rachel gave birth to one child after another. The reader can’t help but be impressed by Calof’s fortitude and perseverance under unimaginable conditions.
She writes without prevarication in a no-holds-barred manner. In this passage, Rachel writes about her feelings when she learned that her groom’s family would be moving in with them into their tiny shack to spend the winter due to a lack of fuel to heat all three homes:
“In an instant the happiness of my marriage turned to bitterness. The knowledge that I was to spend my honeymoon in a tiny space shared with three strangers was more than I could bear. I hoped that death would take me now, that I would not reach home alive. But my fervent wish was not granted, and it was life, not death, with which I had to cope.”
Rachel ultimately gave birth to nine children while living in North Dakota, often only attended by her mother-in-law. In most cases, she had no choice but to get out of bed within a day or so of each child being born, though she almost died during one of her pregnancies.
Isolated, lonely and afraid, Rachel nevertheless exhibited an incredible amount of courage, considering that she had worked as a housemaid in Russia.
She had an especially difficult relationship with her mother-in-law, who was unyielding in her opinions and foisted her superstitions and fanaticism upon her in ways that contributed to Rachel’s own temporary descent into depression and what today might be labeled an obsessive compulsive disorder.
Despite their isolation near Devil’s Lake, the family managed to rigorously observe their Jewish traditions. She lit candles on Friday night and only ate kosher food. And when her baby boys were born, they somehow found a mohel in the middle of the desolate frontier.
Rachel’s writing is delightfully sarcastic and tinged with humor, such as when describing her wedding day:
“The wedding, my friends, was a knockout. Since Abraham’s niece, Doba, had the largest home with two rooms, she offered her palace for the occasion. … All brides remember their wedding ceremony and mine was truly memorable. I was seated in a chair. Abraham was given a flour sack which he was instructed to place over my face. Well, at least one could cry in private under the cover.”
The memoir, written in 1936 when Rachel was 60, was never intended for publication. It was discovered, quite fortuitously, by researcher Sanford Rikoon, hidden away among the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College. Though her intentions were not known, presumably she wanted to leave behind a written record of her early life for her family. A daughter found the notebook in an attic in 1980, thirty years after Rachel’s death. The family convened to translate it from the original Yiddish for the benefit of the rest of the family, but they resisted publication until 1995.
Perhaps that delayed decision was out of respect for Rachel’s desire for privacy, something that she said was the hardest adjustment that she had to make in North Dakota: “In those precarious winters of the first years when so many people, and animals as well, huddled together in a tiny space, my yearning was not for a larger shack but rather for the dignity of privacy,” she noted.
Records indicate that at least 800 Jews applied for land between 1880 and 1916, though many did not stay in the area after the requisite time had passed. The Calofs, however, stayed on the land for 20 years, eventually moving to Minnesota.
Very little evidence exists today of the Jewish homesteaders’ settlement in that area but for a monument honoring the settlement at the Son of Jacob Cemetery in Devil’s Lake, which holds graves of some of the Jewish settlers in the region.
In an epilogue, Rachel and Abraham’s youngest son, Jacob, said that his parents’ relationship eroded after they left the harsh conditions of North Dakota, as their interests diverged and they didn’t have the common goal of survival. This remarkable story can be enjoyed in a broader historical context, as she gives voice to all of the unnamed Jewish homesteaders who likely suffered as severely as the Calof family.
Perhaps Rachel’s overall attitude toward the circumstances in which she found herself can be described as such: “My desire for a better life would not desert me.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.)