Rachel Calof, J. Sanford Rikoon (editor), Jacob Calof and Molly Shaw (translator)
Rachel Bella Calof’s memoir is a treasure for the insights it gives into the experience of being a woman, a Jew, and a homesteader on the North Dakota frontier at the turn of the last century. Born in the Ukraine, Rachel was orphaned at age four, when her mother died. She and her siblings were raised by a stepmother who starved and beat them. Later, she worked as a servant for wealthy relatives. At the age of eighteen, Rachel made a daring and desperate choice to escape a life of poverty and helplessness-she agreed to marry a stranger, Abraham Calof, a Russian Jew living in America.
Unlike most Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in large cities, Abraham Calof decided to try his luck out west with his mail-order bride. When Rachel met Abraham at Ellis Island, she was prepared to work side by side with him for a better life. “I had no idea where North Dakota was or what the country was like, but I was prepared for the challenge,” she writes. “Of course I had no intimation of the incredible hardships which awaited us there.” Her memoir, written in Yiddish, describes their grinding poverty, small triumphs, and survival on their homestead farm for over twenty years.
With unflinching honesty, Rachel describes her adjustment to life on the prairie, which was in many ways more primitive than the life she left behind in the Ukraine. Every winter, her in-laws would move into her twelve-by-fourteen shack in order to save fuel. Five adults lived in these cramped quarters with chickens in cages under their beds. “Of all the privations I knew as a homesteader, the lack of privacy was the hardest to bear,” she reflects.
Rachel bore nine children, with little help or support from other women. Despite their back-breaking work, a season’s crops were often destroyed within hours by a sudden hailstorm or cyclone. Yet, the portrait that emerges in this straightforward, unromanticized telling is that of an extraordinarily resourceful and dedicated wife and mother, and a woman with a firm sense of self, who tried to conduct herself “under the most severe conditions as a Jewish woman should.” Over the years, the Calof’s home became a congregating point for other Jewish farming families in the Devils Lake region.
(Reprinted from Reform Judaism Magazine with permission.)
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