The phrase “mail-order bride” always conjured certain associations for me—desperate, uneducated, sexually submissive women, and the desperate, misogynistic men who order them—but Jewish wasn’t one of them.
Then, a few years ago, in a quiet moment, I was Googling myself—as if you’ve never done it—when, along with an L.A. real-estate agent and a Brooklyn social worker, another, more curious Anna Solomon appeared. This Anna Solomon was featured on a website about Jewish women pioneers to the American West, a category I’d never known existed. Along with Anna—who, with her husband, Isadore, founded the town of Solomonville, Ariz., in 1876—a number of other Jewish women were toughing it out on the frontier, including Rachel Bella Kahn, who came to America in 1894 as a mail-order bride for Abraham Calof of Devil’s Lake, N.D.
A Jewish mail-order bride? I was intrigued. I quickly became obsessed. That obsession became fodder for my soon-to-be-published first novel, The Little Bride.
I soon learned that at the age of 60 Rachel Bella Calof, by then living in St. Paul, Minn., bought a “Clover Leaf Linen” writing tablet and began to write a longhand account of her pioneer days. My Story, her wonderfully strange memoir eventually published in 1995, riveted me. Calof had traveled from Russia to America to endure a hardscrabble existence on the Great Plains, surviving tornadoes, rattlesnakes, drought, near-starvation, and homesickness while living in a one-room hut with chickens underfoot and in-laws in the next bed.
There was nothing easy about Calof’s American existence, but life for Jews in Eastern Europe during the 1880s and 1890s was often worse. Escalating anti-Semitic violence and poverty drove hundreds of thousands of Jews to flee, most of them to the New World. Thousands of Jewish women were trafficked into prostitution in places like Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and South Africa. Many were sold into virtual slavery without their knowledge or consent, and nearly all of them—even those who’d worked as prostitutes in Europe—wound up entirely dependent on and in debt to their (also Jewish) pimps and madams.
Mail-order brides, by contrast, presumably emigrated of their own free will. They had some sense of where they were going. (Though Rachel Calof didn’t know North Dakota from New York, according to her memoir.) Some had exchanged pictures with their husbands-to-be, and many had the comfort of being related, however distantly, to their fiancés. They might be cousins—or at least they knew someone who knew someone who was a cousin. The journeys, with all sorts of unknowns, might have been terrifying, but in the end they were going to perform the most blessed mitzvot: to marry and multiply.
There are no statistics on the number of Jewish women who came to the United States in this manner. Because so few told their own stories, we know little about them. As a fiction writer, I found this lack of information appealing; there was little to know and plenty to imagine. For my protagonist, Minna Losk, I chose Odessa as a starting point. From there, I sent her on a journey to an unnamed, dry, and very rocky part of South Dakota, where she tries to adapt to her new life: wife of an Orthodox man twice her age and stepmother to two boys her age, one of whom she finds more than a little attractive. All this is my version—collected, as my fiction is, from scraps of memory and consciousness too distant for me to even name—of what it might have been like to be a Jewish mail-order bride on the frontier.
But I also uncovered some facts. It’s likely that the majority of Jewish mail-order brides wound up somewhere in the West, given the abundance of single men who’d gone ahead to settle land under the Homestead Act. Some of these men had intended to become farmers when they left Europe; they belonged to Am Olam, the socialist agrarian movement that believed the answer to anti-Semitism lay in making Jews self-sufficient, productive, physically robust members of society. Other men arrived in America with no intention of leaving its cities but soon changed course in the face of overcrowded tenements and lack of opportunity. Wealthier, more established German Jews—concerned for the new immigrants as well as for their own hard-won reputations as enlightened, assimilated Americans—responded by encouraging their impoverished Yiddish-speaking brethren to head west, funding their tools and travel, and providing them with basic training via schools like the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural College, in Woodbine, N.J., and the National Farm School, near Doylestown, Penn. “Instead of slaving in the sweat shops,” the New York Times reported in 1897 about National Farm School graduates, they will “be glad to do better work and live happier lives on farms.”
It’s conservatively estimated that 8,000 Jews settled in America’s heartland from 1880 to 1940, according to Sanford Rikoon, who edited Calof’s My Story. That number doesn’t include the tens of thousands of Jews who broke land in other areas of the country, either independently or as part of communal agricultural colonies. Such settlements included Sicily Island, La., planted in 1881; Beersheba, founded in Kansas in 1882; and New Odessa, Ore., established in 1883. Some pioneers were women, like Anna Solomon, who arrived in Arizona already married and with three children. But many were men, alone, who sooner or later found themselves in need of a good wife.
In some ways, the mail-order-bride business was not so different from the matchmaking, formal and informal, that had been the norm in Jewish communities for generations. Elizabeth Jameson, the historian who wrote the afterword to Calof’s memoir, told me that arranging for a mail-order bride is just “a long-distance extension” of the matchmaker’s, or shadchan’s, traditional services. “See Fiddler on the Roof,” she said.
And yet, imagine: A mail-order bride leaves not only her family, but her community, her country, her culture. She travels across a continent, then an ocean, to a place where she doesn’t know the language, let alone the customs, let alone how to navigate the opportunists thronging at the docks, waiting to prey on young, innocent women. Then she travels halfway across another continent. What if her husband is cruel? What if he doesn’t please her, nor she him? What if, God forbid, she can’t bear children after all? There are no airplanes. She has no money. She doesn’t even know how to post a letter home. Going back is simply not possible.
Today, Jewish brides are once again available for order—this time on the Internet, via sites like www.iamyourchance.com. Here you can find Lady Olena, 46, from Kiev: She is divorced and has one child. Her description includes the sentences: “I take another man even at a loss” and “Do not throw a puppy or kitten in the street.” Then there is Lady Elena, from Moscow: She’s 29, fluent in English, and can tongue a grape, if her profile photo is to be believed. There’s one bride-in-waiting in Haifa, and one in Los Angeles, but the majority seem to come from Eastern Europe, just as they did more than a century ago. When asked to describe their ideal husband, many of the women emphasize reliability and kindness.
I tried to find out where these women usually wind up, but Svetlana, who runs the site, wouldn’t answer my questions. (“Money is nice,” she told me, suggesting what might make her more forthcoming.) It seems entirely likely that some of these women, if not the entire enterprise, are not quite what they present themselves to be. Such schemes have historical precedence. “In turn-of-the-century Chicago alone, police broke up as many as 125 fraudulent marriage agencies,” Kristoffer Garin wrote in Harper’s in 2006, “seizing and burning ‘wagon loads’ of photographs of fictitious brides.”
Indeed, mail-order brides have played a significant role in American life and myth since colonial times. So, why should we be surprised that some of these brides, fictitious or not, might be Jewish? I’m not the only one; many of people who hear the premise of my book repeat the words back to me: “a Jewish mail-order bride?” The idea makes them uncomfortable, I think, not just because it’s unsavory, but because it implies victimhood.
But Rachel Calof didn’t allow herself to become a victim. She managed to stay sane, despite an unusually cruel mother-in-law. She despaired at the “rude shanty” that became her home, but then she laboriously improved it, covering the cracked walls in clay. She lit her family’s Sabbath meal with candles she made from rags, mud, and butter.
Meanwhile, other Jewish pioneer women, equally strange to this country, found their own way. Their stories can be found in a wide range of texts, including And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher, by Linda Mack Schloff, Dakota Diaspora, by Sophie Trupin, and the Jewish Women Pioneers website, which details extraordinary moments in these women’s lives. Anna Marks shot her gun to defend the ground she’d claimed for her store in Eureka City, Utah. In Santa Fe, Betty Spiegelberg defied her husband’s orders to stay in the house and rescued a young girl slave who’d been kidnapped and abused. And in Arizona, Anna Solomon sent her oldest son riding around nearby states to round up Jewish husbands for his sisters while she ran the Solomon Hotel—where “continental pastries” were served each morning with the help of a Chinese cook named Gin Awah Quang.
These Jewish women were enterprising, bold, and stubborn—and they were not alone. Across the plains, German and Finnish and Romanian women were doing versions of the same things, just as immigrant women today continue to do, whatever their marital circumstances. They survey their surroundings, consider their options, and get to work: creating domestic order and beginning the long process of becoming American.
Anna Solomon has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Kveller, One Story, the Missouri Review, the Georgia Review, and elsewhere, and has twice been awarded the Pushcart Prize. Her first novel, The Little Bride, will be published by Riverhead on September 6.