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New Novel Sheds Light on Unsung History

Jews as hardy settlers of the prairie

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Several years ago I flew to Aberdeen, South Dakota, to report a story about a vinegar museum in nearby Roslyn (pop. 183). The curator arranged for me to stay with a couple who’d retired from farming and rented out rooms. The sturdy, big-boned pair was of German and Scandinavian descent, with families that had been in the area for more than a century. Their forbears had come as homesteaders, receiving federal grants to settle the prairie. One afternoon they took me around the grounds and stopped by what looked to me merely like a big dirt mound. This, I was told, was the original homestead.

They also insisted I join them at church on Sunday. It was a Lutheran service and though they knew I was Jewish (and asked me what food I avoided, but nevertheless served me quiche with bits of sausage in it), it meant a lot to them to have join them. They wanted to share their joy in faith. I obliged; they had opened their home to me, after all. They said there was a Jew who lived nearby but it was obvious that, by and large, the area was not home to a significant community and, as far as I assumed, the history of the Jews in South Dakota was not nearly as long as the history of northern European Lutherans.

Then, this past weekend, I picked up The Little Bride, the debut novel by Anna Solomon, after having seen her, last week, read excerpts alongside the singer-songwriter Clare Burson. (They reprise their dual performance later this month at the JCC in Manhattan.) The novel tells the story of Minna Losk, a 16-year old mail-order-bride, purchased by a 40-year-old Jewish homesteader in the Dakota territory in the 1880s. (Perhaps the most prominent fictional Jew of that time in place is Sol Star of HBO’s Deadwood.) Though Jews in the desolate place where Minna lands are few and far between they do exist there—struggling to farm and endure the brutal winter just as their recently-arrived Christian neighbors are doing. She lives, with her new husband and his two sons, in a tiny mud house, which, I imagine, ends up in a state similar to the mud hut remains I saw in Roslyn. Minna’s is an unenviable life full of hardship and she understandably questions whether she’s better off in America after all.

Solomon’s novel is based on fact, as she herself reported in a Tablet Magazine article. The likes of Minna—Jews in the middle of what looks like nowhere homesteading, tilling, escaping persecution—existed. They were trying to build a new homeland, even if it was diasporic. This knowledge adds dimension to the predominant historical narrative that the journey of Jews from Eastern Europe to the United States 100-plus years ago landed them in big cities. As Minna Losk’s story shows, the American dream can frequently be a living nightmare, and Lower East Side tenements were not the only hell.

Related: Pioneer Women [Tablet Magazine]
The Little Bride [B&N]

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Sol star is not fictional.

Susan J Greenberg says:

I just read the article by Sara Ivry. While traveling through the Dakotas a couple some years ago I picked up a book entitled: “And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher” 1996, and published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. It may be worth reviewing or at least taking a look at the book.

Marc Tracy says:

@sol ugh that is MY fault, I added that in. So interesting that he was real!

mark epstein says:

This book details immigrant Jews coming to the U.S. as homesteaders in the mid-west. American Jews and Urban Jews alike should be made aware of the history of their brethren in Canada, South Africa, and Argentina. During the tumulteous times of the late 1800s and early 1900′s where European Jews were subject to pogroms and persecution arose a movement to have Jews immigrate to desolate vacant areas to form farming colonies in the Pairies of Canada (Sasketchwan), Argentina and South Africa. They laid the foundations for several colonies of homesteaders in Saskatchewan. Hirsch, Hoffer, and Lipton, in Saskatchewan, had colonies of East European Jewish homesteaders brought to Canada by Baron de Hirsch’s and Herman Landau’s Jewish Colonization Society. The largest and longest-lasting was at Lipton. The settlers had travelled by train from Bukovina to Germany, by ship to eastern Canada, and by train to Fort Qu’Appelle. My family was from Romania and Belorussia. We settled in Lipton and lived in mud huts in extreme conditions clearing the lands and starting small businesses in the local towns. It was a hard life, and these farming colonies eventually grew extinct as the sons and daughters went to University and moved to the cities in the West: like Vancouver, regina, Calgary and Winnipeg. When you hear about Jewish Canadian Farmers or Argentinian Jewish Cowboys their history is from the Baron De Hirsh’s colonization project. Not many eastern Jewish urban dwellers know the history of the Western Jews of Canada or Argentina but I encourage you to read more about this history. It is somewhat akin to the kibbutz movement but Baron De Hirsch felt Zionism was a fantasy and felt the Prairies and Pampas farming colonies were better bets to have Jews survive free of persecution.

Joan Levin Sacks says:

Excellent article. My mother & her parents (Rebecca & Samuel Kristol) were homesteaders in Clarion, Utah 1913- 1919. We celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the Clarion Utah Jewish Farmers & Homesteaders Colony in Salt Lake City, Clarion & Gunnison, Utah September 9 & 10. The event was organized by 25 local residents & 95 descendants took part in the festivities. For more details, google Clarion 100th Anniversary.

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New Novel Sheds Light on Unsung History

Jews as hardy settlers of the prairie

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