Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains

A couple weeks ago during Shabbos I read "Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains" (Indiana University Press, 1995). It is what the title suggests, the memoir of Rachel Calof, a Jewish woman who "took the road less traveled," literally. She left the Old Country in 1894 to meet her husband-to-be in America, and they moved to North Dakota prairie land to stake a claim, start a farm, and raise a family. Needless to say, it's almost impossible for me to imagine the difficulties the two of them and their children experienced on the frontier. They arrived with only the shirts on their backs, but they eventually prospered. One passage moved me deeply, and I want to share it here. I know it's a little long, but it's worth it:
My spirits rose with the promise of spring and the improvement in my health. I began casting about for something to do which would improve our lot. One of our big problems was our water supply. We had dug three wells, each to a depth of seventy-five feet with poor results. Now our water supply was so scant that I decided to find some usable water in some low place on the prairie where the snow melt might run together. I did discover such a place about a mile away. I carried two pailfuls from that place, but when I got back to the shack I saw that the water was full of worms and grass. The water would have to be boiled to be usable. The solution to the problem was not so easy as we had just run out of fuel. There was nothing with which to start a fire. I was determined though, and again went out into the prairie which held many provisions if one only knew where to look. I took with me only a rope and my huge [pregnant] belly.

About two miles distant I came across a place where new grass was growing through a bed of dried-out grass. The dried grass was plentiful and looked dry enough to burn. I was delighted with my find. My pleasure, though, was tempered with a certain dread. I knew little of the wildlife of this country, and i became fearful that I would encounter a snake in the beds of dried grass. I hesitated, but soon my stomach informed me how hungry I was, and the child within me needed food too. My husband labored in the field removing rocks and I knew that he too must be hungry. I needed that boiled water to prepare some kind of a meal and I said to myself, "Don't be a spoiled person. You must risk it. Even if there is a snake there, you must try." I stepped into the area. No snake bit me and soon I was enthusiastically gathering the dried grass. Quickly I gathered a great bundle and tied it into a compact bundle with my rope.

According to the sun it was already midmorning and Abe would be coming in from the field not long after noon. I had to get home quickly but the food left in the shacks was only a little flour, some barley, some soured milk, and a little butter. A really daring idea came to me. I decided to spend a little more time looking around the place to see what else it might offer. Promptly, my further exploration brought results. I found what appeared to be wild garlic. I was delighted and ate a kernel. It tasted wonderful and didn't seem to harm me, so I gathered quite a number of bunches. My ambition by now was really on the rise. Bread and garlic alone make a poor meal. I enlarged my search area and before long I came across plants which unquestionably were wild mushrooms. Now I knew that some mushrooms were deadly poisonous. Still I thought that this was a good time to take a chance. I bit into one and held it in my mouth. It didn't burn or taste bad, so I swallowed it. I waited a while for something to happen. Nothing did, and I gathered an apronful of the mushrooms, and with my garlic and the bundle of dried grass on my shoulder, I started for home happy with my accomplishments and eager to see how I could put them to use.

Arriving at the shack, I immediately began my preparations. First I sieved the water through the fabric of a flour sack. I kneaded the dough and put it in the oven. I cleaned the mushrooms and steeped them in hot water. I then chopped up the garlic, put butter (we had our cow back) in the pan, and fried everything together. This meal made in large measure with food gathered from the wild prairie was simply delicious
. . .
My husband would soon be coming through the door. I was so happy, truly in seventh heaven, and very proud. I had used my brains an my nerve and as a result my husband would soon sit down to a fine dinner, just the two of us alone.
. . .
Never was there a more delightful dinner than that one. The food was delectable and our shanty was filled with happiness. After we finished our meal, Abe insisted on knowing all the details of my accomplishment. As he listened, his gladness became tinged with a sadness that our condition was such that I was reduced to searching the prairie for food. But nothing could destroy the magic of that hour. . . So ended a charming interlude in the harshness of our lives. It was a great moment for us and its memory has been a sustaining treasure to me over the years.
pp. 41-43
Talk about eshes chayil!


  1. haha! Uri, I had the realization the other day that one of the most impactful things in my life has been my mother reading "little house on the prairie" to me as a young girl. we read the whole series. it, more than anything else, made me want to be a pioneer. Where does your drive come from?

  2. Just first let me say that the reason I was drawn to this book is not because I'm drawn to pioneering so much as because I love reading about modern Jewish farmers keeping the agricultural tradition of Judaism alive. This woman was Orthodox for all intents and purposes. This particular passage struck me because of the deep emotions revealed in providing a good foraged meal. It also made me think of the halacha that if you haven't tasted a fruit since it last grew in season, you say a special additional blessing on it (shehechianu). Because of the year-round availability of fruits these days, most people have forgotten how special it is to taste a new growth in its season. I think this passage captures the excitement that our Sages and ancestors experienced upon tasting a seasonal fruit in its season.

    As for my own experiences, I spent a lot of time camping as a kid. My first backpacking trip was for two weeks in the Sierras when I was 11. I spent many starry nights sitting around campfires. I have strong memories of listening to Sons of the Pioneers, Walter Brennan, and the Highwaymen in my father's 4x4 as we drove over mountain roads to or from a campsite. One of my favorite movies of all time was Last of the Mohicans. Those things did influence me.