Rachel Calof's Story is a remarkable piece of Jewish-American history. It's the first-person narrative of a Russian Jew who came to the United States for an arranged marriage and ended up moving to North Dakota to homestead with her new husband and family. It's filled to the brim with personal recollections and details of everyday life.
Originally written in Yiddish and translated by Calof's son, the memoir tracks Calof's early life in Russia, her emigration, a brief stay in New York City and travel and life in the Midwest. She was born in 1876, came to America in 1894 and started writing her story in 1936; the book is centered on the time between 1894 and 1904. At barely 100 pages in length, her memoir does not recount the time in detail but nonetheless offers the reader a great deal of information about what it was like to eke out an existence in incredibly challenging conditions- daily life in a one-room house with her husband's family in close quarters, particularly in the wintertime; the early days of marriage and emigrant life; pregnancy and childbirth with little or no medical help; and the challenges of Jewish observance on the frontier.
Upon arrival in North Dakota, young Rachel is overwhelmed:
Dear God, I thought, whatever your reason, haven't I suffered enough in my nineteen years to pay for the rest of my life? The home I had always so desperately sought still eluded me. The people, the overwhelming prairie, America itself, seemed strange and terrible. I had no place to turn...Yet as always, a spark of resistance to my lot and a core of determination remained with me...Thank God. I would have great need of it before long. Time and again my resolve was to be tested to the limit.She describes indescribable pioneer conditions and shows her resourcefulness in setting up a house, finding food to eat among the region's plants- mushrooms, wild garlic, etc.- and building a relationship with her husband Abraham, a stranger to her when she arrived in New York.
Life darkens when Rachel starts to have children and is left in the care of her mother-in-law, whom she describes as a "religious fanatic" who fills her head with superstitions and fear, the "force" of whose "dark beliefs and suggestions found [her] terribly vulnerable in [her] already-distressed state of mind." Childbirth and childcare present nightmare scenario after nightmare scenario, made all the more challenging by illnesses and injuries to Rachel and her growing brood, as well as basic difficulties in finding enough food to eat and keeping clean under unbearable conditions.
Rachel finds some relief in a nearby friend and some (very) slowly accruing affluence, which allow for more, needed food and even some religious observance- but not enough for her mother-in-law, who finds Rachel's home is impure:
My mother-in-law became increasingly agitated. She insisted that the shochet [butcher responsible for seeing that animals were killed consistent with Jewish dietary laws] had betrayed his office [in allowing Rachel to eat non-kosher meat because she and her child were in mortal need of nourishment]. As for me, she promised that she would not even drink water in my house which would now be considered polluted. What a wonderful bonus. Everything worked out for the best, I thought. I had a delicious thought that maybe now she would refuse to move in with us next winter, and this proved to be the case. It would be an understatement to say that I was pleased.I like that Rachel shows a little tartness here; having suffered so much at the hands of this woman, her honesty is refreshing and real. Overall I found her to be very likable- tough, smart and determined, but also often realistically sad, angry and full of human feeling. Her account is often graphic and explicit when it comes to bodily functions and the very tough conditions under which she and her family lived- and, ultimately, thrived. But she offers a lot of first-hand information about pioneer life and immigration, and I think anyone interested in these themes in American history, and in the Jewish experience of them in particular, should run out and buy or borrow this amazing little book. I read it in two sittings, including the very illuminating supplemental information about the rest of Rachel's life and Jewish settlements in the Midwest.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.