Rachel Calof’s Story

Rachel Calof’s Story

Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains
Rachel Calof, afterword by Elizabeth Jameson, edited by J. Sanford Rikoon
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 09/22/1995
Format: Paperback 9 b&w photos
ISBN: 978-0-253-20986-3
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Calof’s [story] has the ‘electricity’ one occasionally finds in primary sources. It is powerful, shocking, and primitive, with the kind of appeal primary sources often attain without effort.... it is a strong addition to the literature of women’s experience on the frontier." —Lillian Schlissel

In 1894, eighteen-year-old Rachel Bella Kahn travelled from Russia to the United States for an arranged marriage to Abraham Calof, an immigrant homesteader in North Dakota. Rachel Calof’s Story combines her memoir of a hard pioneering life on the prairie with scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background and show her narrative to be both unique and a representative western tale. Her narrative is riveting and candid, laced with humor and irony.

The memoir, written by Rachel Bella Calof in 1936, recounts aspects of her childhood and teenage years in a Jewish community, (shtetl) in Russia, but focuses largely on her life between 1894 and 1904, when she and her husband carved out a life as homesteaders. She recalls her horror at the hardships of pioneer life—especially the crowding of many family members into the 12 x 14’ dirt-floored shanties that were their first dwellings. "Of all the privations I knew as a homesteader," says Calof, "the lack of privacy was the hardest to bear." Money, food, and fuel were scarce, and during bitter winters, three Calof households—Abraham and Rachel with their growing children, along with his parents and a brother’s family—would pool resources and live together (with livestock) in one shanty.

Under harsh and primitive conditions, Rachel Bella Calof bore and raised nine children. The family withstood many dangers, including hailstorms that hammered wheat to the ground and flooded their home; droughts that reduced crops to dust; blinding snowstorms of plains winters. Through it all, however, Calof drew on a humor and resolve that is everywhere apparent in her narrative. Always striving to improve her living c

Author Bio

J. SANFORD RIKOON is Research Associate Professor in the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author of Threshing in the Midwest, 1820–1940. ELIZABETH JAMESON, Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, is co-editor of The Women’s West.


““It is a human document of great power that I consumed at a single reading simply because I could not put it down.” —Studies in Contemporary Jewry “A moving memoir of an unusual Jewish immigrant experience: homesteading in North Dakota around the turn of the century. . . . This is a profile in courage, the story of how a woman with ingenuity, determination, and faith in God and herself survived—and eventually prospered.” —Kirkus Reviews “In 1894, the 18-year-old Calof, a Russian Jew, was shipped to the U.S. to marry an unknown man and stake a homesteading claim with him in North Dakota. She later set down her memories of that time in fluid prose that occasionally reveals a biting sense of humor. Although her circumstances were often pathetic, Calof never is. . . . an essay by J. Sanford Rikoon on the phenomenon of Jewish farm settlements provides fascinating background.” —Publishers Weekly “ . . . a powerful and often inspirational tribute to the human spirit. . . . the strength of her will and the nobility of her struggle come shining through. Her story is a quintessential American story, and one that all of us can benefit from reading.” —Booklist “ . . . Rachel Bella Calof’s autobiography is an inspiration for the strength, independence, and intelligence her life exemplifies.” —Lilith “Found a jewel at the American Booksellers Association convention. Writ in ’36 on a five-by-seven Clover Leaf linen tablet, Rachel Calof’s Story reaches out and grabs hold; an unsentimental memoir of marriage, childbirth, and heroinism on the hard North Dakota dirt. A one-night read, but it sticks to the guts.” —Carolyn White, Mirabella “Calof’s [story] has the ‘electricity’ one occasionally finds in primary sources. It is powerful, and shocking, and primitive . . . ” —Lillian Schlissel “The book is a quietly compelling monument to the triumph of the human spirit. It is also primary source material for the serious historian . . .” —The Annals of Iowa In 1894, eighteen-year-old Rachel Bella Kahn traveled from Russia to the U.S. for an arranged marriage to Abraham Calof. Her memoir focuses on her life between 1894 and 1904, when she and her husband carved out a life as North Dakota homesteaders. Under harsh and primitive conditions, Calof persevered, drawing on a humor and resolve that is everywhere apparent in her narrative. In illuminating accompanying essays, J. Sanford Rikoon traces Jewish settlement in the heartland and Elizabeth Jameson examines how Calof “writes from the interior spaces of private life” to reconfigure our versions of the American West.”

“I came upon Laura Ingalls Wilder's prairie stories as an adult, while reading them to my son. I was as captivated by Rachel Calof's autobiography Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains . . . which I read in one sitting, mesmerized by a Jewish pioneer spirit as strong and as compelling as that of her Christian counterpart. . . . This beautifully written testament is a reminder that we have much to bless, every day, for a world with washing machines and sewage systems and separate rooms to put mothers-in-law.Fall 2009”
 — C. Devora (Viva) Hammer, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Development of Jewish Farm Settlements in the Heartland and North Dakota
My Story—A Life Worth Living by Rachel Bella Calof
Epilogue by Jacob Calof
Rachel Calof’s Life as Collective History by Elizabeth Jameson