Rachel the Pioneer Woman

On Friday I went to a local rural library in search of a particular book which the online catalog said was available.  I couldn’t find it in the shelves, so I asked the librarian for her assistance.  As she bent down to pull the requested book from the shelf, another book which had somehow been shoved behind it fell onto the floor.  On the front cover was an old sepia photograph from the turn of the century, featuring a picture of a very Jewish-looking woman.  Intrigued, I picked up the book from the floor, and with a quick glance, I said to the librarian, “Hmm . . . looks interesting.  I will take this book too!”

Little did I know how Divine Providence guided me to find this most unusual autobiography, translated to English from the original Yiddish.  Rachel is a young Jewish woman from a Russian shtetl, who agrees to marry a Jewish emigrant pioneer who is homesteading in North Dakota.  How this obscure book made its way to my little rural library in Maine is a mystery!  But “Rachel Calof’s Story” was so fascinating that I could not put it down and read it cover to cover in one sitting!

At the age of 4, Rachel’s mother passed away.  From that time onwards, it seems, life for her and her siblings was one of true misery.  The physical and emotional abuse they suffered at the hands of their stepmother and, later, other relatives makes Cinderella’s dreary pre-prince existence sound like a cakewalk!  The possibility of a shidduch (arranged marriage) to a Jewish man in the “goldeneh medina”  – – America – – seemed to be her only hope of escaping her cruel life in Russia.  Sadly, by agreeing to the match, she would never see her beloved, abused and sickly siblings again, a fact that tormented her for the rest of her life.

Despite a few misadventures along the way, Rachel finally meets her arranged husband-to-be when she passes through Ellis Island  — and thankfully, he does seem to be a decent fellow.  Coming from a village in Russia, she is overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of New York, so she doesn’t mind when her fiance tells her that they will be traveling by train to the then-new state of North Dakota, where he and his recently-arrived relatives would stake a claim and homestead land.  Who could imagine a Jew owning land and becoming a successful farmer in Russia at the time of the czar?  It sounded like a dream come true and Rachel decided she would do anything and everything necessary to make her future husband’s dream a reality.

After the long journey by rail and horse and wagon across the never-ending prairie, Rachel finally reached the patch of land that would be her home.  The year was 1894.  She was horrified to discover there was no home, and no money even to buy the nails, much less the lumber, to build one.  Instead, there were three flimsy 12′ x 14′ shanties  that housed her parents-in-law, her brothers-in-law and their wives, and an assortment of children.  (Later a prairie wind would upend one of the shacks.)  Winter was coming and there was only a limited amount of cow dung to heat their homes; but even with this there was not enough fuel to heat the three shacks, so the families doubled up in one of the shacks along with their shared livestock.    (They didn’t have money for a barn and if left outdoors, the chickens, oxen, and cow would freeze while standing in the snow.)

Rachel Calof does not whitewash the immense difficulty of living in such close quarters with her husband’s family.  Tempers flared; there was never enough to eat; children were sickly and suffered grievous injuries; the house was so dirty it was nauseating.  The utter lack of privacy was demoralizing.  “In those precarious winters of the first years when so many people, and animals as well, huddled together in a tiny space,” Rachel writes, “my yearning was not for a larger shack but rather for the dignity of privacy.”

Indeed, as her youngest son Jacob writes of his mother in the book’s epilogue, “She seldom spoke of the past, but in the times when I observed her in those rare moments of introspection and reverie, I understood full well that this was private property, no trespassing permitted.  I believe that having been denied privacy for most of her years, she regarded the occasional opportunity for self-communion as one of the most prized attainments, finally, of her life.”

And yet, Rachel not only endured the many trials and tribulations she faced, she persevered and eventually triumphed, meanwhile raising nine children who miraculously lived to adulthood in a place where the simple act of giving birth was commonly a life-threatening endeavor for both mother and infant.

Rachel’s description of her eldest son’s bris is especially moving. It was a costly affair:  a mohel had to brought in from afar, and they had to prepare a festive meal for their guests with food they didn’t have and without the money to buy it.  But, Rachel writes,

. . . now suddenly a wonderful and spontaneous excitement seized us all, old and young alike.  For years, there had been little cause for celebration for any of us, and now it was as though a great yearning to be joyous, to reaffirm that life was worthwhile, was expressed through this (bris). 

When one reads about Rachel’s trials and tribulations of being a pioneer woman, one wonders how she found the strength to go on.  She concludes,

I had traveled a long and often tortuous way from the little shtetl in Russia where  I was born.  It wasn’t an easy road by any means, but if you love the living of life you must know the journey was well worth it.”

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tiger Mike on December 30, 2013 at 12:51 am

    I just ordered the book. I’ll lie and say its for my wife.

    Reply

  2. Please write back and let me know how you liked it. My husband (who doesn’t usually go for these things) couldn’t put it down, either.

    Reply

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