When researching for my historical fiction book, Nothing Here but Stones based on the Jewish Colony at Cotopaxi, I searched hard for research materials about the Jewish experience in the west. I found two very special books that helped me to better understand the experiences of Jewish women who immigrated to remote areas of the western United states. One book was Dakota Diaspora, by Sophie Turpin, and the other, And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher by Linda Mack Schloff. These two books gave a unique perspective of Jewish immigrants in the rural mostly unoccupied prairies and beyond.
Their lives were far different than the lives of Jews in urban areas where people were crowded together in cultural ghettos, often with poor living conditions, streets reeking of trash and urine, and jobs peddling or working in sweat shops, long hours of work for little pay.
In Sophie Turpin’s book, she writes of life growing up North Dakota. She reflects on persecution in Tsarist Russia, and the necessity of leaving. Many Jews in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s knew little about America, but held onto the hope that it would be a better place. They had heard stories about New York City and other urban centers, but were not prepared for a life on an isolated homestead where miles of empty prairie and the whims of nature were the biggest challenges.
For Sophie’s father it was welcome challenge. The new life represented freedom from oppression. He thrived on the hard work and promise of building a better future for his wife and his family. In America, he could own land and leave behind the stifling limitations of the pogroms—the hiding from vicious mobs and the rigid rules made only for Jews.
When Sophie’s mother arrived, she sank into bitterness and loneliness. She did not speak any English and had lost the comfort of nearby neighbors and friends. While Sophie’s father thrived, her mother turned to bickering and blaming. To Sophie, it seemed the isolated land, itself, had created a rift in her parents’ relationship.
In the end, Sophie’s mother was resolute. She soldiered on, but how much harder it must have been to bake and clean for the Sabbath when water needed to be carried to the house from a well at the bottom of the hill. Keeping Kosher was a constant challenge.
The book And Prairie Dogs Aren’t Kosher shed more light on Jewish women’s lives in the upper Midwest. This book is filled with the anecdotes of the families who had the common experience of leaving the old country to seek a better life. Not one woman described in the book shied from the work involved in creating a home in the middle of nowhere, but it was never easy.
One woman described their new home as “a little wooden shack with a tar paper roof…. We had no chairs. My mother sat on a sack of potatoes, my father a sack of flour, and I on a wooden box father had brought from town.” The rest of the house had one bed and a stove for cooking. Outside the windows, the prairie stretched forever interrupted occasionally by a few scattered, coffin-shaped buttes.” The writer goes onto say, “My mother looked out, saw no other human habitation. She had been brought up in a city. She was terrified.” (p. 66)
During my research, I wish I had had access to the book by Jeanne Abrams, Jewish Women Pioneering the Frontier Trail. It was published two years later. In her conclusion, Abrams points out that not only were Jewish women crucial to the survival of rural communities, but frontier living enabled them to consider a variety of possibilities not available to their urban counterparts. In the rural west, there was a necessity for women of all faiths to depend on each other in times of need, and the anti-Semitism that was focused on the Jews who clung together in the city ghettos was, if not absent, then less obvious in the expanses of the western landscape. Jewish women in the West explored and carved out roles for themselves that might not have been possible in a crowded city.
As cities in the West became a bigger part of the western landscape, Jewish women stepped into leadership roles and held jobs that might not have been available in other places. Western women of all faiths did the same, filling many niches that had previously been held exclusively by men. It’s no wonder that women in the western states attained the right for women to vote first, in some cases, 50 years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution became law in 1920.
Throughout all this, Jewish women maintained their faith and kept family as a central focus. With hard work and perseverance, they left the familiar behind and stepped into what was a foreign world for them. The West shaped Jewish women, and in turn Jewish women helped to shape the West.
Nancy Oswald is a retired teacher and award-winning author. Some of the remains of the Cotopaxi Jewish Colony are on the family ranch at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado where she currently lives. Her book, Nothing Here but Stones, based on Jewish colony, was a Spur Finalist and Willa Literary Award in 2005. Although she writes primarily historical fiction for young readers, she has also written non-fiction for varied audiences. For more about Nancy and her work, visit her website: www.nancyoswald.com, her Amazon author page, or find her at Filter Press books: authors@FilterPressBooks.com