The original text of Rachel Calof's memoir.

Author:Peleg, Kristine
Position:In Search Of ...

Written in Yiddish in the 1930S, Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains was published in an English translation by Indiana University Press in 1995. It was immediately recognized as a unique immigrant narrative, and, reflecting its qualities as an illuminating source, was adopted for use in many college courses. A nearly universal positive reception among both academic and nonacademic audiences supported five editions by 2002, with a publication run of more than 11,000 paperback copies. (1)

However, scrutiny of the English translation of Calof's memoir suggested to this writer that it was somehow untrue to the original. Rather than the sixty-seven pages in length claimed for the manuscript by the Indiana University Press edition, examination of a copy of the manuscript at the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest revealed that it is actually more than 250 pages long. In addition, a mysterious, undated, and unaddressed letter from Calof's son, Jacob, in an unorganized file at the same location, revealed that, when he received the manuscript following the death of his sister Elizabeth, it contained "to my surprise, these pages.... I can only surmise that she may have begun to write her memoirs on another occasion and that these pages are part of that endeavor." What exactly Jacob Calof meant by "these pages" is impossible to discern, but his reference leads one to wonder whether Rachel Calof's work was even greater in length than the manuscript's 250 pages.

Rachel Bella Kahn Calof immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine in 1894 at the age of eighteen. She homesteaded in North Dakota for twenty-three years with her husband, Abraham, and had nine children before they moved to St. Paul. In 1936, she wrote her memoirs in Yiddish. She died in 1952.

In the late 1970s, Rachel's daughter, Elizabeth, arranged for a translation into English by her second cousin, Molly Shaw, and Rachel's son, Jacob, later edited the translated text ("compiled" was the word he used), in order, as he said, "to put the story into a literary form." His compilation of the English translation was typed and distributed to family members and to various Jewish archives. Subsequently, J. Sanford Rikoon came across one of the typed manuscripts in the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and worked with Jacob to prepare an edited volume for publication. (2)

In May 2001, this writer received permission from the family to examine Rachel Calof's original manuscripts. Manuscripts in the plural is the operative word, since there are far more notes and files than the single manuscript described in the Indiana Press edition. What emerged in the course of the examination is that issues regarding the translation's intended audience, its accuracy, the impact of editing, and the effect of the collaboration between Rikoon and Jacob Calof exist. What became clear is that the pioneering mother's voice has been altered in the transition from the original memoir to the published translation. Incremental changes that a first-generation American son (Jacob) made to his immigrant mother's tale about "the West," their family, and their religion reveal significant details about Rachel's original narrative. The discrepancies between the original and Jacob's version permit us to see the rise of a successful western pioneer family and its Americanization, in contrast to an original text far less invested in this agenda.

Most of the research on Jewish immigration in the late 1880s to the United States from Eastern Europe focuses on urban settlement. Ironically, most Jewish immigrants did not come from large cities, and urban life posed difficulties of adjustment. But neither did they come with a heritage of land ownership or farming, either of which would have made homesteading the obvious choice. While the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of the United States attempted to move the new immigrants westward, it was obvious, according to historian Ronald Sanders, that "few of the refugees were either qualified or inclined to become American frontier farmers." (3) Nonetheless, funding was established for those who were willing to become homesteaders. The Society and the Baron de Hirsch Fund made loans available, and evidence indicates that the Calof family took advantage of such loans. (4) William Sherman points out that in Ramsey County, where the Calofs settled, from 1887 to 1889, "over ninety adult Jewish men and women are known to have filed" land claims. (5) He suggests that, while the Jewish settlers succeeded in obtaining homesteads, they were temporary settlers. They were, as Sherman writes,

ill-equipped to handle the harsh conditions of prairie frontier farming. This, coupled with bad weather and crop failure, caused many of them to leave the area as soon as their claims were "proved up" and they had learned English. After acquiring the cash sale price for their land, they moved.... (6) But this was not the only way in which the Calof family "moved." Gradually they became Americanized, in accordance with what Werner Sollors describes as the "transformation of an East European Jewish immigrant into an American citizen." (7) However, Calof's original manuscript does little to document this change. Rather, the story of the family's Americanization was gradually introduced in the transition of Rachel Calof's account from Yiddish manuscript to published English form. By subtly and not-so-subtly changing tone, vocabulary, sentence structure, and narrative construction, Rachel's son, Jacob, significantly altered the...

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