Stepmother Russia, Foster Mother America: Identity Transitions in the New Odessa Jewish Commune, Odessa, Oregon, New York, 1881-1891. By Theodore H. Friedgut. Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2014. ix + 199 pp.
In the aftermath of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in March 1881 and a pogrom in Odessa the following May, many young Russian Jews turned to political activism. Some became Zionists and as members of BILU formed the first cohort of Russian Jews to immigrate to Palestine in 1882. Others, like future Forward editor Abraham Cahan, sought a solution through agricultural settlements in the United States, and founded the Am Olam (Eternal People) movement. Theodore H. Friedgut opens his profile of one segment of the Am Olam movement by remarking that he experienced a feeling of deja vu while writing the volume: he found his nineteenth-century historical subjects reflected back to him much of his own youthful idealism within the postwar Hashomer Hatzair movement in North America.
In Friedgut's telling, the story of Am Olam members' journey from Odessa to New Odessa, a short-lived Russian Jewish agricultural colony in Oregon, occurred alongside the gathering momentum of the mass migration of Jews from Russia after 1881. Am Olam members like Israel Mandelkern, a teacher who left Odessa under police order, paid to be smuggled into the Austro-Hungarian town of Brody. There they met with representatives of the Jewish communal self-defense organization, the Alliance Israelite Universelle, alerting them to a coming wave of Russian-Jewish emigration. After arriving in New York City in January 1882, the Odessa group of Am Olam members met with Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement, who introduced them to the philanthropist Jacob Schiff. Schiff provided them with training and employment in communities outside of New York City, thereby enabling them to gain the practical skills needed to aid their mission's success. In perhaps his most useful intervention, Friedgut clearly demonstrates how Western Jewish philanthropists played an instrumental role in this story: they provided funds, training, and employment opportunities to Am Olam members who, they hoped, would prove to be the vanguard of future waves of Russian Jewish settlers by attaining self-sufficiency outside of American urban centers.
In July of 1882, twenty-one Am Olam members set sail from New York to Panama and then traveled on to San Francisco and Portland, Oregon...