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Rosh Hashanah and Rachel Calof


In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year,” which is why the holiday is commonly known as Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah began yesterday at sunset, so today marks the first day of the Jewish Year 5765; the holiday will end tomorrow night.

Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days of the year – a time to reflect on past mistakes and plan changes for the new year. The observance was instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25, in which the Bible refers to it as Yom Ha-Zikkaron (the day of remembrance) or Yom Teruah (the day of the sounding of the shofar). One of the most important aspects is the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn that is blown somewhat like a trumpet.

A less formal but popular observance is eating apples dipped in honey, which is symbolic of wishing for a sweet new year. Another practice is Tashlikh or “casting off,” which takes place on the afternoon of the first day. One walks to a river or creek and empties their pockets into the flowing water to symbolically cast off their sins.

A significant Jewish colony began forming around Devils Lake in 1881, when the assassination of Tsar Alexander II led to increased religious intolerance in the Russian Empire. As with Germans from Russia, many Jews fled to America to escape persecution, but unlike the German-Russians, many Jewish immigrants were unprepared for the transition to life as a prairie farmer.

In 1895, 19 year-old Rachel Bella Kahn had endured an abundant series of misfortunes in her Russian homeland. Orphaned, physically abused, and separated from her siblings, she was forced to work as a maid for a rich aunt who treated her as little more than a nuisance. A girl was expected to marry by age 18, but when Rachel fell for the butcher’s son, the family was scandalized. The possibility that one of their own – no matter how desperate or lowly – might marry beneath their social level, was unacceptable, and the relationship was cut off.

Rachel’s only chance to escape her circumstances came when she discovered an opportunity to impersonate a woman who backed out of an arranged marriage to a man who had left for America three years earlier. When Abraham Calof accepted the exchange, Rachel’s rich relatives begrudgingly gave her fifty dollars to make the strenuous trip across Russia and Poland to the ship that would take her to the United States. For 20 of the 22 days at sea, Rachel was violently seasick. When she arrived at Ellis Island, her betrothed fetched her, and they set out to join his family on their adjoining homesteads about 30 miles from Devil’s Lake.

In her memoirs, she wrote, “After a long ride across the limitless prairie we arrived there, where I met...my future mother-in-law. As we climbed down from the wagon I looked again at this assembled group and my heart sank still lower. The two brothers were so dirty and unkempt. They had wild unshaven faces. Their skin was broken out in big pimples and they wore rags wrapped around their feet in place of shoes. I learned that the women had no shoes at all but were wearing the men’s shoes this day in my honor.

“Even this dismal spectacle was inadequate to prepare me for the scene inside the miserable shack which was this woman’s home. As we entered, my heart turned to ice at what greeted my eyes. This was my first sight of what awaited me as a pioneer woman.”

Tomorrow, we’ll continue with Rachel Calof’s story.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm