Rachel Calof’s Memoirs
In 1998, Margie Wolfe was asked by the Jewish Community Center in Toronto, Canada to organize a program celebrating the importance of International Women’s Day. On March 8 of that year, Wolfe presented a program at the Center entitled Women Reading Jewish Women Writers. “Wolfe asked four prominent Jewish women in the literary world to choose the work of one of their favorite Jewish women writers to read for the evening.” Two of the readers chose very well-known writers for their pieces, but the other two chose obscure readings. One of those obscure pieces was chosen by Helen Redner, the director of Toronto’s Jewish Book Fair. Redner chose the story of a young Russian homesteader who had immigrated to North Dakota. The reading Redner selected was taken from the book Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains. The book is a compilation of Rachel’s memoirs, and was published by her children after her death. Whereas the original documents were written by Rachel in Yiddish, the American Jewish Archives had the writings translated into English before their publication. Rachel’s story describes “...in simple, yet vivid and unforgettable prose...” the immense hardships faced by frontier women on the plains, and the indomitable spirit that confronted and overcame those struggles.
Rachel Calof was born in Russia in 1876. Her mother passed away when she was only a young child, and her father abandoned her and her siblings shortly thereafter to the care of an uncaring stepmother. Rachel was sent to America when she reached the age of eighteen as a mail-order bride. She had no previous communication with the man that was to be her husband, and no idea as to the conditions she would face on the American plains. Rachel’s soon-to-be husband, Abraham Calof, met the young girl in New York City. From there, the couple made their way back to Devil’s Lake, North Dakota to join Abraham’s family. The Calof’s were ambitious homesteaders and had already made several claims in the area by the time that Rachel arrived in 1894. Rachel’s memoirs document the struggles of living in the family’s small one-room homestead shack, the financial hardships, and the shortage of food and fuel. Despite these struggles, Rachel and Abraham raised seven children and became known as successful pioneers in the area. Rachel Calof passed away in Seattle, Washington in 1954.
--Jayme L Job