September 17, 2012

Homesteaders and High Holidays

By Sarah Imhoff

On the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur traditional prayers are in the plural: “May it be your will, Lord our God and the God of our ancestors that you renew us for a good and a sweet year,” a Rosh Hashanah prayer pleads. As Jonathan Sarna points out, even the prayers asking for forgiveness during Yom Kippur use communal language.[1] “We” have sinned, and therefore “we” ask for communal forgiveness. These are, at their essence, communal religious holidays.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, marks one of the two high points of synagogue attendance. The other, Yom Kippur, follows ten days after Rosh Hashanah. Jews observe these high holy days as a community, often with hundreds of their fellow Jews. Even many of those who do not set foot in a synagogue during the rest of the year or have decisively left behind other aspects of Jewish life appear.

What would these holidays be apart from the company of others? For Jews in the American west in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, finding or creating a community was no easy feat. Even learning the dates that corresponded to the Jewish calendar would require a letter, a visit, or some kind of contact with other Jews. For Rachel Calof, who became a North Dakota homesteader just months after her 1894 arrival in New York, the early years of frontier life were lonely despite her in-laws crowding into her tiny home. Apart from her husband’s family, she had no nearby Jewish neighbors, let alone a synagogue. Her first decade as a homesteader was hard, and it was hard on her Judaism.

The American west represented a radical departure from most of the rest of Jewish history. These Jews left behind the shtetlach of Eastern Europe, the cities and towns of Western Europe, and neighborhoods in American cities where they found Jewish communal life available, or even the default mode of everyday life. But when they struck out as pioneers into the sparsely populated landscape, the vast majority of their nearest neighbors were non-Jews. The opportunity to convene a minyan (quorum of ten adult male Jews) seldom arose, and ritual functionaries might visit only a few times a year. On the frontier, a Jewish community represented a major achievement, and a rare one at that.

By 1910, the Calof farm had grown significantly, and Rachel and her husband Abraham had become prominent members of their region. In her memoir, originally written in Yiddish, she begins her recollection of this social transformation with an account of the holidays: “Our home became the center for all the Jewish holiday celebrations. Jewish farmers came from far and near to gather at our home for these occasions, some traveling for days by horse and buggy or on horseback. These were wonderful and festive events. Everyone stayed for as long as the holiday lasted. We put up for the visiting children’s sleeping quarters, and in the house sleepers occupied all the chairs and covered the floors.”[2] Calof associated her economic success with her ability to bring together a community for the holidays. Her first recollections about her upward mobility weren’t about material or prestige; they were about convening a Jewish community. Calof’s memoirs and her palpable joy at the opportunity to host a Jewish community—however ad hoc the sleeping arrangements—suggest not that the community gathers together in order to be blessed and forgiven, but rather that the gathering together itself constitutes the blessing.

[1] Jonathan Sarna, A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew, (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 112.
[2] Rachel Calof’s Story (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1995), 85-86.