All his life he’d heard or read from the books of Moses that the children of Israel had a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them out of Egypt into the Promised Land, but that was the Torah and this was America, there was none of that going on for Samuel Smilowitz when he brought his family out of New York City – not unless you count the tall white towers of cloud they saw from the train when they entered the Plains. Those clouds filled the sky but they didn’t lead anyone anywhere and they weren’t exactly pillars – more like anvils for God to pound out sparks, some nights.
But he and his family were riding the train and the train knew where it was going: Ashley, North Dakota, the Promised Land – home.
“They came to establish land grants,” says Hershel Premack, the grandson of Samuel Smilowitz. “I don’t know if it was 160 acres or 640 acres or whatever. It must have been someplace around 1905, 1907, that my grandfather packed up his family in New York City and took them to Ashley, North Dakota.”
The family knows a few of the details. They know that the Jewish Agricultural Aid Society of New York helped arrange for Jewish homesteaders to come to the Dakotas as part of a back-to-the-land movement. But to this day, the family doesn’t know how well prepared Samuel Smilowitz was for life on the prairies.
“I really don’t know what he did in the Old County except that once in a while someone would say he was a dairy farmer, or his family were dairy farmers.”
Samuel Smilowitz didn’t stay in Ashley, N.D. From there he moved his family across the state line to Ipswich, in South Dakota, and then on to Aberdeen, already a regional trade center, at about the start of the First World War. Somewhere along the way he dropped the last part of his name and started going by “Smilo,” though the family never knew if he actually changed it legally – the Dakota Central Telephone Directory from Aberdeen still lists his last name as “Smilowitz” in January 1919, when he had the telephone number 6053.
“He lived here until 1938, I think, and then retired and moved to Los Angeles,” says Premack, who still lives in Aberdeen.
The Am Olam
But the migration that brought Smilowitz and his colleagues to the steppes of North Dakota and ultimately to South Dakota was preceded by an earlier movement. Violet & Orlando J. Goering, in a historical paper about South Dakota’s Jewish farmers published in 1983 by the South Dakota State Historical Society, called them “would-be agrarians” – the Am Olam.
The Goerings’ paper describes the Am Olam as “well educated, secularized, Russian Jewish youth, who emigrated to the United States with the express intent of setting up utopian agricultural communities.” They founded two such colonies in South Dakota, Cremieux and Bethlehem Yehudah, both near Mitchell. The colonists wanted to live on the land.
“It symbolized not only a means of livelihood, but the attainment of full manhood and citizenship,” the Goehrings write. “The dream took form on the barren hills of Israel, the pampas of Argentina, and the plains of the Dakotas.”
“Am Olam” means “Eternal People.” The organization, founded in Odessa, takes its name from a famous essay about the Jewish people by Perez Smolenskin.
The movement’s leader, Herman Rosenthal, a Kiev merchant, arrived in New York in August 1881 and soon after founded “the First Agricultural Colony of Russian Jews in America” in Sicily Island, La. But children died of malaria and a Mississippi River flood in spring 1882 washed the colony away like driftwood.
Rosenthal regrouped. His next set of colonists arrived in Mitchell, Dakota Territory, on July 5, 1882, where they promptly boiled stout Russian tea in the street to celebrate their arrival in Dakota.
They named the new colony Cremieux in honor of a French Jewish philanthropist. They founded it on the county line between Baker Township in Davison County and Aurora Township in Aurora County, some 25 miles southwest of Mitchell. The land was virgin prairie. As many as 200 people lived in the colony when it was at its largest, though the colony started to disband already by 1885.
“Though highly idealistic and willing to sacrifice all for the common good, the Am Olam were secular in orientation, and, in sharp contrast to the typical Orthodox Jewish immigrant, not overly concerned about religious observances,” the Goehrings write. “Cremieux had no synagogues or religious leaders. Housewives were under no compunction to keep a kosher kitchen. Pigs were raised, and a young litter was given as a wedding gift.”
Bethlehem Yehudah, the Am Olam’s second attempt to found a colony in what is now South Dakota, got its start in September 1882, a few months after the first colony. It was about three miles northwest of Cremieux in Aurora Township of Aurora County. It also failed in 1885, though many of the people from those colonies made good in Mitchell, Sioux Falls or other communities.
Ellen Premack, the daughter of Herschel and Bea Premack and executive director of the Denver-based Mizel Museum, which explores the Jewish experience, said it wasn’t unusual for Jewish homesteaders to move into other trades. While not exactly urban by modern definitions, many of those people were definitely not rural, either, Premack explains.
“Urban has a different meaning a hundred or a hundred and twenty or thirty years ago,” she said. “It’s not like they came from big cities. A big city then would have been Budapest, Prague, Minsk, Pinsk, Moscow. Most people emigrated from the smaller towns. Those would be urban communities for their time. Back in the old country they were the city people – they weren’t the farmers back in their hometowns.”
Nor did they, in many cases, remain farmers for very long in the New World.
“People thought they could homestead and farm. It was opportunity. There were Jewish ranchers, Jewish farmers. Some people remained ranchers who had herds of cattle. And most of the people who were farmers ended up in the small towns being merchants.”
That, Ellen Premack notes, was a natural transition.
“They saw the small towns as being sort of the small shtetls from which they had come from in Eastern Europe. Every little neighborhood had its own butcher or tailor or little grocery store market or some kind of merchant.”
And some of those merchants from the small communities helped bolster the larger Jewish communities in regional trade centers.
“Many, many people became scrap dealers. That’s what my grandfather did in Aberdeen. He bought one car, took it apart and sold all the pieces, and he had enough money for two cars. And then he took apart those two cars and sold all the pieces and he had enough money for four cars. And then it just grew from there.
“People moved to Aberdeen, to Steamboat, Colorado, Mitchell, South Dakota, any of these places because it was an opportunity for a new, better start for their family than what they had in Europe.”
Coming to America
People with family ties to those Jewish homesteaders still tend a Jewish cemetery near Ashley, N.D. One of them is Rebecca Bender, who grew up in a Minneapolis suburb but who eventually moved back to her father’s hometown, Eureka, S.D. – partly due to the tug of the prairie.
“Two of my grandfather’s brothers were killed in the 1905 pogroms in Russia, so my grandfather was the only son left in the family. It was at that point that the family made the decision that they were coming to America – for freedom. For our family, on my dad’s side, the Dakotas are a symbol of that freedom, of the independence, of appreciating America, of the beauty of the prairie. All of those things wrapped up together,” Bender told the Capital Journal.
“As my grandfather said in some of his writings, he felt that their community proved that Jewish people could be farmers, and Jewish people could make a success of farming.”
That’s interesting to Bender, since the conventional view in literature is that the colony at Ashley, like some other Jewish colonies, was a short-lived experiment that wasn’t necessarily successful.
“In the words of a homesteader who actually homesteaded, he felt it was successful. They were not on good land, they were on very rocky land, but they did as well as their neighbors did on the same rocky land.”
Bender said she was taught to value the experience of her grandfather, Joe, and her great-grandfather, Kiva Bender, and his wife, Rebecca Bender, for whom she is named.
“My dad, Kenneth (Keva) Bender, was the first volunteer for World War II from McPherson County, South Dakota, which includes Eureka and Leola. He had a very strong sense of his roots and of doing his part as a Jewish-American for his community and for his country. When we would go back to visit Eureka, his hometown, we would always drive to Ashley to say prayers at the cemetery,” Bender recalls.
“Even on warm days, the wind, the way it whipped across the prairie as we would stand at the cemetery, was unlike anything I had experienced growing up in a suburban community. I tried to picture them, of course, being in sod houses on this land that was not the best land, because most of the good homesteading land had already been taken by the time they got there.”
Bender’s family moved to Eureka after living on the homestead for some years. They owned a general store from about 1919 to 1949. But the family moved on to Minneapolis after their last child graduated from Eureka High School.
“I think my dad, being a good re-teller of history and family history, made my sister and me aware of what our ancestors did – how much they loved being in America and the freedom to own land, which they were not allowed to do in Russia.
I remember someone once saying to my Grandpa Joe, ‘Do you still love Russia? Is Russia your motherland?’ And he said, ‘Are you kidding? Why would anyone love a country that treats its citizens that way? I love America.’”
And, Bender adds, the example of homesteader fortitude has been profound for her family.
“I remember when I had been working at a law firm in Minneapolis and then I was setting off on my own,” she said. “They had a going-away party for me. People were saying, ‘Why would you go out on your own? Why would you do that when you have a job where you’re doing fairly well here at a large law firm?’ I remember saying, ‘My grandfather, Joe, came to this country and could not speak English and had no money and didn’t know how to farm and taught himself, working with the German farmers around him, taught himself to be a farmer and moved huge boulders with very limited equipment – with a single-blade plow and a little skinny horse. If he could do that, I’ve felt in my life that nothing is impossible.’”
Bender said now, living in Eureka, she has reminders of how her grandparents tried to repay America’s kindness in small ways.
“It’s special for my son and also for me when we meet someone from Eureka, particularly, who will say, ‘Oh, I remember when I wanted to get good work boots, I would go to your grandparents’ store.’ Or, ‘I remember the candy was right in the front part of the store, your grandparents were such wonderful people.’ Or ‘When our family was short on money, suddenly a package of clothes arrived, and we knew that it came from Benders’ General Store.’”
After the pogroms …
Stuart Kaufman, now of Seattle, preserves similar family memories of homesteading near Ashley, N.D.
“It was my great-grandfather, Isadore Grossman, who homesteaded in McIntosh County in the early 1900s. I’ve gone to the county records and in 1910 he is listed along with my grandmother, Lena, and her brothers and sister who came from Russia,” Kaufman said.
“My great-grandparents came because of the pogroms in Russia – this is what my mother told me. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, life in Russia for Jews was difficult. I have the feeling that my great-grandfather struggled as a farmer in Ashley. But he raised my grandmother and her brothers and sisters, despite many hardships.”
“I’m not exactly sure how long they were in North Dakota, but my grandparents were married July 3, 1917, in Ashley. My grandmother was 17 or 18 at the time, and my grandfather was a traveling peddler – he sold kitchenwares on a wagon drawn by a horse. His name was Louis Nemer. My grandfather would stay at the Grossman homestead when he would be traveling through the area, and he got to know my grandmother and they got married.”
Eventually, Kaufman said, his grandparents ended up in St. Paul. That was fairly typical of those Jewish families that had homesteaded the border country between the Dakotas, Kaufman said.
‘Russian law did not permit Jews to own land’
Jon-Jay Tilsen, a rabbi in New Haven, Conn., also has ties to the Jewish colony at Ashley. His great-grandmother, Mirel Chaplik Reuben, is buried in the Ashley cemetery, as is her son, who died in the flu epidemic of 1918.
“Yehuda Leib Rabyn, my great-grandfather, was a grain merchant in Sakharyevka, a small town near Tiraspol in Russia – today in Ukraine. Yehuda Leib wanted to be a farmer, but Russian law did not permit Jews to own land,” Tilsen told the Capital Journal. “The family was living in the middle of a wave of pogroms, militia attacks targeting Jews and their possessions. A cousin was among the 2,500 Jews killed in the pogrom in Odessa in 1905. For those reasons, they left.
“Some neighbors and relatives emigrated to Israel, which had been under Ottoman rule for 300 years. But Ottoman law specifically prohibited Jews from purchasing land in Palestine. Yehuda Leib Rabyn instead went to America, attracted by the offer of free land.
“Upon his arrival in Philadelphia in 1905, he worked and saved until he could purchase boat passage for his wife, Mirel Chaplik, and their children, including my grandmother, Esther. Then they set out for Ashley, North Dakota, and took up a homestead; Yehuda Leib’s brother Koppel (Uncle Karl) farmed nearby in Eureka, South Dakota.
“Yehuda Leib, by then known as Louis Reuben, received 80 or 160 acres free through the homestead program, and purchased an additional 80 or 160 acres.”
Mirel died following a horse and buggy accident in 1913, Tilsen said. After losing the farm, Louis moved back to Philadelphia. But Louis’s children remained in North Dakota for some years.
Tilsen’s grandmother, Esther, met Edward Tilsen – another Jewish immigrant from Russia – when he was making the rounds as a salesman selling medical supplies.
They were married by Rabbi Julius Hess in 1915 in Ashley. They went on to operate a dry goods store in New Leipzig from about 1925 to 1930 and opened various businesses in small towns before the family eventually ended up in the Twin Cities area.
But Jon-Jay Tilsen, the rabbi, said he still remembers with pride that his great-grandparents homesteaded on the Dakota prairie.
“I feel an attachment, emotional or psychological or mystical, to the place because it’s a place where my ancestors lived,” Tilsen said. “It was a good place for them.”
Sabbath-keeping in Kadoka
In western South Dakota, former South Dakota state senator Stanford Adelstein said the homesteading experience was also crucial for his Jewish grandmother, who left a second marriage to strike out on her own with three daughters, leaving her son – the boy who would grow up to be Adelstein’s father – in Des Moines. For her, title to a piece of earth near Interior, S.D., was a huge step forward in the world.
“Her name was Bertha Martinsky,” Adelstein said. “She homesteaded in 1902. She came out from Des Moines. She had originally emigrated long since from Russia. She had left her second marriage and left my father behind with her older sister and came out to homestead with three little girls. She was a very religious woman and she kept all of the Jewish rules, which, frankly, I don’t – very kosher both in dishes and in what she ate. Her meat was canned by her older sister and sent out, shipped out on the train from Des Moines.”
Later, after operating that homestead near Interior, Martinsky moved into Interior, briefly.
“Eventually she moved to Kadoka which is where she lived for 30 years,” Adelstein said. “She had a general store. Now, here’s a very religious Jewish woman who would not work on the Sabbath – it was a commandment. We call it Shabbat – Sabbath. A Shabbat-keeper, so what do you do with a general store in downtown Kadoka if you’re not working on Saturday?”
Fortunately Kadoka had a solution.
“The Christian women of Kadoka would take turns closing the store on Friday night at sundown, taking care of the rooms upstairs if they still needed to be rented, opening the store, taking care of the store during the day until Grandma came home at sundown on Saturday. It was a whole sort of community – there wasn’t any antagonism.”
Instead, Grandma had courteous discussions with the Roman Catholic priest in town about the faith; and townspeople would listen in.
“We have some of the early documents of that homestead. While she was a literate woman, she really didn’t write in English. So on one of the homestead papers, it shows on the back page a dotted line saying, ‘Sign full Christian name.’ Her name is signed in Hebrew, from right to left, over the line that says, ‘Christian name.’ It’s a really fun thing to have. Here she was signing her ‘full Christian name’ to prove title, in Hebrew. That’s South Dakota to me.
“That acceptance and support – to this day I consider myself to be part of Kadoka. I consider that to be really where my roots began.”
Adelstein said that maybe eight or 10 years ago, he visited the site of that homestead near Interior with some of his relatives and the descendants of Bertha Martinsky. One of his guests remarked about the barrenness of the place.
“She said, ‘There’s nothing here. There’s not a tree. How can anyone have lived here?’
“I said to her, ‘It was hers. It was land that she could own, and whatever it was, it was hers. Nowhere else, in Russia, in Poland, at that time when she came here could Jewish people own any land. They all had to get up and leave when someone told them to. The Jews were assigned places, it was called ‘the Pale of Settlement.’ That’s where the expression ‘beyond the pale” comes from. But this was hers. When she moved into Kadoka, it was hers. It was the ultimate freedom of America for someone who had never had it until she came here.”
On the other side of the state, Aberdeen was already becoming a trade center and railroad hub at the time the first known Jewish family arrived to stay in 1887 – David and Anna Strauss, who started the Golden Eagle One Price Clothing Store.
Bea Premack, who studied the Jewish settlement of Aberdeen for a historical paper once, found many Jewish names such as Appel and Fischbein and Kastriner showing up in the 1887-88 city directory. Michael Levy, in the clothing business, and Frank Simon, butcher, were there by the time of the 1889-90 directory. Isadore and Hannah Kraywetz arrived by 1909 to operate Metropolitan Tailors. Isaac Salinsky started the New York Store in 1910, possibly purchasing it from Charles Goodman, who had already been operating the New York Clothing Co.
By 1913 Aberdeen had seen the arrival of clerk Nathan Calmenson, railroad worker John Salinsky, and dry goods man Harry Abramson. The directory of that year also finds Benjamin Brussel dealing in men’s apparel and shoes; William Ribnick in hides and furs, Sam Salinsky in women’s ready-to-wear.
Dr. Sig Rosenthal, a physician, drove in from the town of Java to lead a Hebrew school for children; Julius Hess arrived as the first rabbi – sent by the Jewish Chautauqua Society of New York to serve Jewish congregations in Ashley, N.D., Wing, N.D., and Aberdeen, S.D.
Jewish believers first formally observed High Holy Day services in Aberdeen in 1915; Aberdeen’s Congregation B’nai Isaac was chartered in March 1917. Then in July 1919, the Aberdeen Chapter of Hadassah was formally recognized by the Zionist Organization of America to work toward the dream of re-establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Premack notes in her paper that the pattern was set early on for orthodox customs to be observed, with few changes in those first years. A woman named Gussie Amdur had a mikvah, or ritual bath, in her house in Aberdeen and many women of the congregation used it to observe the laws of purity.
Sam Smilowitz – the same man who had brought his family years earlier from New York City to Ashley and Ipswich and Aberdeen – was known in the Aberdeen congregation for bringing around a lemon studded with cloves at Yom Kippur. The notion was that smelling lemon and cloves made it easier to fast.
When boy babies were born, a mohel, or specialist in circumcision, would make the journey from Minneapolis or Fargo to carry out the ritual of Brith Milah.
“Many of the congregants were strictly kosher in following dietary laws in their homes,” Premack writes in her history. “Meat was brought from Fargo or Minneapolis. Sometimes they would go without meat for three months at a time and eat only dairy products.”
During the time Rabbi Aaron Hardin and his wife, Leah, served the Aberdeen congregation, from 1923 to 1937, Bea Premack calculates that the population of Jewish people active in the community rose to about 60 families.
But Jewish families from Huron, Ipswich, Webster, Watertown, Eureka, Leola, Pierre, Mobridge, Selby and Roscoe also came to the synagogue in Aberdeen for holy days.
Division and acceptance
But things were changing. By the time the 1950s came and Ellen Premack was born, there were maybe 20 Jewish families in the Aberdeen congregation, she calculates. The nice thing about growing up in Aberdeen, Ellen Premack said, is that it was OK to be different.
“The world is, on one side, a very divided place, and on the other hand it’s a very open and accepting place,” she said. “I never knew the words ‘anti-Semitism’ or ‘holocaust,’ growing up in Aberdeen.”
Ellen Premack said it’s true that Jewish communities in the prairie have dwindled over the years as young Jewish people were tugged into the orbits of urban centers such as Denver and Minneapolis. But she said many people are alike in craving what smaller communities offer, and it’s not impossible that that exodus from the prairie might one day be reversed if more people such as Rebecca Bender return to their roots.
At present, however, South Dakota has absolutely the lowest Jewish population of any state, with only 345 residents who are Jewish, according to data from the American Jewish Year Book. Next lowest is North Dakota, where that colony at Ashley was founded, as well as five others; the state now has only 400 people of Jewish background.
Meanwhile, the Dakota prairie still holds stories of Jewish hopes and tragedies - including one that befell Samuel Smilowitz, that colonist who had brought his family from New York City years before.
“There is a Jewish cemetery near Ashley, North Dakota, where some Aberdeen Jews are buried, but there has not been a funeral there since Rabbi Hess’s years,” Bea Premack wrote in her history of the Aberdeen congregation. “Goldie Smilowitz Krystal recalled the funeral of Isador, her older brother, who died around 1913, when he was sixteen. She and her parents rode the freight train caboose to Ashley. It was so cold that it was hard to dig the grave. Mr. Dorfman, from Ashley, conducted the service.”