Friday, May 6, 2011

Little Shtetl on the Prairie

Most American children are familiar with the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Set in the 1870s-1880s, Her “Little House” series chronicles her family’s journeys to Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Dakota Territory.  The history of Jewish pioneers is less well-known, but they lived in territories and states from the mid-west to the west-coast, north to south. 

Dakota Territory, named for the indigenous Dakota-Sioux, existed from March of 1861 to November of 1889, when it was reshaped into North and South Dakota.  With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, settlers surged into the area.  While most of those who came west were German, Norwegian, and Swedish, there were some Jews there, too.  The Jewish population of America jumped from 15,000 in 1840 to 250,000 in 1880 – among them, Sylvia Kremen Rosenberg’s family, who farmed near Wilton, North Dakota, between 1900 and 1920.  In “And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher”: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest Since 1855 (Linda Mack Schloff) Rosenberg recalls childhood Sabbaths on the prairie:
“Picture in your mind a Friday.  It is Erev Shabbos.  The kitchen is filled with the aroma of fresh baked bread, chicken soup, carrot tzimmis, gefilte fish, roast chicken, and the enticing smell of fresh baked pie.  The table is covered with a white linen cloth.  The best dishes and silver adorn the table.  At the one end of the table is Father’s Kiddush cup, the prayer book, the wine, and the Challah covered with a cloth of white.  At the opposite end of the table stand Mother’s silver candle sticks.

“The men of the house have come in from the fields earlier than on other days.  The chores are completed.  Everyone has cleaned up and put on fresh clothes.  (Believe it or not, we took our baths in a wash tub.)
“Now all is ready for the Sabbath prayer, and then the delicious food.
“My Mother places a beautiful embroidered shawl over her head and lights the Sabbath candles, softly chanting the prayer.
“Father fills the wine glasses for the older members around the table.  (I remember that my sister and I had “something” in our wine glasses.  I don’t think it was wine.) Father raises his Kiddush cup and recites the Kiddush prayer.  Those of us, at the table, who know the prayer, sing along with him.

“The Challah is cut.  Each receiving a slice for the “Moitza” [Hamotzi].
“The prayers are over.  The food is served.  Contentment and peace reign in the home.  In the heart of each, there is love of G-d and thankfulness for all His blessings, and for the privilege of living in the Land of Freedom – America.
New Year's Card: Jews in America beckon to their relatives suffering pogroms and persecution in Tsarist Russia

It’s interesting that Rosenberg’s first Shabbat memories involve smell.  When my children were little, before they understood much about calendars and marking the passage of time, they knew when it was erev Shabbat.  Entering the house from school, they would sniff the air and with face lit up say, “It’s Shabbos tonight!” 
The image of the table bedecked with its white cloth, china and polished candlesticks, engraves itself on the child’s heart remaining vivid and bright decades later.  The weekly banquet becomes an eternal part of us – flesh and blood and soul.
The change in tempo, as the men come in from the fields early, still sets the pace in Jewish homes on Friday as everyone arrives home early from school and work and focuses on preparing for the imminent arrival of the Sabbath Queen.  There is an uptick in intensity as we consult our menus, our to-do lists.  The bath queue to get through, the silver to polish, the food (of course) the last minute scurry to set the lights and make all clean and neat.
Then there is the moment when mother lights the Sabbath candles and softly chants the prayer.  And in an instant the mood changes from hustle-bustle to calm and serenity.  The prayers are said, Kiddush is recited.  We sip a little wine and take a breath.  We eat the delicious food and contentment and peace reign in our homes.  We thank G-d for all His blessings. 
Wilton, North Dakota; Waimalu, Hawaii; Wilmington, North Carolina.  Wherever you are, Shabbat enters and with it, peace comes.
Shabbat Shalom.

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