Title Reviewed:
"And Prairie Dogs Weren't Kosher": Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest since 1855

Author Reviewed:
Linda Mack Schloff

Barbara Steinson


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 93, Issue 4, pp 398-400

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

"And Prairie Dogs Weren't Kosher": Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest since 1855. By Linda Mack Schloff. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1996. Pp. x, 243. Illustrations, maps, graph, tables, bibliography, index. Clothbound, $29.95; paperbound, $14.95.)

Linda Mack Schloff's "And Prairie Dogs Weren't Kosher" offers readers an overview of the diversity of experiences of Jewish women and their families in the Dakotas and Minnesota from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The first two chapters cover the Old World backgrounds and upper midwestern settlement patterns of Jewish Americans. Chapter three explores domestic life, with special attention given to the dilemmas of retaining Jewish religious traditions in isolated rural and small-town areas. Chapter four examines women's employment patterns, including work on farms and in family enterprises, in factories, and in white-collar occupations. The final chapters review women's participation in synagogues and organizations that nurtured the Jewish community. Schloff explores two major themes: women's roles in helping their families settle and adapt to rural, small-town, and urban life in the upper Midwest and the ways in which women developed new roles for themselves as women and as Jews. Much of Schloff s information pertains to the period from 1890 to 1920, but she extends her story to the present in order to survey changes in women's roles within Judaism, their families, and their communities.

With such an ambitious range of topics and chronological scope, not all questions of historical causation are clear. A much lengthier historical monograph would have been required to provide detailed analysis of the book's subject mater. Clearly, such an analysis was not the author's purpose. Schloff has succeeded in providing a provocative introduction to a subject that she contends has been neglected in both regional and Jewish histories. The primary source materials in the book are especially valuable. Schloff has collected voluminous photographs, several of which are extraordinarily illuminating. Each chapter also includes a section of "voices" that eloquently convey the diversity of experiences.

Schloff s comparisons between Jewish settlement in the upper Midwest and the overwhelmingly urban pattern on the East Coast underscore this theme of diversity. Although today only a few thousand Jews in the region live outside Minneapolis-St. Paul, significant numbers of Jews settled in small towns, especially in the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota, and about one thousand Jews also became homesteaders, an option available in the Dakotas as late as 1910. Preserving religious traditions posed challenges for Jewish families outside the larger towns and cities. A woman who grew up in Hebron, North Dakota, recalled:

We imported kosher meat from Minneapolis, but when it came out by train … the stationmaster said [to my father] "Jake, your package came." He said, "I know Pete. Dump it. It smells way over here already." No refrigeration. How my mother managed to feed all those kids with very little meat, I still don't know (p. 97).

Jews in many towns created synagogues, but in smaller communities and rural areas, families gathered in homes where either traveling rabbis or local religious men conducted services. Schloff s presentation of these stories of struggle "to create a Jewish life where little or none existed" (p. 155) reveals much about the complex intersections of geography, religion, and gender.

BARBARA STEINSON is professor of history, DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana. She is researching home extension in rural Indiana in the early twentieth century.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.