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CHAPTER XI
FROM SHTETL TO PRAIRIE

Our plan is that every colony should consist of twelve Hebrew families, and they are to be placed on a tract of fertile land of not less than 2,500 acres, sub-divided into 24 farms of 100 acres each, the residue to be reserved for a central park and a plot for the use of the Superintendent who must be a practical American farmer.

-- The Hebrew Agricultural Colonization Plan, American Israelite, November 18, 1881. [1]
Even utopias have blueprints, some kind of formal plans that detail the locations of homes, shops, schools and churches and specify who will be in charge of them. To assure the success of the colonies, their sponsors felt such plans were needed, but little is known about them, and in the case of Beersheba where some information is available, it is clear that the plans were not specifically followed and they were drawn up with a certain amount of trepidation. "The subject (of plans) is of such vast importance that we confess we approach it with a feeling of hesitation for fear of making a mistake," Rabbi Wise told American Israelite readers in its November 18, 1881 issue. [2] Yet the issue set forth a plan that detailed a colony's physical layout, from streets to trees, along with its economic structure.

The plan envisioned a bucolic Eden with a line of 100-acre farms, 12 on each side of a long, wide boulevard complete with shade trees and sidewalks. Side streets along the 60-foot wide roadway, between the farms, led to acres of fruit trees and to additional farms along narrower back roads that paralleled the main one. Engineers would develop proper drainage routes and systems for each farm, and 10 of their 100 acres would be forested, primarily with walnut trees, "the most profitable wherever the soil is adapted therefor."

A central location included a park and the home of the colony's superintendent, "a practical American farmer," appointed by the sponsors who would receive a percentage of the receipts from the colonists' crops as payment for his work. Each family of the colony would be provided with a house, farming implements, seeds and cattle, all worth at least $1,000, interest-free for six years, and whenever the sum of $1,000 was repaid to the sponsors, the land, equipment, livestock, etc., would become the property of the colonist. Every three years one of the farms would be sold to the highest bidder and the proceeds would help pay for the community's school, "for the education of the children of the entire settlement without distinction of race or creed." [3]

The real Beersheba bore little resemblance to the ideal plans. Its farms were 160 acres, not 100, and they were situated along several trails and the banks of the Pawnee Creek. Shade trees were at a premium and sidewalks were only in dreams. The colonists' held title to their lands, however, in that they had to sign as individuals under the terms of the Homestead Act. But there were some economic similarities in that Beersheba had a superintendent, and its property, other than the land, was held by its sponsoring committee and the committee assumed the colonists would eventually pay for everything.

Yet that was only the situation at Beersheba. It is impossible to know the physical and economic arrangements, particularly the details, of the other six Jewish colonies in Kansas in that so little material is available about them. The minutes and records of their sponsoring societies have either been lost or destroyed. Newspapers from neighboring communities had little to say about how they were run or who was in charge. Diaries and memories of descendants yield no details.

The Kansas Jewish colonies were fundamentally different from the shtetl life of Russia. There were important social similarities, but physically they were almost opposites. Unlike a shtetl where homes were clustered around a marketplace, in Kansas, homes were scattered over acres and miles.

In Russia, where Jews were not permitted to own land, they lived by trading, shopkeeping and artisanship. The shtetl was their home. A dorf was a village, a shtetl was a little larger, usually a small town. It might have some large buildings, perhaps cobbled streets, yet it was the epitome of poverty,

a jumble of wooden houses clustered higgledy-piggledy about a market-place, as crowded as a slum. The streets ... are as tortuous as a Talmudic argument. They are bent into question marks and folded into parentheses. They run into culs-de-sac like a theory arrested by a fact; they ooze off into lanes, alleys, back yards.... At the center is the market-place, with its shops, booths, tables, stands, butchers' blocks. Hither come daily, except during winter, the peasants and peasant women from many miles around, bringing their livestock and vegetables, their fish and hides, their wagonloads of grain, melons, parsley, radishes and garlic. They buy, in exchange, the city produce which the Jews import, dry goods, hats, shoes, boots, lamps, oil, spades, mattocks and shirts. The tumult of the market-place is one of the wonders of the world. [4]
Not so in Western Kansas. There was no tumult in the marketplace since their communities lacked shops and stores. Their homes did not cluster higgledy-piggedly, but instead, perched under ridges, beside trees, or more than likely, they dug deep into hillsides, the best places for shelter from winds, dust, cold and snow. The colony plan described by the American Israelite did not provide for bending, tortuous streets, but for broad, long, straight roadways that formed lines and squares.

Physically, the Russian shtetl bore little resemblance to any Kansas Jewish colony. While houses clustered together in a shtetl due to a lack of land, they spread out in Kansas, particularly when each family had a minimum of 160 acres. L.I. Markowitz, of the Hebron colony, probably came the closest to putting together a community that physically resembled the arrangement of a shtetl. The Kiowa Herald announced that Markowitz was building "a town on the Russian plan" with all the trades represented. [5] Subsequent news items reported the building of a synagogue, but no further details were ever given. Regardless, there is no evidence that any of the colonies ever had a central marketplace or a cluster of houses. Beersheba may have had a store, but mainly, any stores, even stores run by Jews, were to be found in nearby Gentile communities. Unlike Russia, where Jews were not welcome in cities and towns populated by Gentiles, in Kansas the Jews were encouraged to settle and trade in towns near their colonies.

There were similarities to shtetl life in the colonies' obvious leaders and the predominance of religion. Religion was the unifying force of the shtetl, and it was encouraged in the colonies. Sponsors made it clear they would not send less than 12 families to colonize any area. Twelve families would serve as the nucleus of a congregation, an assurance that at least 10 adult males would be available for a minyan , the quorum needed for religious services. At least four of the colonies had synagogues and schools. Beersheba hired a schoolteacher from outside the community, but religious instruction was given by parents and the rabbi. Montefiore, Lasker and Hebron may have had rabbis as well.

In Russia, in the shtetl, everyone was poor. The relations between the social levels of the shtetl came to not much more than the difference between being poor and hopelessly poor. Yet there were distinctions that had to do with education, economic positions and the concept of yikhes, which had to do with family status and pride. [6]

Likewise, some distinctions were apparent in the Kansas communities. Some colonists had more economic advantages, they owned more land or they arrived with more money. Some had status because of their language skills -- a knowledge of Hebrew, an acquired knowledge of English. Some were obvious leaders. At Hebron, they were L. I. Markowitz and the men of the Sclar family. At Beersheba, they were the Cohns, Lipman Goldman, Rabbi Edelhertz and several others. Yet it was also quite different at Beersheba. There was an appointed superintendent and everything was owned by the colony's sponsors, a situation which would have been unheard of in a shtetl.

The shtetl versus the prairie colony: There were vast differences, yet subtle similarities. They were physically different, yet socially similar; economically different, yet similar in that poverty prevailed in both situations. Perhaps the most important difference was that the shtetl was a place where Jews were contained while a Kansas farm offered land ownership, a chance to expand, and dreams for the future. The most important similarity was that both the shtetl and the colony provided a sense of community. As the Medicine Lodge Cresset said about the Hebron colony, "Talk about a settlement dwelling together in brotherly love -- this one comes as near it as any we know of." [7]


Digitized and composed in HTML for the Kansas Collection by Tod Roberts,
with permission of Gertrude Harris, widow of the author, December 2001.
NOTE: Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes for this text; footnotes
are numbered separately by chapter and published at the end of the work.

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