Yosef was liv­ing in Odessa, Rus­sia, one of three sons of Kiva and Rebec­ka Ben­der­sky. Then Yosef’s two broth­ers were killed in the 1905 pogroms. Kiva said, Enough.”

The fam­i­ly made secret plans to emi­grate. After a two-thou­sand-mile rail­way jour­ney cross­ing the Carpathi­an Moun­tains through tun­nels, the Ben­der­skys arrived at the Antwerp port. As the ocean lin­er S.S. Zee­land was board­ing, they were sud­den­ly told that the mon­eys that had been sent to cov­er their com­bi­na­tion rail/​steamship tick­ets to Amer­i­ca were not suf­fi­cient. It was decid­ed that Kiva and Rebec­ka would go first, to begin the process of stak­ing claims for home­steading in North Dako­ta, as sev­en­teen-year-old Yosef was too young to file a claim.

Yosef watched his par­ents walk by them­selves onto the pier — before blend­ing with hun­dreds of oth­ers, as col­ors in a dark water­col­or paint­ing. After he and his sis­ter, Lena, had wait­ed sev­er­al months in a Jew­ish board­ing house, funds for their ocean pas­sage were sent. In 1906, they trav­eled to the Unit­ed States in steer­age on the Red Star Line. Yosef Ben­der­sky, who became Joseph Ben­der in Amer­i­ca, was my grandfather.

Dreams of the free­dom to farm their own land pulled Joseph and his fam­i­ly direct­ly to the mid­west­ern plains, at that time called the Great North­west.” Unlike over sev­en­ty-five per­cent of their Jew­ish immi­grant brethren, who stayed on the East Coast, the Ben­ders board­ed trains west to Eure­ka, South Dako­ta, and then trav­eled on to Ash­ley, North Dako­ta in carts pulled by oxen.

Unlike over sev­en­ty-five per­cent of their Jew­ish immi­grant brethren, who stayed on the East Coast, the Ben­ders board­ed trains west to Eure­ka, South Dako­ta, and then trav­eled on to Ash­ley, North Dako­ta in carts pulled by oxen.

Joseph Ben­der, with sin­gle blade plow and horse on his home­stead land near Ash­ley, ND, cir­ca 1909. Pho­to tak­en by Jew­ish Agri­cul­tur­al Soci­ety representative.

After work­ing for a farmer to learn the basics, Joseph turned twen­ty-one (or so he said) — old enough to file a claim for home­stead land. The gov­ern­ment pro­vid­ed him with 160 acres of sur­veyed land near Ash­ley. Home­stead claimants could obtain title after liv­ing on their par­cel for five years, cul­ti­vat­ing the land, and build­ing a dwelling. So almost imme­di­ate­ly, Joseph had a deci­sion to make: he could either build a dugout cave with no win­dows, pro­tect­ed from the mois­ture by horse manure, or a sod house, with a wood­en door and real win­dows. Joseph opt­ed for the sod house, with stacked bricks carved from native west­ern wheatgrass. 

Once in his new home, Joseph recit­ed the ancient prayer Mah Tovu (“How beau­ti­ful are your tents, o Jacob, your dwellings, o Israel”), from the fourth book of Moses, Bemid­bar, (In the Wilder­ness). Then he began the task of clear­ing some of the many rocks and stones that pre­vent­ed crops from grow­ing on his land. As the Jew­ish home­stead­ers had arrived in south cen­tral North Dako­ta twen­ty years after it was opened for home­steading, the only avail­able land was slop­ing and rocky. Their wel­com­ing Ger­man Russ­ian neigh­bors called the area Juden­berg (Jew­ish Hills).

Despite drought, prairie fires, ear­ly frosts, and bliz­zards, Joseph was suc­cess­ful enough to pur­chase his land out­right for $200 in 1910, two years pri­or to the req­ui­site five-year wait­ing peri­od. He grew wheat and flax, raised cat­tle and chick­ens, and sold cream, along with work­ing off the farm — build­ing roads and work­ing on thresh­ing crews and the rail­road. On Sat­ur­day nights after Shab­bat, Joseph pulled a wag­on filled with hay to pick up the Jew­ish sin­gle men and women. Quilts cov­er­ing gun­ny sacks with heat­ed rocks inside kept every­one warm. The ladies brought cakes and sand­wich­es for snacks, and every­one sang, bounc­ing their way along to the barn for a dance.

The same year he bought his farm, Joseph met raven-haired Mary Riev­man in the gen­er­al store. Born in Bal­ti­more in 1894, Mary had left school at four­teen to work in a down­town depart­ment store, where she helped fan­cy ladies to select pet­ti­coats before those cus­tomers met friends at the tea­room for creamed salmon on toast or plom­bier. A short time lat­er, Mary was sent to Wishek, a rur­al town near Ash­ley with four hun­dred peo­ple. She worked in one of her uncle’s gen­er­al stores — most­ly sell­ing sta­ples and house­hold goods to the farm families.

After a short courtship, Joseph sold some of his flax crop, bought a suit, and head­ed to Min­neapo­lis to ask Mary’s par­ents for per­mis­sion to mar­ry. Fol­low­ing the wed­ding, Joseph took Mary by horse and bug­gy to her new home, the sod house. Joseph lit the can­dles that were their only source of light. Mary unpacked her things and picked up a broom to sweep the dirt off the floor. But she couldn’t get rid of it. She fell to the ground and began to cry. Mary had real­ized that the dirt wouldn’t come off the floor because the floor was dirt. 

Joseph and Mary Ben­der, Wed­ding Picture,1911, author’s files

She adapt­ed quick­ly — cook­ing what­ev­er food Joe could hunt and kill on the prairie, mak­ing wild chokecher­ry jel­ly, and fill­ing the stove with coal every hour or two.

This inci­dent could have fore­shad­owed a dif­fi­cult future for Mary. But she was strong inside as well as out. She adapt­ed quick­ly — cook­ing what­ev­er food Joe could hunt and kill on the prairie, mak­ing wild chokecher­ry jel­ly, and fill­ing the stove with coal every hour or two. She put fem­i­nine touch­es on their home — throw­ing flower seeds on the win­dowsills and on the roof so the place would be bright­ened when the flow­ers bloomed, and sewing prop­er cur­tains for the win­dows. Joseph proud­ly called Mary a real farmer’s wife” when she, on her own, suc­cess­ful­ly sold one of their calves, so Joe could make the first pay­ment on a life insur­ance policy.

Mary and Joe even­tu­al­ly sold their home­stead land and rent­ed a store thir­ty miles away, on the main street in Eure­ka, South Dako­ta; the awning proud­ly pro­claimed, Ben­ders Farm­ers Cash Store.” When Mary would wait on a cus­tomer who want­ed to pur­chase some boots or coats, the cus­tomer would ask Mary how much they were. Mary would call to Joe in the back, How much are they, Joe?” Who is it, Mary?” Joe would respond. If the cus­tomer was a farmer down on his luck after a dif­fi­cult year, the items were sold near cost.

Der Iddish­er Farmer (The Jew­ish Farmer) Mag­a­zine, Vol. V, No. 5, May 1912, pub­lished by The Jew­ish Agri­cul­tur­al Soci­ety, with adver­tise­ments in Yiddish

Despite being the only Jews in Eure­ka for most of the over thir­ty years they ran the store, the Ben­ders nev­er felt a need to hide their reli­gion. When Rosh Hashanah was approach­ing, Mary made signs: Closed for Jew­ish High Hol­i­days.” They would head off with chil­dren in tow to pray with fel­low Jews. Their cus­tomers were back when they were. Joe Ben­der even served on the school board, as an alder­man, and as may­or of the town.

I came to know my grand­ma Mary and my grand­pa Joe many years lat­er, when we were all liv­ing in Min­neso­ta. Joe was retired and smoked a cig­ar, even while play­ing golf. He liked corned beef on dark pumper­nick­el and loved Amer­i­ca. He seemed to miss his days of trav­el­ing on horse­back, dust fly­ing, to make a minyan in North Dako­ta. He returned fre­quent­ly to the Dako­tas, to recite the Mourner’s Kad­dish at the Ash­ley Jew­ish Home­stead­ers Ceme­tery, where his father, Kiva, was buried, and to vis­it old friends.

My grand­ma Mary appeared to be so gen­tle, with her long black braid pinned up care­ful­ly, read­ing stacks of books to my sis­ter Nan­cy and me. But I knew she had hid­den strength. After all the years at the Eure­ka store, she could still open a box like nobody’s busi­ness: if a box were taped closed, she would pound the side of her fist close to the tape, and then rip up the oth­er side, reveal­ing its contents.

In her lat­er years, Mary was knocked down by a rob­ber while walk­ing home from the down­town Min­neapo­lis bus. Hav­ing gone from her big city life to a rur­al exis­tence cook­ing pheas­ant in a sod house, and then rais­ing five chil­dren while work­ing in the fam­i­ly store, she did not let this inci­dent stop her. My grand­ma con­tin­ued to take the bus down­town to pur­chase match­ing dress­es for Nan­cy and me, often­times in yel­low, her favorite col­or, like the sunshine.”

When fac­ing a chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tion, I find koich (strength) from Mary and Joseph — an ever-replen­ish­ing sup­ply of gold from the prairie. By doc­u­ment­ing my ances­tors’ sto­ries, I also fol­low their exam­ple in shar­ing the gifts I’ve been given.

Rebec­ca E. Ben­der, who wrote this piece, and her father Ken­neth M. Ben­der are coau­thors of Still (NDSU Press 2019), a biography/​memoir of five gen­er­a­tions of a Jew­ish fam­i­ly on three con­ti­nents. It is the 2019 Inde­pen­dent Press Award Win­ner (Judaism cat­e­go­ry) and the 2020 Mid­west Book Award Gold Medal Win­ner (Religion/​Philosophy cat­e­go­ry). Rebec­ca also researched and suc­cess­ful­ly wrote the nom­i­na­tion for the Ash­ley Jew­ish Home­stead­ers Ceme­tery to be list­ed on the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places. Still is avail­able through NDSU​Press​.org, Ama​zon​.com, or can be ordered through any book­store.