Susan Berman, upper left, and Rebec­ca E. Ben­der, low­er right (Author pho­tos by Ger­ar­do Somoza and Michael Miller respectively)

North Dako­ta Jew­ish Home­stead­ers Ceme­tery where their ances­tors were buried (Pho­to by Rebec­ca E. Bender)

About thir­ty years ago, while shar­ing a corned beef on car­away rye sand­wich at her retire­ment home in LA, my nine­ty-six-year-old great-Aunt Nola leaned in close to me. In a mys­ti­cal voice she said, I was born on August 18th. You were born on May 18th. The Hebrew let­ters for eigh­teen spell chai’ (life). You have the pow­er of eigh­teen, just like me. You will achieve unex­pect­ed things when you’re older.”

At the time, I was a secu­ri­ties lit­i­ga­tor and assumed I would con­tin­ue doing this the rest of my pro­fes­sion­al career.

But after eigh­teen years as an attor­ney, I put my law license on hold to deal with fam­i­ly health issues. So began my time in a vari­ety of jobs, includ­ing teach­ing chil­dren, from a Hut­terite Colony in North Dako­ta, to a junior high class in South Phoenix.

Twen­ty-four years after the con­ver­sa­tion with my aunt, my son and I were pay­ing our respects at the remote Ash­ley, North Dako­ta, Jew­ish Home­stead­ers Ceme­tery, where my great-grand­fa­ther Kiva Ben­der is buried. My son’s ques­tions to me about this Jew­ish immi­grant farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty lit a spark. I became deter­mined to pre­serve the his­to­ry and lega­cies of the Ash­ley, North Dako­ta, Jew­ish homesteaders.

I soon found myself research­ing in the musty archives at the North Dako­ta His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and the Upper Mid­west Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety. Though not a trained his­to­ri­an or writer, I found inspir­ing sto­ries that I felt com­pelled to share.

My great-grand­par­ents had trav­eled from the Black Sea area of the Russ­ian Pale of Set­tle­ment to Antwerp, Bel­gium, where they board­ed the Red Star Line in steer­age for Amer­i­ca – just like Irv­ing Berlin, Gol­da Meir, and count­less oth­ers. The impe­tus for my family’s move across the ocean was the mur­der of two of their sons in the 1905 Odessa pogroms.

Over 400 Russ­ian and Roman­ian Jew­ish home­stead­ers escaped per­se­cu­tion and set­tled on around eighty-five farms amid the sway­ing grass­es in McIn­tosh Coun­ty, North Dako­ta, begin­ning in 1905. From the 1880s through the 1930s, 1200 Jew­ish farm­ers lived on over 250 home­steads in North Dako­ta – the fourth largest num­ber of Jew­ish home­stead­ers in any state, behind only New Jer­sey, Con­necti­cut, and New York.

My son’s ques­tions to me about this Jew­ish immi­grant farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty lit a spark. I became deter­mined to pre­serve the his­to­ry and lega­cies of the Ash­ley, North Dako­ta, Jew­ish homesteaders.

Despite hav­ing no farm­ing expe­ri­ence (Jews were not allowed to own land to farm at the time in Rus­sia), intense cli­mat­ic chal­lenges (prairie fires, tor­na­dos, bliz­zards), and rocky land (they had to clear each acre with a pick­axe, a crow­bar, a horse, and a stone boat), my ances­tors became suc­cess­ful farm­ers on North Dakota’s plains. They pros­pered enough to pur­chase their 160 acres of land out­right for $200, (the equiv­a­lent of $6000 today) pri­or to the pre­scribed five-year wait­ing peri­od under the Home­stead Act. Along with their neigh­bors, they proved that Jews could be good farm­ers, if giv­en the chance.”

Addi­tion­al­ly, I learned that my great-grand­fa­ther Kiva Ben­der was a lay leader of the ear­ly Ash­ley Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Though he arrived in Amer­i­ca in 1906, with no knowl­edge of Eng­lish, he formed the first Ash­ley Jew­ish Con­gre­ga­tion short­ly there­after (reg­is­ter­ing it in the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Year Book, pub­lished by the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety in Philadel­phia) and estab­lished one of the first two Jew­ish farm­ing coop­er­a­tives in the Unit­ed States around 1908. He presided at Jew­ish wed­dings, led ser­vices in the Ben­der barn, and put ads in east coast pub­li­ca­tions, urg­ing Jews to come to the Great North­west.” When he died in 1913, the front-page head­line in the Ger­man and Eng­lish Ash­ley Tri­bune was, Well-Known Jew Dies.”

Though life was sel­dom easy for these new farm­ers, the Jew­ish home­stead­ers were in the land of the free. They could go lis­ten to record­ings of the Jew­ish Russ­ian Orches­tra on a neighbor’s Vic­tro­la phono­graph while savor­ing hot tea with verenya (jam). They could gath­er with their com­mu­ni­ty and pray with­out fear as a con­gre­ga­tion on hol­i­days. And the Jew­ish wed­dings under the infi­nite prairie sky, with fid­dlers and wash tub drums, were legendary.

It was in the North Dako­ta archives when research­ing that I first saw Susan Berman’s name. She had writ­ten a book in the ear­ly 1980s, Easy Street (Dial Press 1981), after learn­ing more about her Jew­ish home­steading ances­tors and fol­low­ing the death of her par­ents. Just like me, I thought. The mark­er of her uncle, found in the ceme­tery, was the only evi­dence that her fam­i­ly had ever lived there. Just like me, I thought again.

Because of bad luck – a burned down sod house due to her grand­fa­ther for­get­ting to close the hearth after putting in cow chips and hay for fuel – Berman’s fam­i­ly left Ash­ley. Susan’s father, known as David, then start­ed on a path in Sioux City, Iowa, that would even­tu­al­ly lead to his being one of the founders of Las Vegas (mak­ing Las Vegas bloom,” accord­ing to the rab­bi at his funer­al). He start­ed the first syn­a­gogue in Las Vegas, was a part­ner in the Flamin­go and Riv­iera Hotels, and became one of the most pow­er­ful gang­sters in America.

Though these lat­ter facts result­ed in Susan’s more recent fam­i­ly his­to­ry being entire­ly dif­fer­ent from mine, I felt a con­nec­tion and want­ed to share our ances­tors’ sto­ries. I had seen a wed­ding license for my great-aunt Sarah which includ­ed Susan’s grandfather’s name as a wit­ness. I had also seen evi­dence of her grandfather’s involve­ment as an offi­cer in the Jew­ish farm­ing asso­ci­a­tion start­ed by my great-grandfather.

I looked for­ward to con­tact­ing Susan and went online. I first saw her pho­to. Susan had long dark hair and bangs, like me. She was born in Min­neso­ta, I dis­cov­ered, again like me. As I con­tin­ued read­ing, I was sad­dened to see that Susan had been mur­dered in 2000, at age fifty-five. I then noticed that Susan and I were both born on May 18th.


One of two boul­ders with plaques at the Ash­ley, North Dako­ta Jew­ish Home­stead­ers Ceme­tery. Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

Against the odds, and feel­ing an unex­plain­able force push­ing me for­ward, I suc­ceed­ed in get­ting the Ash­ley Jew­ish Home­stead­ers Ceme­tery list­ed on the Nation­al His­toric Reg­is­ter by the Unit­ed States Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or. I then con­duct­ed fundrais­ing to have edu­ca­tion­al plaques on two-ton boul­ders installed at the site and with the help of the two oth­er Ceme­tery Asso­ci­a­tion Board mem­bers and fam­i­ly mem­bers, orga­nized a reded­i­ca­tion, which brought over 100 peo­ple – Jews and non-Jews – from six states.

But I felt the work I was sup­posed to do was not quite com­plete. At age six­ty, I com­bined my late dad’s vivid rec­ol­lec­tions with my research into my first book—Still (North Dako­ta State Uni­ver­si­ty Press 2019). It describes five gen­er­a­tions of my fam­i­ly and the com­mu­ni­ties of which they were a part, over­com­ing chal­lenges and try­ing to lead good lives with tra­di­tion, kind­ness, and faith.

My aunt Nola was a wise woman. With a few words, she con­vinced me I had a spe­cial pow­er. That belief cleared an unex­pect­ed path for me, one I might not oth­er­wise have had the courage to take.


Also against the odds, in Sep­tem­ber 2021, Susan Berman’s mur­der­er was found guilty, twen­ty-one years after she was killed, and was indict­ed for killing his wife, almost forty years ear­li­er. Susan was a tal­ent­ed writer with an eye for detail. But what con­nects her to me for­ev­er is that she, too, was a daugh­ter of the Ash­ley Jew­ish Home­steading Colony. She was inter­est­ed enough in her roots to trav­el from the land of palm trees to icy North Dakota.

Sad­ly, Susan’s life was tak­en before she was lucky enough to expe­ri­ence her sec­ond act – her pow­er of eigh­teen on earth. I like to think that Susan, the author, has now fin­ished writ­ing the epi­logue to her earth­ly story.

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 their Jew­ish fam­i­ly on three con­ti­nents. Still is the 2019 Inde­pen­dent Press Award Win­ner (Judaism cat­e­go­ry) and the 2020 Mid­west Book Award Gold Medal Win­ner (Religion/​Philosophy cat­e­go­ry). Rebecca’s prose and poet­ry have appeared, inter alia, in The Jour­nal of The Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety of Ger­mans from Rus­sia, North Dako­ta Quar­ter­ly, The Jew­ish Vet­er­an, the For­ward, Australia’s Jew­ish Women of Words, the Star­Tri­bune, Man­dala, The North­west Blade, The San Diego Jew­ish World, and pre­vi­ous­ly in Paper Brigade Dai­ly (Jew­ish Book Coun­cil). She has recent­ly com­plet­ed two oth­er projects: a Still screen­play adap­ta­tion and a children’s sto­ry­book, based upon fact, about a young Jew­ish girl liv­ing on the prairie with her home­steading par­ents in the ear­ly 1900s, with each sto­ry focus­ing on a core val­ue of Judaism. Still, with a sec­ond print­ing out in paper­back in March, is avail­able through NDSU​Press​.org, Ama​zon​.com, or can be ordered through any bookstore.