Book Review | Jewish Farmers in Totally Unexpected Places

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book cover
(Courtesy North Dakota State University)

Still

Rebecca E. Bender and Kenneth M. Bender

North Dakota State University Press

“Still” traces a multigenerational Jewish family who fled Odessa for North Dakota where they became homesteading farmers.

When farming did not work out, they went to South Dakota to be shopkeepers, to Minneapolis, where their son became a lawyer, and ultimately back to South Dakota, where their granddaughter (the author) helped preserve the history of Jews in the Dakotas. The book recalls the hardships of the Jewish immigrants, the anti-Semitism in many places, the acceptance of Jews in others, and the complexities of being Jewish in a new land. The book reminds us that not all Jews went to big cities.

A few famous people show up in the book. While still in Odessa, the 14-year-old Yosef Bendersky shook hands with Theodor Herzl. Shortly after the Normandy invasion, Major General Walter Robertson personally pinned a silver star for valor on Bendersky’s son, Kenneth Bender. Lincoln Bernhard, Bender’s grandson, shook hands with Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky at a Jewish Bible (Chidon HaTanach) competition in Israel. Bernhard studied for the competition by Skype from Eureka, South Dakota. This is a delightful completion of the circle, from Herzl in Ukraine to farming in North Dakota to studying Torah online to compete in a competition in Israel.

The title of the book connects to the author. While working on the restoration of a long-forgotten Jewish cemetery in North Dakota (where her great grandfather Kiva is buried), a reporter asked her if she was “still Jewish.” She “Still” is.

Like many Jewish immigrants, the Bendersky family arrived in waves. Kiva Bendersky and Rebecka Bendersky and their children Yosef and Lena, escaped from Czarist Russia to Antwerp, but lacked the money for four steamship tickets to America. Yosef and Lena arrived later, almost penniless. At Ellis Island Yosef lied about his age (a crime that would get him deported today), so he would be old enough to work. The Statue of Liberty beckoned the “tired,” “poor” and the “huddled masses.” But it cost $25 a person to enter the country. Before a uniformed immigration officer, Bendersky searched his pockets for money he did not have. After a few minutes the Yiddish speaking immigration officer ended this charade, laughing as he bent the rules and “Josef Bender” and his sister entered the nation.

In Ashley, North Dakota, Joseph (as he now spelled his name) Bender worked as a farm hand, until the fraudulent age on his immigration papers allowed him to pass for 21, so he could claim a homestead from the government. The Benders were among some 250 Jewish farm families in the state. The Jewish farmers built synagogues and cemeteries, and served as their own shochets and mohels. The Jewish Chautauqua Society of Philadelphia helped the Ashley community hire a rabbi.

These Jewish immigrants combined a Zionist interest in farming with a strong desire to do in America what they could never do in Russia — own land. They also developed friendships with their neighbors, who were mostly non-Jewish German-speaking immigrants from Russia. Ultimately, almost all the Jewish farmers left the land. Farming in frozen North Dakota was incredibly hard and barely profitable.

With his father buried in Ashley, Joseph Bender moved to Eureka, South Dakota, where he ran a store, and was eventually elected mayor. His son Keva went to law school in Minneapolis, but in the face of nasty anti-Semitism there, he returned to South Dakota. In 1940 he enlisted in the Army, out of patriotism but also probably out of frustration with anti-Semitism in Minneapolis. At enlistment the final name change took place, and Keva became Kenneth.

His rise from a private to a decorated major illustrates his promise, while his enlistment suggests the struggles of a first generation Jewish Americans. Ironically, when the Benders went to Minneapolis, David Berman, a soon-to-be famous Jewish farm child from Ashley, North Dakota, also arrived. Also a young refugee from Odessa, in the 1930s Berman was a leading mobster in Minneapolis. Known as “Davie the Jew,” he led Jewish gangsters who were ruthless and often homicidal. But Berman also used his enforcers and thugs to take on the Silver Shirts — an anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi group in the city. After the war, Berman moved to Las Vegas as an associate of Bugsy Siegel.

Post-war Minneapolis had a thriving Jewish community and a significant amount of anti-Semitism. The author tells of the complexities and challenges of remaining Jewish, and describes the heartbreak of falling for a curly headed young man at the University of Minnesota, who “looked” Jewish, but turned out to be a Methodist. Intermarriage was out of the question. She was “still” Jewish, but Bender recalls “while I was dancing with a Jewish single” at a community event, “I was thinking of a Methodist single.”

Rebecca Bender and her son Lincoln eventually left Minneapolis, returning to Eureka, where she helped recover the Jewish history of the high plains and helped put the Ashley cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places. Her charming memoir reminds us of the struggle of Jewish immigrants, the challenges of anti-Semitism, the importance of remembering our own heritage and the unexpected places where Jewish immigrants settled.

Paul Finkelman is the president of Gratz College.

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