by Karen Karin Rosenberg
Discussed in this essay: Stepmother Russia, Foster Mother America: Identity Transitions in the New Odessa Jewish Commune, Odessa, Oregon, New York, 1881-1891, by Theodore Friedgut, and Recollections of a Communist by Israel Mandelkern, introduced and annotated by Theodore H. Friedgut. Both in one volume, Academic Studies Press, 2014, 199 pages.
ZIONIST KIBBUTZIM are the most famous Jewish agricultural colonies, far outshadowing those in the Americas. Since settlements in the U.S. — ranging from poultry collectives in New Jersey and Petaluma, California to Jewish Agricultural Society efforts in Connecticut — were often short-lived, they’ve repeatedly been stigmatized, or at least marginalized, as failures. Yet their number suggests a social movement worthy of note — and, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a resilient one. When one settlement folded, some of its members, rather than abandoning their skills and goals, often attached themselves to other colonies.
The dream of communal life on the land inspired and energized many Jews in the U.S. It still does, as demonstrated by a New York Times report entitled “New Gleanings from a Jewish Farm”. But my information comes not just from newspapers. In conversations with some young Jewish farmers and would-be farmers, I’ve encountered appealing curiosity about their predecessors. So here’s a possible gift for your favorite farmers and their social circles: Stepmother Russia, a book about Jews from the Russian empire who experimented with group living and farming in Oregon. They were part of a larger organization called Am Olam that encouraged and helped Jews, mostly young men, to move to the U.S. and establish agricultural settlements. The Am Olam colony in Oregon lasted the longest, although it was active only from 1883 to 1886. It was called New Odessa, because its core membership hailed from Odessa on the Black Sea.
Not just anti-Jewish violence caused Jews to move out of the Russian empire. Many evidently needed a positive incentive to make such a break. Yes, there were great fears, but there were also great hopes. In the Russian empire, few Jews could farm, but as immigrants they would have that opportunity with the aid of Jews who had already established themselves in the U.S. By working the land, they could raise their social status enormously, both in their own eyes and in the opinion of others, because an old but still-influential economic theory insisted that agriculture was the only productive sector and that everything else drew on the value of the soil and its crops. If that sounds absurd today, well, imagine how some of our cherished economic verities may be treated in future centuries.
IN THE TSARIST EMPIRE of the 1880s, Marxist social democracy, with its confidence in the power of the urban proletariat, was a growing political movement, but Russian populism, which celebrated the communal traditions of the peasantry, still shaped many minds, including among Jews. Of course, agricultural colonies in the U.S. or elsewhere could not turn Jews into Russian peasants, but they promised Jews something similar: the opportunity to create their own communes on their own land. Making money was far from the sole motivation for joining agricultural settlements. Good thing, too, considering how difficult it was to reap a profit from them. Arguably, the chief benefits for the participants were ideological, spiritual and emotional. And that is why this story is so ideologically, spiritually and emotionally rich.
Theodore H. Friedgut, a retired professor of Russian Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has captured this richness by an ingenious double perspective packed into one book. In his essay of about a hundred pages that forms the first half of the book, he draws on social, intellectual and business history to explain the who-what-where-when-why-and-how of Am Olam in general, and New Odessa in particular. In the second half, of roughly the same length, he publishes, introduces, and annotates a fascinating, often witty, memoir written in the 1930s by a participant in New Odessa, Israel Mandelkern.
Mandelkern, born in 1861, had run away from his brilliant but neglectful father and an archetypal cruel stepmother, and supported himself as a teacher and tutor in the Jewish communities of his hometown of Dubno and the city of Odessa. Like many young Jews in the latter place, he was rather Russified and estranged from religious Judaism. Avoiding revolutionaries, he was friendly with Odessa’s modern Jewish intellectuals — Moses Lillienblum, Shomer, Hillel Solotaroff — and that was apparently enough to earn him a police order to quit the city. So he stole across the border and hooked up with Am Olam members in Austria. Waiting for passage to America, they planned their farm, sang Russian songs, and became followers of the radical Paul Kaplan. While Kaplan also advised and aided the group in New York, his leadership was soon eclipsed by that of a non-Jewish Russian, William Frey.
According to Mandelkern, “Mr. William Frey was an extraordinary character of his kind: a man of beauty and refinement of the old Russian military aristocracy, like Prince Kropotkin, a captain of the artillery in some royal regiment, but so pacifistic that he preferred the life of a poor communist to the glittering splendor of the royal guards.” (In this memoir, “a communist” clearly means a member of a commune rather than a follower of Marx.) Originally called Vladimir Konstantinovich Geins, he moved to the U.S. in 1868 and changed his last name to a word for “free.” Gradually he came to the conclusion that socialism should be created now and through communal living, not after a future revolution.
He and his wife had tried various group settlements — and marital arrangements — before they met the New Odessans in New York in 1881. After Frey helped them find a place to settle, he and his family joined the colony in Oregon in 1883. There he offered members a basic education not only in radical ideas, values, and history but also in geography, math, the sciences, and philosophy. His lectures, several times per week, “were attentively listened to by all and appreciated by many, particularly by those who did not understand them,” Mandelkern notes drily. There were also Sunday sermons and talks at holidays and celebrations. Says Friedgut: “Frey lectured, almost compulsively, at every opportunity.”
VEGETARIANISM, hydrotherapy (known as the water cure), and no tobacco were essential components of Frey’s belief system, and he was often unforgiving with those who violated his principles because, Mandelkern explains, “a sin is a sin and leads to greater sins.” But what really riled some colonists was the Religion of Humanity that Frey had taken from the French positivist sociologist Auguste Comte. It was drilled into them through preaching, prayer, ritualized kisses on the mouth, and hymns with organ accompaniment. Meetings of the commune grew argumentative. Resignations ensued, including Mandelkern’s: he moved to San Francisco in 1884 to become a photographer. When Frey quit New Odessa later that year, many colonists also abandoned the settlement. Those who stayed found it hard to maintain discipline and energy without his leadership. Not long after this split, a fire hit the place, including the library that Friedgut considers the heart of its intellectual life. The remaining members then sold everything and, in 1886, exited en masse. While some of them established a New Odessa Cooperative Steam Laundry in lower Manhattan, which lasted four years — Paul Kaplan, who later became a physician, was active in it — agricultural New Odessa was over.
In order to clarify the relationship of New Odessans to Kaplan and Frey, I should add that young radicals in the Russian empire tended to organize themselves into groups called circles, directed by one or more strong personalities. Since Tsarist absolutism censored books and periodicals, the circles created underground libraries to disseminate forbidden texts. Members relied on their leader to explicate the unfamiliar vocabulary of radical writers. In short, it was an illegal educational system for those dissatisfied with the schooling they were offered. Young people learned from an authority, even when he (or, rarely, she) was not much older than they, and so became initiated into an alternative set of ideas. The concepts conveyed were not always the same — there were various competing radical philosophies and combinations of them — but, regardless of the content, the method tended to be similar. Am Olam, even in Austria or America, was clearly a Russian institution. Mandelkern exaggerated when he wrote, “The only game known to the Russian intellectual is talking,” but by how much?
There are historians who think that the role of charismatic leaders in Russian radical circles contained the seeds of later authoritarianism, even of the Stalinist cult of personality. This is probably too simple: Paul Kaplan doesn’t seem to fit this bill. But Frey’s influence on New Odessa did tend towards total control. Mandelkern describes him as “our spiritual head, our guide and adviser not only in things communistic but in things material, agricultural, domestic — in fact, everything.” At his insistence, they foreswore meat, tea, coffee and tobacco, though some smoked in secret, hunted game and ate it, and groused in private. “None of us was strong enough to gainsay any statement of Frey’s,” Mandelkern recalls. Probably that’s because Frey was so far above them in status and education. Mandelkern continues, “The majority accepted the testimony of Frey as gospel truth, not to be questioned.” Yet this infantilization contained the seeds of its own destruction. As they learned English and more about America, many colonists felt more confident about making their own decisions.
It is not surprising that the Religion of Humanity was especially divisive, because it stood outside the structure of the Russian circle. When a member sang revolutionary songs in Russian and Ukrainian, that was part of the radical tradition. Hymn-singing was not. Mandelkern’s ambivalent tone is telling: “I call the hymns ‘devitalized’ because they were not new, but were the old Christian prayer book hymns with God and Christ left out, and ‘humanity’ substituted for them. These hymns appealed to the unsophisticated who had never gone to Jewish or Christian prayers and had never read the Psalms, but the tunes and the rhythm pleased all of us, even if to some the whole thing seemed ridiculous.”
It took a while for the New Odessans to acquire a realistic view of their own capabilities and of Frey’s. They had to see for themselves that his farming experience and business acumen left much to be desired. A comically mismatched pair of oxen that he helped buy was a waste of scarce resources. More tragically, most of the region he helped to select was too mountainous to be farmed. Outlets for crops were too hard to reach. When ill health slowed him down, there was no secondary leadership to take his place. Such lessons in management are another reason why the story of this farm colony deserves to be spread.
Karen Karin Rosenberg is working on a book on Russian revolutionary propaganda. Her essays, fiction, and plays have appeared in periodicals and anthologies in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.