A Jewish woman’s life on the prairie: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company presents a one-woman show detailing the harsh realities of North Dakota life in the 1890s


“When I look back, it amazes me that I moved to the one place on earth colder than Russia: North Dakota.”

— Rachel Calof

When a docent at the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West in Los Angeles came across a copy of Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains (Indiana University Press), she immediately thought of her friend, actress Kate Fuglei.

“She said, ‘I picked up this book and I could not put it down. I read it in one sitting.’ I got the book and I had the exact same experience,” Fuglei told the AJW. “It’s not just the story, which is very captivating, but [Calof] has such a unique voice, and she has such humor and irony and intelligence and depth of understanding… I immediately thought it would make a wonderful stage piece.”

Rachel Calof’s memoir, originally written in Yiddish in the 1930s, describes her life in great detail — from a harsh childhood in Russia and immigrating to America at the age of 18, to spending 20 years on the North Dakota prairie with her husband before moving to St. Paul.

Fuglei and her husband, writer Ken LaZebnik, spent several years adapting Calof’s memoir into a one-woman show. The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company (MJTC) is now presenting the resulting production, Rachel Calof: A Memoir with Music, through Aug. 25.

The show is directed by Ellen S. Pressman, and features original music and lyrics by Leslie Steinweiss, which Fuglei said expresses Calof’s “internal life.”

As part of MJTC’s Doorways program, Fuglei and Pressman will participate in a Q&A on Aug. 17; Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein, of Temple of Aaron, will lead a discussion on Aug. 18; and Katherine Tane, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, will talk about Jewish immigrants settling in North Dakota on Aug. 21.

“What I’m most proud of is the ability to put this story out into the world,” Fuglei said. “It’s a story of somebody facing really tough odds, and meeting them and overcoming them… Everyone in their lives faces times when they feel like they just can’t go on, like life is just too tough. My hope is that in seeing this woman and hearing her story, it will give them hope, too, that no matter how difficult your life is, you can go on. There’s a reason to go on, and the reason is love and family and connections.”

Fuglei said Calof had a tough life, losing her mother at the age of four and being raised by a servant girl Fuglei described as “cruel.” Her father eventually remarried, but Calof’s new stepmother pressured her father to leave Calof and her two siblings, which he did, and she was sent to live with a great-uncle.

When Calof was 18, her great-uncle sent her photo to a friend in North Dakota who was looking for a wife. The friend, Abraham Calof, said he would marry her and paid for her passage to America.

Calof traveled alone from Russia to Germany to England, where she boarded a boat. Abraham met her in New York and the two took a train to Devil’s Lake, N.D. — they traveled the remaining 25 miles by wagon to the Calof family’s property.

For the first several years of their marriage (and at least three winters), the Calofs lived in a 12-by-14-foot shack on the prairie with Abraham’s parents and brother, 24 chickens and a cow. Eventually, they built a barn and later a house, and stayed on the property for some 20 years.

“The conditions were unbelievably harsh. I think it’s impossible for us to imagine what that would be like,” Fuglei said. “There was this bizarre thing with having all this unending prairie and yet being crushed into a teeny little shack with, essentially, strangers. And on top of that, her mother-in-law wanted to keep strictly kosher and had many, many what you would call ‘old-world’ myths that she lived by.”

The Calofs raised nine children, who were everything to Rachel, according to Fuglei. Once they became empty nesters, the Calofs moved to St. Paul, where Abraham was active in local politics. Though they never separated or divorced, the Calofs didn’t spend a lot of time together, and Rachel often went on extended trips to visit the children in other cities.

“She did grow to love him, I think,” Fuglei said. “But I think one of the big questions the piece asks is: Did we really love each other or did we just survive together? And is surviving together love?”

In the course of the development of this show, Fuglei met with many of Calof’s descendants, including grandson David Calof, of Seattle, who owns Calof’s original manuscript, and granddaughter Joyce Aronson, of Los Angeles, who owns the trunk that Calof brought with her from Russia.

Aronson was part of a group of almost 20 Calof descendants who attended a workshop production of the play at Pepperdine University.

“Needless to say, I was very terrified, I hoped they would like the performance,” Fuglei said. “Afterward I was very touched because Joyce Aronson stood up and said, ‘You have honored my grandmother and we give our full approval to this piece.’”

Fuglei, a native of Omaha, Neb., spent four years in the Twin Cities. She worked at the Playwrights’ Center and Illusion Theater before getting her professional start at the Guthrie Theatre, where she met her husband, LaZebnik.

LaZebnik, a native of Columbia, Mo., attended Macalester College. Following graduation, he spent more than five years working at the Mixed Blood Theater Company, which he describes as his “home base.”

After moving to New York with Fuglei in the early 1980s, LaZebnik began writing for A Prairie Home Companion. The family then moved to Los Angeles in 1991, where LaZebnik now writes for television.

Like Fuglei, LaZebnik said he was struck by Calof’s memoir and was “very faithful to the core material” during the development of his stage adaptation.

“It’s extraordinary, the details of her life on the prairie, the unbelievable deprivations that she suffered in North Dakota as a homesteader in the 1890s, it’s really just a remarkable story,” LaZebnik said.

And though he may be somewhat biased, LaZebnik says Fuglei’s performance is “mind-bogglingly wonderful” as she creates all of the other characters in Calof’s life.

“Although it’s told as Rachel, she also creates these incredibly distinctive characters of the mother-in-law, the husband Abraham, his brother’s child. She just creates this world,” LaZebnik said of his wife. “I think people who watch it always feel inspired that the human spirit can triumph over such extraordinary adversity… And it is a story that is definitely of the Upper Midwest and of Jewish life on the prairie. People usually associate the Jewish immigrant experience with urban settings, and I’m very proud that this documents this Jewish immigrant experience in the prairie. That’s one of the things that is very unusual about it, and documents a very important part of Jewish history that hasn’t been explored as much.”

The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is presenting Rachel Calof: A Memoir with Music through Aug. 25 at the Hillcrest Center Theater, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. For tickets and information, call 651-647-4315 or visit: www.mnjewishtheatre.org.

Related story:  TC JEWFOLK | Rachel Calof at MJTC: Powerhouse performance