Exhibit Explores Jewish Immigrants’ Roots

Until Jan. 27, an exhibit that looks at the Jewish roots in the Dakotas and rural Minnesota is on display at the Elmer J. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota. “Sticks, Straw, and Mud: Jewish Settlers in the Upper Midwest” is put on by the Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives at the University of Minnesota, with assistance from the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest.

“The collections we have seen get the most use have been related to Jewish communities in North Dakota,” said Kate Dietrick, the archivist at the Berman Archives. “A lot of the settlers in both Dakotas started their immigrant experience there and then moved to the Twin Cities. People are interested in their family history. It’s a different story than the people who came right to the Twin Cities.”

Dietrick said that one of the strengths of the exhibit that it tells a different story of the Jewish immigrant experience that many people don’t know.

“You think Lower-East Side tenaments, and this is not that,” Dietrick said.jewish-settlers-exhibit-2

Dietrick explained that the established Jewish community, made up of a lot of German immigrants, didn’t know how to support the eastern European immigrants that were coming. The raised money to send them to the Dakotas, which at the time, wasn’t without appeal.

“The Homestead Act of 1862, said you could get 160 acres for free if you lived on the land and improved it for 5 years,” Dietrick said. “As a Jew in Russia, you weren’t allowed to own land. To get the land for free was appealing.”

There were also large Jewish agricultural societies in New York and Chicago that would provide loans and capital to live their life on the prairie.

“That’s how you’d see families going to agricultural and homestead areas,” Dietrick said. “They are trying to work their land in the Dakotas. It wasn’t used for farming before. They get the land, sell it, and leave for the Twin Cities or for an area with a larger Jewish community.”

The exhibit also tackles Jewish entrepreneurs. Dietrick said that areas like mining, lumber, milling and banking had been closed off to Jews, so entrepreneurs set up businesses. The exhibit has artifacts from department stores in Duluth, butcher shop in Tower, and a grocery store in Virginia.

Dietrick said that where they worked with the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest is to have artifacts on display. Among the items, Dietrick said, is a Hebrew typewriter and Torah scrolls from Minot, ND.

“What we have is paper documents, photos and telegrams,” she said. “They are interesting when you read them but not visually dynamic.”

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About Lonny Goldsmith

Lonny Goldsmith is the editor of TC Jewfolk and Director of Communications for Jewfolk Media. He's an award-winning journalist who is involved in his third Jewish community after growing up in Michigan and spending a three-year stint in Chicago. He likes to write, cook and drink really good beer. He dislikes negotiating with his children to eat dinner yet gets sucked into it anyway. He can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @lonny_goldsmith

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