Minnesota has a respectable number of Jewish residents, most recently estimated to number somewhere north of 45,000, with the vast majority residing in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. A smattering of the tribe can be found in the Lake Superior port city of Duluth to the north, and in Rochester to the south. But there are not many, if any, in Otter Tail County in West Central Minnesota. Settled by Finnish immigrants, most of the residents of New York Mills, population 1,199, have likely never met a Jew, let alone had one living among them—until Elisa Korenne.
Educated at Yale and the London School of Economics, Elisa Korentayer was living in Brooklyn when she was awarded a month-long artist residency at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in 2006. A singer-songwriter who uses the name Elisa Korenne professionally, she has been compared to Liz Phair and Sarah McLachlan. Korenne’s one-month artist residency at the Cultural Center turned into a permanent residency when she married local outdoorsman and insurance agent, Chris Klein.
A Journey to the Rural Side of Minnesota
On a recent fall day, after getting my kids out the door and reviewing the day’s agenda with my husband, I left my Minneapolis home and pointed the car northwest towards New York Mills, 170 miles away from Minneapolis. Inner ring suburbs gave way to outer ring suburbs and exurbs, and then endless straw-colored prairie and farmland, flat as a pancake. Billboards alternated between endorsing conservative candidates and anti-choice rhetoric—a gas station here, a “gentlemen’s club” there. Passing through the town of Royalton, I encountered a large sign that stated “Maybe you would like abortion less if they used guns.” Had to think about that one for a minute. Two hours into the trip, but still an hour from my destination, stands of birch and copses of evergreens took on the look of a flattened snow globe,sprinkled with snow like powdered sugar on a doughnut.
Passing Morey’s Fish House, an institution since 1937 and a regular stop on my childhood trips “up North,” to pick up some of its legendary smoked whitefish and lox, I finally approached the town of Wadena, the site of my lunch meeting with Korenne at Harvest Thyme Bistro.
As I entered the restaurant, Korenne spotted me immediately. She looked like someone I should know, an after talking with her for a few minutes, I felt like I did.
Meet Elisa Korenne, Jewish Culture Sophisticate Turned Country Mom
Born in Queens to Israeli American parents, her father’s work took the family around the world. After spending two years in New Zealand in the 1980’s, the family moved to Pennsylvania, where she lived from sixth grade until graduating from high school. She spent long periods of time in England and Israel, and traveled internationally for her work as co-founder of Geekcorps, an international non-profit that sends people with technical skills to developing countries to help develop information technology infrastructure.
When I moved to rural Minnesota, I assumed that my connection to Judaism would diminish. Instead, I discovered that in the faith-oriented environment of a rural community, I was the local ambassador for Judaism. Suddenly, I was responsible for representing all of Judaism to everyone I met.
Despite her world travels and top-notch educational credentials, Korenne is completely down to earth. During our lunch together I learned that she met her future husband, Klein, then a board member of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, on a canoe trip. It wasn’t until just before her one month stint at the Cultural Center came to an end, that the two began to date. After maintaining a long-distance relationship, they decided that Korenne would move to Minnesota as Chris had recently purchased the family insurance business from his father, and her art form was portable.
Like many surprises I got that day, Korenne reported almost universally positive experiences with her new rural Minnesota friends and neighbors, who have been curious and congenial.
Korenne says of her experience, “I was so used to being in communities full of and familiar with Jews that I hadn’t considered what it would be like to be an exception, an oddity. Then I realized I was the first Jewish person some people had ever met and worried about how they would react. I have been surprised and delighted by how interested and welcoming people have been to me.”
From her Catholic in-laws to the local Lutheran pastor, she has been received with open arms. A guest in the Klein home for her first Christmas experience ever, her future father-in-law blessed the Christmas dinner invoking the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, instead of Jesus Christ, in an effort to make his son’s girlfriend feel more comfortable.
Under a chuppah made by Korenne’s artist mother from a balsa-wood garden arbor strung with silk flowers, the couple was married in 2008. They had a meaningful ceremony officiated by a Rabbi imported from Fargo, North Dakota, and the Klein family priest. At their wedding reception at a local country club, friends of the bride helped organize the horah, herding parents of both the bride and groom to the center of the dance floor to be lifted in chairs along with the newly married couple, and teaching everyone the moves of vining feet in front of and behind one another to create a joyous dance.
Among Korenne’s new friends and neighbors is Ryan Stout, pastor of the local Lutheran (ELCA) church. The two are part of the same book club, often referred to as “poker night” in deference the local police chief who didn’t want word to get out that he was attending a book club. Korenne took me to meet Pastor Ryan. As we entered his church office, I spied an empty bottle of Sabra liquor on a shelf, along with a stuffed toy Torah, and bag of Passover plagues. His wall-to-wall bookshelves also featured a full set of the Babylonian Talmud, in addition to books about various religions. Pastor Stout is the step-son of the Reverend Dr. Franklin Sherman, Founding Director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania and author of several books including Bridges: Documents of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue: The Road to Reconciliation (1945-1985). Suffice it to say, Pastor Stout is well versed in Judaism and I completely understand why Korenne refers to him as her substitute Rabbi. Korenne and Stout hosted a Passover Seder at the church last spring, which they hope to make an annual event.
Deepening Jewish Identity in a Town With No Jews
Surprisngly, Korenne’s move to rural Minnesota has deepened her Jewish identity. “As a college student, I became alienated from my Jewish heritage. Then, when I lived in New York City, it was easy to ignore my Jewish background, or more to the point, to become complacent about it. Judaism was everywhere. Many of my friends were Jewish. I passed synagogues and bagels and Jewish delis daily. When I moved to rural Minnesota, I assumed that my connection to Judaism would diminish. Instead, I discovered that in the faith-oriented environment of a rural community, I was the local ambassador for Judaism. Suddenly, I was responsible for representing all of Judaism to everyone I met,” she explains.
Korenne and her husband are committed to raising their son Jewish. With his birth last year, New York Mills celebrated another first; a bris. The mohel, Rabbi Moshe Weinberg, traveled from the Twin Cities on Zebediah’s eighth day of life to perform the ritual in their home. Weinberg is the grandson of the late Reverend Shepsel Roberts, a Twin Cities mohel who is said to have circumcised almost every male of a certain age in the region. It will be a challenge giving their son a Jewish education with the nearest synagogue is in Fargo, North Dakota, an hour-and-a-half drive from New York Mills. “Now, as I contemplate how to raise my new son as a Jewish boy in a non-Jewish environment, I must further develop my own Jewish identity so I can cultivate one in him,” Korenne says.
Certainly, there have been bumps in the road, and times that Korenne has felt isolated. She has learned that one does not swear in polite company in rural Minnesota, that her marriage has made her a de facto gun owner, and that fresh road kill occasionally ends up as the centerpiece of her dinner table. Challenges have arisen when their home furnace went out when the outside temperature was twenty degrees below zero and the nearest neighbor was not exactly next door. But she is committed to her life in rural Minnesota with her family and found support in unexpected places.
Her husband, Chris wanted to help Elisa feel community, and suggested that they host a Hanukkah party in their home, adding that his parents may want to help. A call to Chris’ mother brought a day of female bonding over cookie baking using her mother-in-law’s favorite Christmas cookie recipe. Chris’ father volunteered to be in charge of the latkes, showing up on the day of the party with his pick- up truck laden with two saw horses, a plank of wood, and an electric skillet. He donned an apron and chef’s hat and proceeded to fry up platter after platter of crisp latkes that the appreciative guests devoured.
Since joining the ranks of the frozen chosen, Korenne has created a sub-genre of Jewish historical works. “My new sense of isolation in a rural environment, caused me to seek every frail link to my heritage that I could find, ultimately resulting in my show ” ‘Oy Vey’ is Jewish for ‘Uff-da’ ” about the Jews that once lived in the rural upper Midwest,” she says. Korenne has also collaborated with Prairie Public Broadcasting out of Fargo to create videos that tell the region’s history through song.
Korenne has written more about her unusual journey in her recently completed memoir, Hundred Miles To Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story.
Elisa Korenne would be a gift to any community; New York Mills just got lucky.
Robin Doroshow is an attorney, entrepreneur, and freelance writer. She lives in Golden Valley with her husband, two kids and dog, Ginger. She and her family are members of Shir Tikvah and Sharei Chesed congregations. Robin is also a fermenter of pickled products (trrrificproducts.com) and a teacher of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSRforthebar.com).