Authors: Rebecca E. Bender and Kenneth M. Bender
Publisher: North Dakota State University Press, 2019. 328 pages of text with black/white photos throughout.
Rebecca Bender credits her father Kenneth Bender as co-author for the stories he told her and for his unpublished book. Unless otherwise noted any reference to Bender refers to Rebecca Bender. The title “Still” comes from a question a newspaper editor asked her, “Are you still Jewish?” Bender’s book is a definite affirmative “Yes.”
Bender’s great grandfather was born Keva Bendersky in small village in Czarist Russia. At 16, with his parents having died, he walked to a bigger village, met and married Rebecca under Jewish law and tradition. They had nine children, four of whom died. Their third son named Yosef was born in 1888. The family settled in Odessa, Russia, where there were more Jews and synagogues. Jews were not allowed to own land and lived with many restrictions.
“In the early 1880s, pogroms – large scale, targeted massacres against Jews directly supported by Czar Alexander III and aided by the Czar’s secret police … broke out in southern Russia.” Pogroms continued and one in 1905 left Yosef’s two brothers killed. Many Jews fled Odessa, but they had to do it secretly leaving everything behind. One sister secretly married and ultimately made it with her husband to America, which was destination favored by people looking for free land.
In 1906 Keva, Rebecca, Yosef and his sister Lena left at night making it to Antwerp. The steamship fare had doubled so Keva and Rebecca went to America to claim homesteads leaving Yosef and Lena with a Jewish charity. They soon sent the money for Yosef and Lena who after arriving in America took the train to the end of the line in Eureka, S.D., where they rode on a horse drawn wagon to Ashley, N.D., to join their parents. When the family arrived in America the family name was shortened by immigration officials to Bender and Yosef became Joseph.
By the time Jewish farmers arrived to claim homesteads most of the good land was already claimed. Keva got rocky, hilly soil. When Joseph became old enough, he too claimed a homestead near Ashley. When Keva died he was buried in the Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery. Joseph married and had a son named Keva. Joseph moved his family and his mother to Eureka and opened a general store. This was not an unusual path for Jewish homesteaders. When Keva was about to graduate from Eureka high school in 1933 they had a second son named David.
Bender’s research revealed, “North Dakota Jewish history was unlike that in any other states, as most of the first Jewish settlers ‘came to till the soil.’ About 1,200 Jewish farmers and their families lived in North Dakota on 250 farms, in at least fifty settlements spread out over twenty-seven North Dakota counties between the 1880s and the 1920s. … The Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery was the cemetery for the largest Jewish agriculture settlement ever in North or South Dakota, and it is the largest Jewish homesteader cemetery in North or South Dakota.”
Joseph’s son Keva went to law school at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1939, but was unable to find a law job in Minneapolis due to blatant discrimination against Jews. He found a position in Rapid City, S.D., but in 1940 with war in Europe he volunteered for the draft. When he joined the Army, he changed his name from Keva to Kenneth. He went from being a private to becoming an officer commanding a company landing in Normandy on June 7 with the follow-on divisions.
He was a good officer who cared for his men. He was awarded a Silver Star and several Purple Hearts, being discharged as a major in 1946. He settled in the Minneapolis area, married, had two daughters. He owned and operated a Federated store in Minneapolis for 53 years.
During the annual trips in which Kenneth took his wife and daughters to Eureka they would always go north to visit the Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery. Bender writes of her own story and that of her son Lincoln, but the heart of her research is about the Jewish homesteaders in North Dakota. On Nov. 17, 2015, she succeeded in her effort to get the Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery named to the National Register of Historic Places. On May 17, 2017, the Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery was rededicated.
Through all the generations in the Bender Family they devotedly maintained and honored their Jewish religion. Bender writes, “Over the years I have learned that Judaism is much more than my religion. It is also a guide as to how to live my life, as it was to my ancestors. … I have had great examples to follow from five generations of my family, as well as from rabbis and teachers. I also learned from them to recognize and appreciate the special qualities of persons who do not happen to be Jewish, and that all good deeds are on the same level no matter what the person’s faith.”
This book is an excellent look at a very interesting part of North Dakota’s history. Although I do not mean this as a criticism, this book’s epilogue at 68 pages out of 328 pages is the longest epilogue of any book I have ever read!