Pilgrimage Part I. Jewish Cowboys




Part I – Jewish Cowboys

Santa Fe


May 26, 2012

Many years ago I read We Lived There, Too! – an account of Jewish American Cowboys.*  I learned about Jewish immigrants who were settlers, farmers, ranchers and businessmen in the Western United States in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. 

(There were plenty of Jewish farmers in the East as well.  My friend Allen once worked on a chicken farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York State and when I was a boy my family spent the summer at Feigners’ Farm.)

But in the West, I have a fundamental family connection:

My Grandfather Harry (Lifschitz) Lifson emigrated from Grodno (now a city in Belarus) in 1904.  His sister, Lena Kopelman, encouraged him and his wife Pauline Lubitz to come out and join her and her husband in the Upper Midwest to escape the unhealthful tenement life in the East.  Who today can imagine a journey from the East Coast to the West in the early 20th Century?

Harry and Pauline and their young daughter, my Aunt Sue, made the trip and “lived there too” for many years.  As an adult, my mother Ruth Lifson was always proud to announce, “My sisters Ida and Beatrice and my brother Abe and I were all born in Fargo.  Fargo, North Dakota!”  ##

In Fargo, Papa Harry opened a General Store (my mother said she hid under the counter from the Indians).  Aunt Lena owned the Kopelman Building (now a state landmark) where she established a hairdressing salon.  She also made wigs.

I always assumed that Aunt Lena sold her wigs to the local Orthodox Jewish women in Fargo, who by tradition of modesty wore wigs in public.  I never stopped to consider how few Jewish women must have lived in Fargo at that time. 

My second cousins Linda (Lifschitz) Leaf and Betty Ann Leaf Ross added a bit of titillating information about our mutual Great Aunt Lena.  According to Betty Ann, Aunt Lena had a successful business because she supplied her wigs to the local “working girls.”

Perhaps you know the story of a Jewish emigrant family from Bavaria, Germany?  The Strauss family owned a dry goods shop in New York City.  But to take advantage of the California gold rush in the mid Nineteenth Century, one Strauss brother sailed to San Francisco where he opened a wholesale business.

In 1872, Levi Strauss became partners with Jacob Davis from Nevada.  Davis made men’s denim work pants for cowboys and miners.  The unique pants had metal points to reduce strain on the fabric and provide for greater strength.  Together they patented the process and formed Levi Strauss & Co to manufacture and distribute the pants.  From that time on, more than one hundred years ago, until this very day, all of us cowboys wear … wait for it … Levi’s!

In the Lonely Planet guidebook Argentina, I found an article called Gauchos Judios.  Jewish Cowboys in Argentina!

In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, the distant “cousins” of the Kopelmans, Lifsons and Strausses settled in the Santa Fe and Entre Ríos agricultural provinces of Argentina. They were immigrant farmers escaping from religious persecution in Russia and The Ukraine. 

At first, living conditions were harsh and primitive. They lived in railroad boxcars on the open prairie. Lives were lost, especially children, as they struggled to make a living.  A German Jewish railroad magnate heard of their plight.  Baron Maurice Hirsch sent funds to help the immigrants establish a proper community that thrives until today.

I read this moving story with great interest. ***I asked myself, “Do I alter my travel plans in Argentina and make a special trip to Santa Fe Province to visit these Jewish immigrant rural communities?”  

One of the important historical towns in the area is called Moisés Ville.  The early Jewish settlers named their new home in Argentina “Moses Town!”  That convinced me.  I had to go.  How could I resist?

My Pilgrimage to Moisés Ville began in Iguazu. 

On the Internet I booked my airplane ticket from Iguazu to Buenos Aires.  Before I left Iguazu I bought a bus ticket from Buenos Aires to Santa Fe.  Since I didn’t know the distance from the BA domestic airport to the BA bus terminal, and assuming heavy traffic, I decided on a long connection time between the airplane arrival and the bus departure.   

The next morning at Iguazu, Iguazu being situated in a steamy jungle, the airport was fogbound.  Posted on the information screen … my flight was…  Demorado … Delayed!  One hour?  Two hours?  ¿Quién sabe?   Who knows for how long!  Nobody knows.  The fog will lift when the fog will lift.

Finally the flight took off for Buenos Aires.  In BA, the taxi ride from the airport to the bus station was mercifully short.  While I waited for the double-decker first class bus, I stocked up on snacks for the five hour ride to the city of Santa Fe.

My seat on the upper level of the bus reclined almost to the horizontal. Nice.  But the American films playing on the screens are dubbed in Spanish. The scenery is less than appealing.  The outskirts of Buenos Aires are covered with industrial parks including Ford and Chevrolet factories.  The farmlands are utterly flat and uninteresting.

In Santa Fe, the street in front of my hotel was ripped up. The taxi driver left me on a side street. I struggled along the cluttered sidewalk to the hotel that had seen better days – maybe, maybe, maybe back in the mid 20th Century. The restaurant was already closed. But the hotel staff was welcoming to this played out pilgrim.

Pilgrimages being what they are, it was a long tedious day today.  A travel day with nothing as entertaining as the re-telling of the Knight’s Tale en route to Canterbury nor as inspirational as the approach to the hills of Jerusalem.

But …

Tomorrow is another day.  I am confident that somehow I will reach my destination. 

End of Part I.

* We Lived There Too: In Their Own Words and Pictures Pioneer Jews and the Westward Movement of America 1630-1930.  Kenneth Libo and Irving Howe.  1985.

**   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mois%C3%A9s_VillePilgrimage


## July 1990

Dear Family,

I am sure many of you have had the desire to return to your birthplace – to get the chance to complete your life’s journey.  This has always been my wish and I finally satisfied this burning desire.

I applied for an Elderhostel course at North Dakota State University. There was an international symposium regarding Germans and Russian Immigrant homesteaders.  

I was born in Fargo, North Dakota.  (1912). We were five children.  All but one was born there.  My eldest sister Sue was born in Brocton, Massachusetts.

My parents settled in Brockton when friends assured my Dad he would get work at the Douglas Shoe Factory.  All went well there until a very serious flu epidemic broke out and my parents lost their first-born son.

A year later my sister Sue was born.  At the constant urging of my father’s sister Lena, my parents moved to Fargo.  Aunt Lena was married to a farmer, Jacob Kopelman, an early Homesteader who received free land to cultivate.

My father Harry was a musician. In those days there was little work for a man in that field.  He opened a store on Front Street and sold fruit and groceries to the Indians who inhabited a great deal of the farmland.  They operated big fairs to sell their wares.

I finally got to go back to Fargo.  It was a very exciting time for me, and of course, provided me with an opportunity to see my birthplace.

I enjoyed the course at the University. When the week was over, LaMae Larson, my coordinator at the university, offered to drive me all over the city and perhaps find the areas where my family resided. 

We went to the City Hall Library and found my family’s names and addresses and also all the children’s names.

My Aunt Lena lived there all her life.  One of the buildings that she owned is now declared an Historical Landmark.  It can never be torn down and must be preserved.

I could not find our home but I did locate Aunt Lena’s house.

On visiting a museum called “Bonanza” I did find many articles from Aunt Lena’s beauty parlor and wig making establishment.  All the old equipment is on display.

Also I located my father’s carriage which he used during the severe winters when you could not drive in heavy snows.  I do remember our horse, Jack.

I was informed that there were three synagogues in Fargo, but unfortunately my time was limited so I was unable to visit them. 

My older sisters Sue and Ida and my brother Abe did go to school in Fargo.  But when my father lost his lease, we moved to Minneapolis (just as cold as Fargo) and I started school there.

When Papa could not make a good living, we went to New York from pressure from his brothers who took him into the men’s clothing business.

My week’s stay in Fargo was one of the most rewarding visits I have ever made in my life.  It’s like putting the pieces of a puzzle together and capturing your childhood.

 I can only say that if you truly want to return to your birthplace, I strongly advise you to do so.  It completes the picture of your life.  For me it was truly the most exciting visit I have ever experienced.

Ruth Lifson Polatschek

P.S.  I recently read a book called “The Bluebird of Happiness,” an autobiography by the Jewish opera singer Jan Peerce.  In the book he describes a concert he gave in Fargo. 

On the Friday night in Fargo he was hoping to find a kosher restaurant.  There was none available.  The manager of his hotel got him in touch with a Jewish family who was strictly kosher and always prepared a special Friday dinner.

The manager arranged to have Jan Peerce visit the family but he did not tell them who he was.

The family was very happy to serve him.  The wife served the dinner in the kitchen.  When she mentioned she had tickets to the Jan Peerce concert he revealed his identity.

The wife screamed, “How could we serve such an important guest at the kitchen table?”  She screamed to her husband, “Myron, set up the dining room table; we have a new guest.  Mister Jan Peerce.”


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