'Our Lake Wobegon': Children's book traces Jewish family's life in Grand Forks
After serving as the student rabbi at B'nai Israel Synagogue in Grand Forks, N.D., for two years, Burt Schuman was haunted by a question. What would life have been like if his own extended family had come to the prairie instead of settling in...
After serving as the student rabbi at B'nai Israel Synagogue in Grand Forks, N.D., for two years, Burt Schuman was haunted by a question.
What would life have been like if his own extended family had come to the prairie instead of settling in New York City?
That answer -- and a tribute to the Jewish community in North Dakota -- is "Chanukah on the Prairie," a children's book written by Schuman.
The book tells the story of the Zalcmans, an Eastern European family who lived in peace, but poverty. The parents decide to move their two children to America.
When they arrive to "die Goldene Medineh, the Golden Land," a young Jewish man offers them free train tickets to Grand Forks. To the Zalcmans, the life of a farmer in the fresh air sounds better than city living.
In this prairie community, the Jewish family finds life is similar to their old one. There's a kosher shop, a synagogue, a cemetery and a ritual bath. The synagogue's officers even argue and scream at each other in Yiddish -- just like in their hometown.
Here they celebrate their first Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.
Schuman was the student rabbi in Grand Forks from 1991-93. Today he is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pa. His time in Grand Forks played a role in his decision to serve a small congregation outside New York, he said.
The experience endeared him to the people in North Dakota -- both Jews and non-Jews.
Despite teasing from friends and family -- some asked if people still lived in sod houses -- Schuman fell in love with the prairie. He also began researching the history of the Jewish congregation in Grand Forks.
His book contains some of that history, including the figure of Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster who arrived from Lithuania and organized B'nai Israel.
"This is our Lake Wobegon story," Schuman said, referring to the town created by Garrison Keillor. "It's an authentic part of not only Jewish history, but the history of North Dakota. Even communities that appear to be so homogeneous have pockets of rich diversity."
Schuman wanted to celebrate that diversity and the continuity of the Jewish community on the prairie.
"You have to respect and be in awe of communities that continue despite the small numbers and isolation from other Jewish communities," he said.
Although Hanukkah, which begins at sundown Friday, isn't a major Jewish holiday, the images of light and winter are a powerful reminder of what pioneers faced when they came to the prairie, Schuman said.
"It's what I imagine it would've been like for people to arrive in the winter and what the holiday would feel like when they're in a situation where they aren't oppressed by poverty, but held up by the optimism of pioneers," he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534