"Our long wandering comes to an end and a new life begins for us,"
wrote a young Russian Jewish immigrant in 1882, about to start
an agricultural commune. The foreign soil he would soon till,
however, was not in
but in the U.S.A., in Oregon,
250 miles south of Portland, near the present-day town of
Life under Czar Alexander III became intolerable after 1881.
The young, terrified ruler-successor to his assassinated
father at once inspired and condoned a campaign of abuses
against the Jews, culminating in restrictive laws and pogroms.
Jews of all political persuasions came to realize that
assimilating into Russian society was a mirage.
Movements toward immigration flourished and took two paths.
The group BILU (a Hebrew acronym for House of Jacob, Come,
Let's Go) chose Palestine as its destination, forming its
second wave of kibbutz settlers. The other branch, Am Olam
(The Eternal People), decided that America offered greater
The first and largest Am Olam unit formed in Odessa, the scene
of an especially bloody pogrom from May 3 to May 5, 1881. Its
founder, Monye Bokal, speaking to friends about the exciting
venture to America, said, "We Jews have given to the world its
loftiest ideas of morality. Perhaps we were destined to show
the world that life could be established on the basis of the
highest truth and justice."
this lofty goal in mind, Bokal gathered two hundred Odessan
Jewish men and women, university students, and like a
latter-day Moses, intended to lead them across the ocean to
begin an agricultural collective, where they might live
without fear of Czarist police and murderous mobs.
Before undertaking the journey, Bokal sent the respected
writer Ben Ami as an emissary to Paris. He was to enlist the
financial support of the Alliance Israelite Universalle, the
foremost Jewish philanthropic organization in the world at
that time. Its chief contributor was Baron Maurice de Hirsch,
donator of enormous sums in various attempts to rescue the
endangered Jews of Russia. Aided in America by the Hebrew
Emigrant Society (HES), Am Olam was granted the necessary
Under the hands-on leadership of fellow student Paul
Kaplan, the first group of sixty-five brave souls left
Odessa in late Nov. 1881, bound for the New World. (A
few months later, a second contingent of seventy
followed, and a short while later two other, smaller
Arriving in New York City in Jan. 1882, nearly penniless
and with no particular geographic location in mind, the
newcomers were taken by Michael Heilprin, HES's
secretary and editor of
Appleton's New American Encyclopedia,
to a Chinatown tenement,
to try communal living. Some found jobs in the
sweatshops on lower Broadway. They spent their evenings
enthusiastically studying English, discussing
philosophy, and making plans.
The following spring, many of the "Brothers and Sisters" (as
they referred to themselves) ventured north to a Hartford,
Connecticut farm, determined to gain practical agricultural
experience. None had ever worked the land or raised livestock,
their knowledge of the subject limited to books. After a
nationwide search, the first group of twenty-one men and five
women left by boat for Oregon, where Heilprin had purchased in
their name a rundown farm for $4,800. He had raised $5,000,
mostly from Jacob Schiff, the New York investment banker and
generous supporter of Jewish causes.
The 760-acre spread in Douglas County must have looked
like Eden to the weary travelers after a month-long
journey that included a steamer to Panama, a wagon trip
across that country, and another boat to Oregon. A more
realistic description appeared a few weeks later in the
New York Sun:
"The property has three buildings hardly deserving
of that name, for they afford no protection from rain or
cold. Two of the buildings are about the height of a
man, comprising two rooms each. The third house ... is
better than the other two and contains five rooms."
main bedroom of the third house, the beds were made of
boards hammered together and set in rows. There was a
single table in the center of the room.
AND HIS WIFE MARY
Oblivious to the rigors facing them, the twenty-six courageous
"Brethren of New Odessa," as they called themselves, plowed
and planted, patched and repaired the ramshackle structures.
They were barely teenagers, the oldest a hoary twenty-eight,
the youngest (not counting the two babies born after Am Olam
landed in America) a mere nineteen. In their articles of
incorporation they stated their idealistic aims: "Mutual
assistance in perfecting and development of the physical,
mental and moral capacities of its members." They adopted the
familiar rubric of "United we stand, divided we fall." They
named their shiny, bright community New Odessa.
other farms were few and far between, the fledgling colony
established friendly relations with its neighbors, often
joining them on picnics and inviting them to the commune for
social events. Happily, the newcomers experienced no
anti-Semitism, perhaps because they didn't practice the
religion of their fathers, or any form of worship. Indeed, the
Brethren considered themselves the disciples of Leo Tolstoy
and Karl Marx.
first harvest was bountiful, and there was plenty to eat. "Our
food consists of bread, potatoes, peas, beans and a little
milk," wrote one. The forests were full of game. The rivers
teamed with fish. But by winter there was a shortage of heavy
clothing and blankets. Squarely facing the dire situation,
Paul Kaplan devised a temporary solution.
Of the 760 acres, over 500 were dense forests of tall Douglas
fir. He contacted the Oregon and California Railroad and
arranged a deal to supply it with firewood for the locomotives
and ties for the rails.
"We industriously wielded ax and saw, and ... managed to
furnish the railroad with 125 cords of wood," wrote one of the
settlers turned lumberjack. "We shall have to work hard [but]
we shall have enough money to pay the first installment on our
farm and for the most essential implements. [After the
railroad contract is complete however] we shall remain without
a steady source of income, and what will happen then?"
What happened was the fortuitous arrival the following March
of William Frey and his family--wife, three children, and
non-legal second wife. (Frey was not promiscuous, but he
believed that a man could take more than one wife.) Order and
structure and industriousness had broken down under the harsh
realities of survival. The idealistic dreamers had found it
far easier talking the cause of communism around samovars of
hot tea than actually living it on a day-to-day basis.
Frey, 46, who had been dispatched by Heilprin, was a
larger-than-life, charismatic figure. Born Vladimir
Konstantinovich Geins, a former Russian Orthodox Christian, he
had once been an army officer and professor of mathematics at
the military academy in St. Petersburg. But he'd suddenly and
dramatically altered his entire life, becoming a convert to
the philosophy of Auguste Comte, a mid-nineteenth century
French philosopher and mathematician; to agrarian communism;
and to strict vegetarianism. Comtism (or Positivism) is based
solely on verifiable scientific fact and rejects speculation
about God, even avoiding the search for ultimate origins.
With a cadre of diehard disciples, Frey had left Russia
in 1875 and established a commune in Kansas that soon
failed. In 1882 he went to New York City, where he met
Abraham Cahan, novelist, editor of the Yiddish daily
and a major force in
Manhattan cultural affairs. "He was an interesting
fanatic who believed he was duty-bound to preserve and
enhance his health so that he might all the better serve
humanity," wrote Cahan about Frey.
Immediately upon his arrival at New Odessa (the
population had increased to forty-seven from the second
wave of Am Olamites), Frey took the reins from Kaplan,
warning the commune of his fanaticism and that he would
be difficult to work with.
Near ruin, the members gladly submitted. Change was almost
instantaneous. Where there had been chaos, Frey instituted
order and discipline. Where lassitude and indolence prevailed,
he demanded and received labor and productivity.
Frey forced the Brethren to rise at 5:30 a.m. Fifteen
minutes were allotted for breakfast, then chores
resumed. Lunch was eliminated entirely. Dinner was at 4
p.m. At 5 p.m. the commune reassembled in the largest
room for discussion. "Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and
Friday evenings are devoted to the study of Mathematics
and English," wrote a Brother. "On Wednesday, current
matters are discussed, and on Saturday, the problems of
the commune. On Sunday we all rise at 6 AM and
immediately a lively discussion begins on the subject of
equal rights for women."
At these Sunday sessions, Frey-mandated and Frey-led, he also
preached Positivism. Early on, he'd made each of them sign a
pledge to obey the tenets of "self-perfection, altruism,
common property and moral cooperation...."
The directive was not difficult for them, as the Brethren
didn't practice Judaism before, or after, Frey--to the
consternation of some of their original sponsors. The Brethren
believed in honesty, concern for their fellow man, mutual
respect, and equality between the sexes, ideas not unlike
those of their counterparts who developed the
At first, the New Odessans were content to follow Frey's
every command. He captivated the group with his dynamic
personality and mature wisdom, and they, feeling
themselves above bourgeois morality, had no problems
with the other Mrs. Frey or their own sexual conduct.
Soon New Odessa began to thrive, to live up to Monye
Bokal's original hopes and optimism.
The Brethren sought to
construct a society based on freedom and equality. They
rarely looked back, spoke of Russia or the families left
behind. They were overjoyed to have escaped the Czar.
The commune became their family. Two couples married and
two children were born. Being Tolstoyans, they hoped to
build a fairer society based on a return to Mother
Eventually, human nature
and human fallibility intervened. The sheer daily grind
of intense physical labor slowly took its toll. The less
able and the inherently lazy--despite Frey's strict
overseeing--began to slack off Tensions grew. A
spiritual inertia settled over New Odessa.
Also, the monotony
and isolation of farm life eroded even the most
emotionally secure. After all, these former students and
intelligentsia were completely cut off from the strong
winds of fresh ideas--Spencer's social Darwinism,
symbolism and impressionism in painting, communism,
imperialism, and nationalism.
And of course
conflicts arose from the lopsided ratio of men to women
in the commune. Women took multiple lovers, in the
spirit of free love. Jealousies abounded. Intrigues
flourished, open and hidden.
But by far the greatest
disruptive factor at New Odessa was created ironically
by the very person who had held it together. Frey's
leadership became oppressive. For much too long they'd
followed him slavishly, and how could he be denied? "He
was so friendly, so saintly, so respected, so
well-educated, so much older than the rest of us," wrote
a former New Odessan. Yet Frey had planted the seeds of
his own destruction by polarizing the commune through
A particularly bitter feud developed between him and Kaplan,
especially after Frey purchased a pipe organ, which his first
wife played to accompany his Sunday sermons on Positivism.
Kaplan wasn't particularly devout, but perhaps he retained
for he could not tolerate what
sounded to his ears like church hymns.
Opposition to Frey continued to mount, and in 1886, he left
New Odessa, taking his family and fifteen original Am Olam
members with him. The commune never recovered from this
upheaval, and many of its originals also departed and drifted
back to New York. By November 1887, after five grueling years,
New Odessa collapsed and the property was foreclosed on.
In Manhattan, Kaplan tried to regroup, gathering the remaining
Brethren and housing them in a tenement on Henry Street. With
the few dollars salvaged from New Odessa, they opened a
cooperative steam laundry on Essex Street. Kaplan became its
outside man, going door-todoor, drumming up business.
Unfortunately, the laundry met the same fate as the Oregon
farm. After five years it closed.
On May 30, 1907, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Am Olam's
first arrival in America, the
commented that "They were the
fathers of all that was good and wholesome that we have
accomplished here [in America]. They planted the first seed."
Eventually, Kaplan became a physician, ministering to
the poor of the Lower East Side. The two children, both
girls, born on New Odessa went on to become a physician
and a dentist. The last known survivor, a chemist named
Peter Fireman, died without descendants in 1950, at the
age of ninety-four. Frey returned to his native Russia,
where he met but failed repeatedly to convert Leo
Tolstoy to Positivism. His last two years were spent in
London, continuing to actively proselytize in speeches
and letters. On Nov. 5, 1888, he died of tuberculosis,
faith in his principles unshaken.
Reprinted with permission of the Estate of Martin Boris.
photo: Farm in Glendale, Oregon, cir 1912