Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

South Dakota


My paternal grandfather, Abraham Belenky, and grandmother, Batya Seema Shaitlin, lived in Chernigov, Ukraine. Grandfather was a fairly successful cattle broker who now and then used a son-in-law to take cattle beyond the Pale. Although that was dangerous, it was very profitable because no exorbitant fees had to be paid to the Gentile brokers.

The oldest of the eight children, Sam, was drafted and, of course, sent to Siberia. Grandmother decided the time had arrived to get to America because she did not wish her other sons, including her favorite, my father, to be drafted into the Czar's army.

Grandfather opportunely made a large amount of money about that time, and grandmother appropriated all of it for the trip to America. Grandfather objected strenuously, but at that moment lost control of events. Money was delivered to Sam, who paid off a sergeant and slipped across the border into China. In time he made it to the United States. The rest of the family, including three sons-in-law, left for Liverpool in 1911. One son-in-law died during the trip. One daughter caught measles, so an older daughter and my father remained behind in Liverpool until the sister recovered. One brother, for an unknown reason, came through Canada. The others arrived through Ellis Island.

A brother of my grandfather had emigrated some time before and settled in Sioux City, Iowa. My father had no idea why, but that became the home of the two families.

My grandparents never learned to speak English but grandmother, now the undisputed boss, somehow discovered general stores for sale in small towns in South Dakota and Iowa. She assigned the stores to the sons. A son-in-law had a kosher butcher shop in Sioux City. Another had a store somewhere in New Jersey. One joined with an acquaintance and became a partner in what became in time, a rather large chain of general stores.

In 1919, the time came to send out my father, a youngster of nineteen. Grandmother found a store in Lennox, South Dakota. She also found another young immigrant who had some experience in selling dry-goods. (Dads' experience was in a grocery store, and selling men's shoes in Sioux City's main department store.) The two young men became partners. So there were two Jews in Lennox, a farming center with a population of about 1,000 people.

As the two began to make and save some money, they considered the possibility of marriage. Through a shadchen, I believe, the partner heard of my mother in the Bronx. Mother turned him down; my father went to New York and succeeded. My mother was in the second generation born here of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants who had arrived in 1849. She reached Lennox to discover she was to live in a nice house with a not-so-nice outhouse. She also found that she was expected to work in the store six-and one-half days a week. Stores stayed open late three nights a week, until the last customer went home; on Saturdays they stayed open until the egg truck arrived to purchase and pick up the eggs that had been purchased from the farmers.

When mother became pregnant with me she went home; I was bom in the Bronx on June 20, 1921. She told father that she and the child would return only to a house with running water and an indoor toilet. Thirty days after my birth I was taken to a new house with running water and an indoor toilet. A second son was born three years and one month later, and much later, after we had moved into the city of Sioux Falls, a third son was born. During the three years immediately after my birth, Dad and his partner broke up. The partner, who had married, left for Califomia where he became a very successful merchant.

The first six years of life in Lennox were normal and without stress. SiouxFalls is twenty miles away and had two synagogues--one sort of Orthodox and one very Reform. Dad was brought up Orthodox, of course; Mother was Reform. I started religious school in the Orthodox synagogue, but shortly we switched. I am reasonably sure my mother manipulated the change; the ostensible reason was that the Orthodox synagogue could not keep a rabbi. The Temple had a fine man as rabbi. (During the Depression he had to collect his wages by going from house to house.) For six years he spent Tuesday and Thursday evenings, as well as Sunday mornings, attempting to teach me something about the Judaism of the most radical art of Reform. During the last two years of our time together we studied the Spinoza.

I had a tutor (when I was five) who prepared me for the second grade although we did not realize it. At six I began the first grade as the only student in class who could read. Some subsequent trouble may be explained by that. (Several children born in Lennox started school speaking only German.)

Everything went well. There were the usual fights, testing, and arguments in which I more than held my own. A new superintendent was hired when I was eight, I believe. His daughter introduced the germ of anti-Semitism. It took my father a year or two to get the superintendent fired, but it was too late. Life became most unpleasant.

Sundays at the Temple became a welcome oasis. I had a few friends in Lennox who were unaffected by the disease. One, the son of German immigrants, much later told my wife that the first time he ever saw books in a house was when he visited mine. He became a well-known professor at the Princeton Divinity School. We talked recently and he remembers those days very well.

A very fine grade school principal discussed my future with me during my fifth grade because she said I was not working hard enough. She asked, "You are planning to go to college, aren't you?" I answered, "Yes." "Which?" she asked. "What's the best?" I replied. "Harvard in Massachusetts," she said. Decidedly I replied, "That's where I'll go."

Mother had attended Columbia, so she had heard of Harvard; Dad hadn't, but that was immaterial. If Harvard was the best, that's where his older son would go. Mother used that sense of pride and ambition to persuade Dad to move to Sioux Falls when I finished grade school. After all, I'd need a good high school in order to be accepted at Harvard. She would, of course, no longer have to work in the store so frequently if we lived in Sioux Falls.

My parents joined local organizations and were especially active in the Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star. Mother was well accepted. Dad had been blackballed by a competitor when his name was presented for membership in the Masons, but he was, in time, accepted. A large part of their social life with other Jewish people required traveling to other small towns near Lennox where they played bridge and poker nearly every evening.

The Depression had no visible effects upon our lives. Dad continued to make money, but he was very careful not to allow any ostentatious spending. In fact, he never allowed that. People went broke. Dad and a competitor were asked by bankers to take over the bank, which they did with zest! The competitor was an immigrant from the Netherlands, who was also aggressive and ambitious. The two worked extremely hard while running their stores and saved the bank. Dad, not knowing anything about investments, had a great quantity of cash, which he used to buy all the nonproductive mortgages held by the bank. That, of course, made it possible to avoid closing it. When the partners had gotten the bank out of trouble, the owning family kicked them off the board and took over. One reason may have been that they had cut the owners' wages to $35.00 per month each. The owners were the sons of the founder of the bank. The founder was a Jew who wore a yarmulke all his life even though he married out, and his children were not brought up as Jews.

After Dad's funeral in 1984 I drove from Sioux Falls to Lennox, back to my roots. The business district of this once prosperous town is near empty--the same bank is now part of a small chain, there is a large grocer and not much else. As I sat with a friend in what I call the patisserie, sons and grandsons of farmers my father had helped came to tell me what he had done. He never foreclosed or took part of a farmer's holdings as some asked him to do. Something in our religion would be quoted, or nearly so, "...don't take an olive press in payment of a debt--you must not take a man's means of making a living." Some of the older men remembered what he had said when they cried at his desk. One said in my presence back then, "Sol, take part of my land." Dad said, "If you wish, I'll cancel the mortgage now. I know you'll succeed, and I know you'll pay when you can. You don't need a piece of paper." The man replied, "But I can't feed my family. I have no money for food." Dad replied, "Have I ever asked you to pay your bill?" The man answered, "No, but I can't sleep." Dad said, "Sleep, sleep. You don't have to worry--besides Roosevelt will be elected president, and it will rain again, so you'll be fine."

Some told me that they were rich because of my dad. Others told stories about Dad discouraging their fathers from going into business knowing full well that they would not make it. In all the years in Lennox, he wrote off about $200 in unpaid accounts, and all the mortgages were paid.

Yet during the rise of Hitler many of the locals were followers. Some customers quit buying from Dad, and some people were obvious in their anti-Semitism. My first experience with genuine anti-Semitism occurred when I was six and out with an older cousin who was living with us; we went to the local movie theater to hear a speech. There we heard Karl Mundt, later Senator Mundt, explain that we, the Jews, were the cause of all the evils in the world. It was quite a revelation to discover how powerful I was. The local weekly newspaper was purchased with money lent by my father. The paper became a mouthpiece for Nazi propaganda, including regular columns by Gerald L.K. Smith. When the son of the owner took control of the paper from his sister long after World War II, the paper became mainstream conservative.

I knew Karl well. He was the most important person in speech class when I became a debater. He was the judge of the only debate I ever lost. When I moved to Washington I talked with him about his views, but by then he had learned to hide them.

After graduating from Harvard in 1942, I served in the Army, then attended law school. I was married during the war and had a daughter, so I got nervous about making a living. I returned to South Dakota and reverted to my father's level and ran a general store in another small town. All that I had forgotten about small towns and the store business returned, reminding me of my error. Nostalgia had double-crossed me. Five years of that, and we moved to Sioux Falls. At the age of forty I realized I had been wasting whatever ability I had and joined the Kennedy revolution. We have now lived in the Washington area for twenty-six years and seldom return to South Dakota, although my middle brother still lives there.

My three daughters have advanced degrees; the oldest lives nearby after eleven years in Israel. She volunteered in the Six Day War. She and her husband are computer something or others. Our second daughter is on the state bench in Colorado and lives with her lawyer husband on acreage outside of Boulder. The youngest was a volunteer in Israel during the Yom Kippur War and stayed for thirteen years. She and her husband teach at Washington University, St. Louis. They have our two grandchildren.

My brother who remained in Sioux Falls is a lawyer. His oldest son is an artist, married to a lawyer. His daughter is a graduate of Wellesley and Harvard Law and is a partner in a Boston law firm. Her husband is a Harvard College, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Graduate School, Ph.D, M.D. His youngest son is an M.D. married to an M.D. My youngest brother is a CPA in California. His three children are "finding themselves."






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