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An American Kibbutz

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The Yiddish World



An American Kibbutz
From Odessa to Oregon, Utopia in Brief
by Martin Boris

   "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
Eretz Yisrael, but in the U.S.A., in Oregon, 250 miles south of Portland, near the present-day town of Glendale.


     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 promise.


     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."


 With 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 transportation funds.


     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 groups.)


     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."


     In the 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.


     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.


 Though 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.


     The 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 Forward, 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 kibbutzim in Palestine.

     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 Earth.


     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 his fanaticism.


  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 some Yiddishkeit, 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 Forward 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.

Banner photo: Farm in Glendale, Oregon, cir 1912


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