- Stepmother Russia, Foster Mother America: Identity Transitions in the New Odessa Jewish Commune, Odessa, Oregon, New York, 1881–1891 by Theodore H. Friedgut
By Theodore H. Friedgut. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2014. x + 194 pp.
Following a wave of pogroms in the late nineteenth century, thousands of Jews fled the Russian empire seeking a peaceful agricultural existence in Palestine. Twenty-seven years prior to the establishment of the first kibbutz in Palestine, the Am Olam movement prompted the establishment of agricultural settlements in the United States. Using a rare secular Am Olam settlement, the New Odessa Commune in Oregon, as a case study, Theodore H. Friedgut examines the intersections between Am Olam and Russian populism in Stepmother Russia, Foster Mother America: Identity Transitions in the New Odessa Jewish Commune, Odessa, Oregon, New York, 1881–1891. Arguing that the experience of the American frontier and the commune’s failure tempered the communards, Friedgut traces their identity transformation from radical agricultural secularism to urban Jewish social engagement. The radical Russian intelligentsia that arrived in the United States became “a vanguard of urban metropolitan settlement” (3). [End Page 136]
Many of the New Odessa communards fled Odessa following the 1881 the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Just across the Ukrainian border in Austria, a core group of Jewish intellectuals emerged, promoting egalitarian ideals and working together to secure passage to America. After arriving in New York, the communards met William Frey, an immigrant Russian intellectual seasoned by utopian experiences; he applied to Oneida, lived in the Reunion commune, and witnessed the demise of a few other settlements. An eccentric radical, Frey assumed a leadership position in the commune, nurturing its success and facilitating its eventual demise. After receiving assistance and advice from the American Jewish community, the settlers chose Oregon as the ideal site for the commune, purchasing a plot of land outside Portland in 1883. Initially, the communards celebrated the actualization of their humanist egalitarian dream. However, gender imbalance, Frey’s controlling nature, and a devastating fire shattered the communards’ agricultural utopian dream. After a failed attempt to maintain the commune in a New York laundry, the communards parted ways, each assuming a prominent position in the Jewish community.
Offering readers access to a rich and underutilized primary source concerning the commune, Friedgut includes a full reproduction of Israel Mandelkern’s Recollections of a Communist. With a concise and insightful introduction, Friedgut acquaints readers with the source and its research potential. Written later in life, Mandelkern’s work recounts his youth in the Russian Empire—Dubno and Odessa—including community reactions to the 1881 pogrom, peaceable interactions between gentiles and Jews, accommodation and strife within the Jewish community, and his exile from Odessa. Mandelkern also details his immigration to the United States, which included prolonged stops in Austria and New York. Mandelkern’s riveting account offers scholars valuable subjective insight into the complexity of diasporic Jewish identity and the process of assimilation in both the Russian Empire and the United States. Moreover, the memoir reveals a system of intricate migrant networks that spanned the entirety of the northern hemisphere.
An interdisciplinary scholar, Friedgut employs the methods of history, sociology, philosophy, and political science, rendering a detailed micro history of the New Odessa Commune. Working in three languages, English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, Friedgut relies exclusively on primary source material from American archives, newspapers, and Marx. He draws from secondary scholarship pertaining to the New Odessa Commune and other American utopian settlements, [End Page 137] Jews in the Russian Empire and the United States, Oregon, the American Jewish Worker’s movement, and Am Olam. However, a more substantial engagement with the large bodies of scholarship pertaining to migration, Diaspora, and identity would have strengthened the text.
Friedgut weaves a vivid historical narrative and presents Mandelkern’s account in less than 200 pages. In this limited space, he captures some of the complexities of Jewish identity, details the actualization of New Odessa Commune’s utopian dream in Oregon, the gradual erosion and eventual collapse of the commune, and individual communards’ return to...