The Spring 2022 issue of South Dakota History (Vol. 52, No. 1), provides an illuminating article about a poet of our past who was completely unknown to me: Rebecca Fusfeld, a Sioux Falls resident who wrote poetry from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Her work, says the article’s author, Anna Amundson, a history professor at Augustana University (Sioux Falls, SD), is one example of how Jewish people in South Dakota took part in a national movement to educate their Christian friends and neighbors about their religious beliefs and lives. Fusfeld (also spelled Fusfield) shared her perspectives on Judaism, her experiences as an immigrant, and her observations of nature in South Dakota. She also argued against the isolationist perspective held by many Americans before World War II.
The Fusfelds arrived here when the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) organizers were openly recruiting members throughout the state, opposing African Americans, Catholics, Jews, non-English-speaking immigrants, and labor union members.
The temperance movement was also important at this time. Many states made exceptions in their alcohol bans to allow observant Jews to use wine in the home—but not South Dakota.
While many of Fusfeld’s poems were published in Pasque Petals (the official literary magazine of the South Dakota State Poetry Society, which began publication in 1926), I could find no evidence that a book of her work is available today.
I’d welcome any information about her work and how modern readers might find it, since this is surely a segment of South Dakota writing history that is little known to many residents.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2022, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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6 thoughts on “A Jewish Prairie Poet: Rebecca Fusfeld”
Nancy Kirkham Forderhase, here. I’m anxious to read Fusfeld’s poetry. When I was in high school, there was one Jewish girl in our class. Her name was Sharon Gordon, her father owned a little store in downtown Rapid City, junky as many stores were in those days. I don’t remember how I discovered that she was Jewish, and I think they moved away before she graduated from high school. I think she was the only Jew I had ever known at that point in my life. South Dakota was another world, far apart from urban America. I also remember seeing the first black people on the street, and I know I stared at them because I had never seen a black person before. I remember the black basketball player whose family was probably stationed at the airbase, who came to high school in Rapid. It’s just amazing how isolated we were from mainstream America, especially urban area which were populated by thousands of ethnics from Europe. Later on in life, I thought about Sharon and wanted to know her “story,” but never did learn much about her. How ignorant and isolated I was. Enough about me. I want this book.
I agree, Nancy Forderhase, and that’s in spite of the fact that Ellsworth Air Force Base was nearby. I remember the shock and consternation when some of those boys — and they were boys– came to a 4-H dance in Hermosa. Our parents reacted as though the Nazis were invading, but those boys probably only wanted to dance with some nice girls. And already some of “our” boys had learned to buy illicit liquor and try to entice girls into the cars parked outside for “a little nip,” so the EAFB lads didn’t bring sin to us for the first time.
I don’t believe I ever saw a black person while I was in grade school in Hermosa or high school in Rapid City, because I remember making a point of approaching the first Negro girl I saw at University of South Dakota in Vermillion. She found my approach a little alarming, and I explained that she was the first black person I’d ever met. We became friends– a mite cautiously on her part, and she would not visit the ranch with me.
I have heard from the president of Mt Zion Congregation– the reform Jewish community in Sioux Falls– who will do a little sleuthing and try to find poems by Rebecca Fusfield. I’ll post a blog update with any news.
Amazing that you wrote about this Linda. I am so glad I still am getting your newsletter. Please write about this again with more history of the Jewish people who settled in South Dakota so long ago. My first love in the “liberal college” town of Oberlin, Ohio was a great guy, whose parents were not too excited about us dating! When I moved West in 1977, I was shocked how “white bread” the communities remained. Thanks for this one.
Good– I would welcome more information about Rebecca Fusfeld. I found this on the SD Historical Society site.
REBECCA FUSFELD: JEWISH PRAIRIE POET
Rebecca Fusfeld: Jewish Prairie Poet
by Anna Amundson
“Rebecca Fusfeld: Jewish Prairie Poet” explores the life and poetry of Rebecca Fusfeld, a Jewish woman who immigrated to Sioux Falls in the late nineteenth century. Her poems, which many local publications featured prominently, illuminate the activities of the city’s vibrant Jewish community.
Look for Ann Stanton’s book about Deadwood’s Jewish Pioneers. Deadwood’s Jewish Pioneers: A Gold Rush Odyssey Paperback – August 3, 2020