[Marxism] Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 7 11:42:16 MST 2004
Last night the City of New York cable station aired a documentary titled
"Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma" as part of an ongoing celebration of
350 years of Jewish presence in the USA.
Information on this ongoing series is at:
The documentary focused on an aspect of Jewish life that I've written about
here in the past, namely the effort to get back to the land either as
farmers in an effort to mitigate the "Jewish problem." In the 19th century
Jewish concentration in urban areas as shopkeepers and light manufacturing
workers was seen as an obstacle to further development as a people.
Colonies were set up around the USA in which Jews were encouraged to become
farmers. Zionism merely represents the most intense and most pernicious
form of this experiment. In the USA, such colonies were harmless.
The Jewish farming initiatives in my own county in upstate NY are
documented in "Jewish Farmers of the Catskills: A Century of Survival" by
Abraham D. Lavender, and Clarence B. Steinberg. I heard Steinberg speak at
a conference on the Catskills several years ago. I reported then:
>>On Sunday afternoon, I heard a truly fascinating presentation on Jewish
farmers in Sullivan County. The speaker was Clarence Steinberg, who
co-authored "Jewish Farmers of the Catskills" with Abraham Lavender.
Steinberg was a retired Public Affairs Specialist in the Department of
Agriculture while Lavender is a sociology professor at Florida
International University. Both grew up on farms in the Catskills.
Steinberg presented a Marxist analysis of Jewish farming in the area. He
explained that Jews came to Sullivan County in the 1800s to become farmers
as an expression of the "Enlightenment" tendency in Judaism during the
period. Jews thought that it was important to get back to the land and
become producers. Agricultural colonies were launched in Argentina, upstate
New York, New Jersey and Palestine. The farmers who settled in Palestine
were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists. He said that
small Jewish farming in the Catskills died out because of the concentration
The agrarian socialism of these settlers was very much influenced by the
Utopian experiments of the 19th century. When the 20th century arrived, the
farmers retained their left-wing culture but began to identify with the
cooperative movement of the German Social Democracy instead. When they
couldn't get fire insurance from anti-Semitic insurance companies, they
started their own cooperative fire insurance company. When they needed
cheap grain to feed their poultry, they started a cooperative feed-mill
that bought grain directly from the National Farmers Union during the 1930s.<<
In Petaluma, a rural town in northern California, Jewish colonization
largely focused on chicken farms, which were rather quaintly dubbed as
"ranches." Since they never occupied more than 7 acres or so, this was
something of an overstatement. The typical cattle ranch in Texas is 750
acres or so.
Bonnie Burt and Judith Montell's documentary consists of interviews with
surviving members of the community, plus archival photos. Although it is a
modest film, it succeeds in bringing to life a fascinating aspect of Jewish
life in the USA and revealing the conflicts that still divide Jews today.
Most of the Jews in Petaluma came there with the leftwing ideas that they
held in the Lower East Side or Russia. They were largely atheist, as one
interviewee put it, but also with a strong sense of Jewish identity. This
meant that they set up a Jewish Community Center when they got there, but
no synagogue. Meetings at the center were typically held for Yiddish poets
from the USSR or for radical trade union leader Harry Bridges.
This community exemplified the point made by Paul Buhle in "From the Lower
East Side to Hollywood," namely that "Yiddishkayt" or "Jewishness" has less
to do with religion than it does with values and culture.
One of the Petaluma farmers, whose children figure prominently in the film,
was a CP'er who took it upon himself to organize apple pickers into a trade
union in 1935. An archival photo shows workers on a pickup truck holding up
a sign that stated "Disarm the growers or arm the workers in self-defense
squads!" Nightriders organized by and composed of local growers and bankers
came to his house one night and seized him. He was tarred and feathered and
warned against future organizing efforts.
Eventually, the town divided between leftist and rightist Jews during the
pressures of the witch-hunt. Not surprisingly, a Jewish holocaust survivor
from Germany described herself as a rightist and pinned her hopes on Israel.
One of the most endearing characters in this altogether endearing
documentary is folksinger Scott Gerber, a descendant of a Petaluma chicken
ranching family. Wearing a cowboy hat and riding a horse, he provides
ongoing commentary that blends leftwing politics and "Yiddishkayt". At the
end of the film, he sings a song from Russian Jewish leftwing circles in
the 1920s celebrating the values of farming.
A CD of his songs titled "Songs of a Jewish Cowboy" is available from the
director Bonnie Burt at:
affinities should be obvious from this website. Other projects include a 15
minute film titled "Trip to Jewish Cuba."
A website dedicated to "Jewish Chicken Ranchers in Petaluma" is at:
It includes information on how to get the film and links to fascinating
archival material as well. The link to an interview with Petaluma veteran
Sidney Roger from the oral history project at Berkeley provided some unique
Sidney Roger: Some of the Jewish people from my neighborhood left Boyle
Heights [in Ohio] and settled in the small town of Petaluma, about thirty
miles north of San Francisco. Amazingly, for a long period Petaluma had a
large Yiddish-speaking enclave of Jewish radicals, who raised chickens.
Petaluma was once a center of Jewish radicalism.
Roger: Up until a very few years ago. They sold chickens and eggs and
chicken feed. Some of them became very successful. Many of them gave a lot
of money to "the Party," as they called it.
Interviewer: Now one question I want to ask quickly before we move on. The
party in this case would be the American Communist party?
I suppose it would be. Remember, to begin with there was no Communist party
in America either until early 1920s. These people were already radicals;
they didn't have to study any dogma. They were radicals by virtue of the
fact that they were opposed to oppression. That's the big trouble with
labels anyhow, isn't it? A label without content is like a ribbon on a
package. Decoration without meaning.
Why Petaluma? I suppose because under the czars, Jews were not allowed to
own land and be farmers in Russia or Poland. Many of them dreamed of having
a piece of land and raising fruit trees and chickens or whatever. Fruit
trees take a long, long time, but chickens made a lot senseyou know the
cliches about Jewish mothers and chicken soup. Anyhow, they became very
good chicken farmers.
Then they were destroyed pretty much by new methods of raising chickens and
trucking them into the market frozen. That's another story. I've digressed,
but I knew these people; I was raised among them in Boyle Heights and I'd
like to talk a little bit about my relationship with them because it's a
very important story of the times.
Sidney Roger: But all this time, I'm also being politicized. My mother, for
example. For you, it was almost like it was a political statement that she
was willing to risk doing abortions. Obviously, I never thought of it in
those terms. Now I agree. It was a statement. That she was willing to do
this because it served some social purpose. Today, it really has special
Still, talking about politicizing, she was very close to a group of women
who were self-styled revolutionary poetesses. All writing poetry, mostly in
Yiddish, some in Russian. She also wrote some poetry.
She was very close to them. I can come back to that later if you wish. I
think she thought of her life as being kind of poetical, rather than being
part of a rigid doctrinaire situations where you follow someone's line.
My father, I think, was much more rigidly doctrinaire. But my mother was
socially-politicized, you might say. For example, when my mother spoke
about my father, she would never say "my husband." She would always say "my
friend." She refused to belong to anybody. Most among these women poets,
were people who worked at many jobs. One was a pharmacist. I remember, she
referred to her husband, Louis, as "my friend" instead of "my husband."
Much of the poetry they read to each other were strong diatribes against
man's domination over women. I want my friend to treat me as his equal, is
the idea. I used to listen to them reading with trembling emotion. I'd be
in back of the office. They'd be reading in the waiting room. I'd be in the
other room listening to them reading in Yiddish.
More information about the Marxism