[Marxism] Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma

Louis Proyect 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 
of capital.

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: 
<http://www.bonnieburt.com/index.html>http://www.bonnieburt.com/. Bonnie's 
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.

Interviewer: Really?

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.




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