Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 7, 2004

Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:51 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on December 7, 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: http://www.cuny.tv/series/jewish350/index.lasso

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 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/. 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: http://www.jewishchickenranchers.com/. 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 insights:

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 meaning.

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.

full: http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt1000013q/?search=petaluma


  1. […] settled in Peta Luma California, where they started a chicken-raising commune. Apparently this is pretty famous. But my new roots friend also explained that her father, at family gatherings, would also say […]

    Pingback by An Exit strategy? | Basic Rules of Life — October 4, 2017 @ 10:31 am

  2. Rancho can mean a lot of things, and in California before it became part of the United States it was usually a small farm as opposed to the haciendas. In other words, anyone who had an acre of land had a ranch and still does in this part of the world. Tejano usage was the same as Californiano usage. The only difference seems gringo usage in the two places: when the gringos were stealing the land in Texas, they got confused unlike the gringos who came to steal the land in California. This is probably why the Texans named a hole Waco instead of hueco.

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — February 21, 2018 @ 1:36 am

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