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The Petaluma Chicken Farmers and Their Wars

Marek Breiger
September 20, 2013
by Marek Breiger “The Jewish cemetery is a small enclave in the town cemetery In Petaluma, California, up the hill off Magnolia Street. The tombstones outline the history of the community: Sephardic Jews from the mid-19th century, east European Jews through the 20th century. A few pebbles on one of the graves, each left by a visitor, are an Old World precaution that the body of the deceased remains in the ground. But the epitaph on a neighboring tombstone — ‘He believed in justice’ — proclaims the modern idealism of the east European settler . They were a community of Jewish farmers, socialists who raised chickens . . .” --Kenneth L Kann basketKenneth Kann worked for seventeen years on his book, Comrades and Chicken Farmers: The story of a California Jewish Community (Cornell University Press, 1993) and created a powerful, insightful oral history, a book as unique as its subject, those then elderly, now almost all deceased Jews with whom he spent so much time connecting. His book illuminated not only the world of Jewish Petulama but also the world of many of our recent ancestors, East European Jews who made their way from 1880 to the early 1920s out of Russia, until racist and anti-Semitic American quotas shut off the great Exodus to the golden land. When Kann finally published his book, four Jewish generations were still alive in Petaluma: the immigrants, the first-generation children of the Great Depression and World War II, the baby boomers, and their sons and daughters. Yet what should be their triumphant tale is a story tinged with sadness. Petaluma, thirty-five miles north of San Francisco, became known as "The World's Egg Basket." It was also a community drenched in Jewish politics and passion: a place where secular Jews immersed in Yiddish literature and music and active in union life became a community of farmers, stood their ground with bigoted non-Jewish neighbors, experimented with vegetarianism and anarchistic ideas, and assimilated to America without assimilating its more shallow aspects. These immigrants, young Jewish men and women, as much as Zionist pioneers in Palestine, created a new world. In 1920 there were one hundred Jewish families in Petaluma; by the 1930s, their number had more than doubled. But the importance of Jewish Petaluma went way beyond numbers. When prominent Jewish leaders like Golda Meir came to California, in addition to Los Angeles and San Francisco they would always come to speak in Petaluma, a place symbolic of Jewish hard work and success, and of the transformation of the Jewish people away from passivity, ghetto mentality, and victimization. Yet strife between the Jewish Communist left and those liberal Jews who were considered to be on the right would destroy the Petaluma Jewish community. The splits between the left and the right in their youth would persist until the end of their lives. When Communist Jews celebrated Stalin’s birthday by singing "Happy Birthday" (in both Yiddish and Russian) at Petaluma’s Jewish Community Center, all hell broke loose and the leftists kicked out of the JCC. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Neither group would forgive one another. Rabbi Solomon Platt (a pseudonym; Kann does not use people's real names), who had ties with both the linke (left) and rekhte (right), tried to be fair in his interview with Kann:
“The linke were blind to the realties of Soviet tyranny and Soviet antisemitism . . . the linke still believed the Communists propaganda about the good life for Soviet Jewry. I don’t know how they swallowed Stalin’s accusation that Jewish doctors planned to murder Soviet leaders. I don’t know how they swallowed the murder of Soviet Jewish intellectuals — people they had revered for decades.”
The rabbi continues:
“The rekhte were just as rigid. I believe many of the Zionists had a feeling of guilt for not having gone to live in Israel. This intensified their militancy. It made them all the more unyielding in their struggle with the linke . . . they could not recognize that linke criticism of Israel did not make them enemies of the Jewish people. After all, the linke criticism of Israel was the same thing you heard from the left inside Israel… “. . . The split was a terrible tragedy for the Petaluma Jewish community . . . It ended with two completely separated Jewish communities. They were divided to the point where they had two separate memorials to commemorate the Holocaust . . . The Germans, after all, did not discriminate between left-wing and right-wing Jews when it came to the ovens . . .”
What intensified this political battle was what one of those interviewed by Kann called the “hothouse” atmosphere, the specter of McCarthyism. Rabbi Platt again seems to serve as Kann’s voice in his understanding of the very real stakes that the right and the left placed on the line. “It is a credit of the children of the linke that so many stuck by their families' radical politics in the face of McCarthyism," he told Kann. "It is a credit to the children of the rekhte that so many behaved with moderation under these circumstances.” There would be no reconciliation among the immigrant generations, yet there were extraordinary events and people: the tar-and-feathering of "Ben Hochman," a leader of an apple pickers strike, by Petaluma’s own vigilante Nazis and bigots, and how Hochman stood his ground, refusing to be chased out of town; the incredible economic cooperation among young farming Jews, escapees from oppression in Eastern Europe, who managed for a while to compete with corporate, industrial farms; their legendary Yiddish chorus; the welcoming of Holocaust survivors to Petaluma after World War II. But for the left and the right, no meeting of the minds or hearts was possible. When my family came from Chicago to live in California in 1956, my mom and dad hungered for Yiddishkayt. But their vision of Petaluma came from a different, happier time. When we arrived to look around, nothing of the romance remained on the surface. It took Kenneth Kann to discover the vibrant life that still existed in the memories of the people, and to convey, with novelistic power, an unusual portrait of first- generation immigrant Jewish life outside the tenements. Now that I am 62, I know the temptation that older generations feel to be dismissive of younger people. Each generation sees itself as the center of the universe, at least when they are young and starting out. For me, however, reading about the Petaluma experiment makes the immigrant generation stand out. These were men and women who went through, as children and very young adults, the hell of pogroms, and who, left or right, were heroic in trying to make a better world. They showed bravery, too, in their identification with Yiddish literature, classical music, and the search for social justice, as opposed to a shallow, popular-culture existence. Yet the next generation also deserves our respect. They endured the Depression and World War II while breaking down many of the barriers of antisemitism and racism. They integrated clubs and organizations that had barred Jews, they stood up to anti-Jewish bullies, and held America accountable to its own ideals and democratic standards. Unfortunately, bigotry did not end with the 1930s or World War II. Many California towns and cities in the 1950s and '60s, had a stong residue of antisemitism; in Stockton, where I grew up, anti-Jewish slurs were common, and as a teenager I was often on the edge of fights. Petaluma was worse, however. In one incident, recounted by Kann, three small Jewish boys had "Jew" written in ink on their faces by bullies. Immediately, the Jewish community of Petaluma came to the boys’ aid and promised physical retaliation by some San Francisco Jewish athletes if the bullying was not stopped. It was stopped. The chicken farming, however, would not continue. Many of the baby boomers left the area; those who stayed could not financially compete with corporate chicken farmers from the American South. By the 1990s, Petaluma and Santa Rosa, thanks to the freeways, became suburbs of San Francisco, and secular Jews saw their grandchildren going to religious schools on Sunday to learn about a concept of God they did not believe in but had no way to replace. Ironically, notwithstanding the Jewish political schisms, for the rest of America, including the broader Petaluma community, Jews were perceived accurately as being more liberal than any other white ethnic group. Baby boomers recollected for Kann that the Jews were all for Stevenson while everyone else was for Eisenhower, and all for Kennedy while their classmates' parents voted for Nixon. This liberalism, of course, is still quite alive today, though with more exceptions. Only in the American Jewish world would liberal democrats be seen as right wingers! The Petaluma experience was also a triumph of Jewish decency, as they defied every vicious stereotype: They were fair in business, excellent in sports as well as academics, able to do back-breaking farm work, and willing to fight and, in some cases, die for a greater cause. The voice of "Khaya Feinstein," alone after her husband’s death, summarizes the courage of many of her peers: “…I don’t know where my old bones will rest. It’s terrible to be alone. I might go to Los Angeles to be with the children. I don’t know if there is happiness for me anywheres. I can’t see it. But as long as a person is alive, you have to make the best of it . . .” Marek Breiger has published over 100 essays, reviews and poems and has had his work anthologized in Where Coyotes Howl and the Wind Blows Free, and the forthcoming Oakland Pen anthology, Writing is Fighting, which deals with immigrant life in California. Several of his essays have appeared here under the heading, "People of the Book 101."