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The Jewish Chicken Farmers of Petaluma: Why Remember?

Kenneth Kann
February 23, 2018

Part 2

by Kenneth Kann

To read Part 1, click here.


I CONDUCTED hundreds more interviews in the years ahead: the children of the immigrants, the grandchildren, and the new suburban settlers who inherited the community.

The immigrant children were the generation of my own American-born parents. Here was an assimilation drama. They grew up in an ingrown little immigrant chicken ranching community in the 1920s and ’30s, surrounded by a small-town gentile world at once beckoning, strange, and hostile. There were embarrassment over parents with Yiddish accents; there were antisemitic insults; there were issues of dating forbidden gentile teens.

After the war, many tried to transform their parents’ tiny chicken ranches into modern American poultry businesses, but their ambitious poultry operations couldn’t compete with an emerging national corporate poultry industry, and they were painfully displaced to new businesses and vocations. They grew up generally embracing their parents’ Communist, socialist and Zionist world views, and they loyally participated in the community’s bruising political battles of the McCarthy era, but then, exasperated, they shed those immigrant politics for school board elections, Masons and Elks membership, and in some cases memberships in the exclusive Petaluma Golf and Country Club. Searching for how to raise their own kids as Jewish, they eventually abandoned their parents’ fervent secularism.  Some created a congregation, hired rabbis, and sent the kids to Hebrew School for bar mitsves and bas mitsves

The immigrants disapproved of the second generation’s evolution. “They are not progressive like they used to be,” one leftwinger explained. “It’s because of the American atmosphere, the sentiment. It’s the whole combination of life, not just in Petaluma, but all over the United States. They want everyone to be conservative.”

One of their children — one of my own third-generation cohort — dismissed our parents as “the garbage compacter generation,” apolitical, and addicted to consumption.

Yet interviewing them in their modernized ranch houses, visiting this familiar suburban world of my own parents, sitting in the tidy living rooms with tchotchkes from Israel but no serious books, I came to appreciate their successful, lifelong struggles for prosperity and acceptance, and their persisting anxieties over how they fit into Petaluma as children of Jewish immigrants. I recognized pride in their immigrant Jewish origins, even after their lifelong path to find acceptance as Americans.

They had left and lost the world of their parents, some without remorse: “I don’t regret the old Jewish community has passed,“ one explained. “It was a warm, tight, active community for over half a century before it began to dissolve. It was a great experience at the time, but you can’t get locked into one life style. Life changes constantly, and we must adapt.”


IN THE LATE 1970s, I interviewed the third generation, my own baby-boom generation, then in their late twenties and early thirties. Among them I found loss and dislocation. The bitter McCarthy era political battle between the linke and the rekhte had left the community permanently divided. The local chicken-ranching economy had collapsed in the 1960s with the emergence of a national corporate poultry industry that displaced family farms and farming communities. Their parents were drifting away from the Jewish community, moving into American Petaluma.

Many of the third generation lived in transient town apartments, funky country shacks, and even old chicken houses. Some had broken away in the 1960s with rebellious politics and the counterculture, followed by New Age religions and therapies. Others explored kibbutz life in Israel, and some turned to making money.  A few tried to reinvent their own traditions. Barry Nitzberg, grandson of the tarred-and-feathered Communist chicken rancher, battled with grandchildren of the tar-and-feather mob over the Vietnam War. Greta Sanders, in her own search for Jewish identity, followed her Petaluma grandfather’s agrarian socialism by moving to an Israeli kibbutz that originally had been settled by migrant Petaluma chicken ranchers. Steve Dorfman stepped beyond his grandparents and parents with his business breeding and auctioning animals, cattle, which an immigrant once described to me as “a complicated animal” compared to chickens.

But as a generation, I thought, they were lost. They were unmarried, uncertain about vocation, largely apolitical in the wake of the Sixties, with no sense of historical significance or destiny, Jewish or otherwise. Separated from Jewish community life, they were uncertain what it meant to be Jewish. One, from a cultured Zionist family with a long Petaluma history, showed me a book she used to educate herself in place of a community tradition, a “do it yourself kit” on Judaism.

They had sentimental ties to the 1950s shtetl community of their grandparents and parents. They remembered their grandparents: the Yiddish, the ferocious political commitments, the Jewish cooking, the wry humor. They still returned to Petaluma for the bris of a new baby, bar mitsves and bas bitsves, weddings and funerals, the cycle of life that they had not recreated in their own lives but still could find in Petaluma.

Here was my rebellious Sixties generation: disconnected from their community and separated from their history. I knew them: their loss, their drift, their hazy future.


INSTEAD, the Petaluma Jewish community was inherited by the “newcomers.” They were young Jewish families, professional and business people who settled in Petaluma from the 1970s as the freeway fostered a growing San Francisco bedroom suburb. They lived in the new housing tracts on the former empty prairies of east Petaluma. They had moved there to raise kids in affordable new homes and suburban schools. Here was an alter-ego baby-boom generation, the familiar world of my own high school classmates who had remained near my Chicago suburb and tuned out the Sixties upheaval.

Like the grandchildren of the immigrants, these newcomers were disconnected from the old chicken- ranching community. But they were transforming the once secular Jewish Community Center into a suburban congregation, which they renamed Congregation B’nai Israel, after Petaluma’s first German Jewish congregation from the 1860s. Their Jewish community was entirely the rabbi, religious services and holiday celebrations, children’s Jewish education, bar mitsves and bas mitsves. They wanted to replace the little old stucco Jewish Community Center building with a big modern synagogue.

They tried to draw in the old chicken-ranching families with a square dance, then an Israel celebration, both dismal flops. Several newcomer guys explained how they now controlled “the power base” in the community, the Center’s board of directors, and no longer needed the old chicken-ranching families. A volunteer community librarian told how she discovered old Yiddish socialist books in the Center, puzzled why they were there, and threw them away.

Yet through dozens of interviews with the newcomers in the late 1970s, I recognized that this community was their Jewish place in a town “with gentile neighbors who drink beer in the evening.” “At the Center,” one explained, “we met other young Jewish couples with similar circumstances. We developed real relationships with them -- the kind you get from hours sitting in the Center peeling potatoes for a big Khanike dinner.”

One grandson of the immigrant chicken-ranchers mercilessly denounced the newcomers as “white bread and mayonnaise” compared to his “pumpernickel and mustard.” He detested their ”ticky-tack houses and shopping centers in the old hayfields,” their “fancy little restaurants and boutiques” in town. “They’ll never understand what this community was all about.”

The linke immigrants also were puzzled by the newcomer community: “They have their rabbi and their congregation at the Center, and we progressives don’t bother them,” said one. “They have services and services and more services with this rabbi.” Another old-timer, a rekhte remnant of the Yiddish secular leftwing chicken-ranching shtetl, put it simply in the early 1980s: “Now Petaluma is like everywhere else.”


TEN YEARS later, with publication of my book finally approaching in 1993, I returned to Petaluma to investigate the current lives of the grandchildren and the newcomer community for my book’s concluding chapters. By then I had reluctantly abandoned my doomed scheme to become a freelance chicken-ranchers’ historian, for a more reliable, less exciting vocation as a litigation attorney. I was married (by the newcomer rabbi I had met in Petaluma), and had a daughter, a San Francisco home, and my own communities, too, including a communally owned coastal ranch to the west of Petaluma. By the 1990s, the old Petaluma Jewish community would have described me as “gesettled.”

I found the third generation, too, had grown up, years late like me and many other baby-boom rebels. Now they had their own families, vocations, homes, and communities. But few participated in the Petaluma Jewish community, which the newcomers had transformed and no longer fit the Petaluma grandchildren’s nostalgic childhood memories.

The newcomers had established a new Petaluma Jewish community, a congregation with a rabbi, focused on Jewish education for children. The old Center building remained; they had decided to remodel, not rebuild. And now they had ties with the old chicken-ranching families, whose members helped with building maintenance and occasionally showed up for events at the Center, including a few from the local third generation, those raising their children as Jewish.

I was ready to conclude my book: still a wrenching story of Jewish community breakdown and diminished Jewish identity over generations of assimilation, but now with continuities from the old chicken-ranching shtetl, and with optimism for the newcomer community’s future.

Soon after publication of Comrades and Chicken Ranchers, I returned to the Center one Sunday morning for a discussion with community members. The old timers had died by now, and I never would learn their reactions to my book. But the old social hall was filled with the children and grandchildren and newcomers I had interviewed over a decade ago, and many newer newcomers whom I’d never met. I spoke about my long journey to write the book. But my purpose was to give them an opportunity to air any grievances with me. And they did.

One debate immediately flared over whether my account was biased in favor of the linke. Barry Nitzberg, grandson of the Communist chicken rancher who had been tarred and feathered, defended me from rekhte offspring.  Other criticisms bubbled up: factual errors, colorful people I had missed, important events I had omitted, and my interpretations of everything from raising chickens to raising children.

Here was my fractious chicken-ranching community working over my book. I was relieved that my generation, the grandchildren and the newcomers, did not accuse me of harsh treatment and a gloomy conclusion. And no one mentioned my larger story of assimilation over generations and loss of the old Yiddish socialist chicken ranching shtetl. That was a given, the way it was.

Everyone, linke and rekhte, children and grandchildren and newcomers, agreed on one complaint I never had expected: the book’s fictitious names. I had used thin aliases to provide some anonymity for my informants with the book’s public airing of messy community history. But they wanted their names connected to the book’s characters, and within weeks of publication the community had compiled a comprehensive list that correlated fictitious and real names. I took this grievance as praise that my account was accurate and sympathetic.

And they were grateful, too, that I had preserved their remarkable story in a book. They thanked me, as if this two-decades historical quest had been my faithful community service.


THE “CALIFORNIA DREAMING” exhibit came twenty years later, in 2013.  My book had been long ago published. I thought I was done with the chicken ranchers. But now, surveying the exhibit’s fantastical account of Petaluma Jewish history, I wondered if my years of devotion to telling that story had been utterly wasted.

Here was the Contemporary Jewish Museum, oblivious to my book and confabulating the history by portraying a Zionist colony that never existed and denying the existence of the linke. The exhibit warped the portraits and politics of community members. It ignored cultural losses with assimilation over generations and the painful struggles over Jewish community and identity. The museum had denied the existence of contemporary Petaluma Jews.

This was no accident. It fit the exhibit’s sanitized version of Bay Area Jewish history. California Dreaming” largely ignored Jewish participation in the long history of Bay Area social justice movements, and it showed no confused clashes between generations, no painful struggles over assimilation, no alienation, disappointment, or rebellion. The exhibit omitted almost everything controversial, contradictory, surprising, and interesting.

Instead, “California Dreaming” offered the usual vanilla pudding, a smug celebration of Jewish accomplishment and gentile acceptance: Jewish Gold Rush pioneers, 19th-century German Jewish entrepreneurial families, the 20th century building of synagogues and hospitals and cemeteries and day camps, glowing testimonials by current community members, and -- some pizzazz! -- contemporary female rabbis and Jewish Zen practitioners.

Here was the Jewish Establishment party line, following Professor Rischin and his successor historians: a happy story of successful Jewish integration into an open-minded, dynamic, and democratic Western metropolis, with Jewish identity painlessly preserved. California Dreaming omitted those who opposed this assimilation and those who did not reach the American mainstream. The exhibit ignored the dislocations and losses of those who made it. There was no place for a Petaluma linke, or even a rekhte, in this antiseptic account of regional Jewish prosperity, mobility, and acceptance.

I refused to suffer in silence. I wrote a blistering op-ed about “California Dreaming” for J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California.  In a note published alongside, the museum called my op-ed “passionate,” which meant irrational. It thanked me for clarifying the “subtleties” of Petaluma history, which meant my concerns were pedantic. And, after ignoring my letters, the museum actually congratulated itself for fostering “robust discussion.”  In short, the museum dismissed me and my disputatious socialist chicken ranchers and their struggling successors as embarrassing distant cousins. Through my op-ed, we had gate crashed “California Dreaming,” with its tribal celebration of Jewish triumph.

Turns out, in answer to my puzzlement about why the fairy tale exhibit, the museum was both ignorant and biased in its portrayal of the chicken ranchers, and it was determined to continue its biased ignorance. I recalled the frank anti-Communism of the Magnes Museum leaders forty years previous. This was a smoother and shallower response, blithely unaware of any issues in telling this history, resolved to depict only Jewish accomplishment.


A YEAR LATER, in 2014, I had an opportunity to see the community present its own history, and to gauge its current health, I joined the Petaluma Jews for a sesquicentennial celebration, 150 years. They reverently dated their origins back to 1864, when Petaluma’s first German Jewish settlers, business people, had established Congregation B’nai Israel.

That evening, just outside the hotel banquet hall, I was startled by a display of newspaper articles spanning their history. The first was a blown-up picture of me with my tape recorder at a 1982 interview. The photo showed a young man with dark hair, long sideburns, and face glowing with the great chicken ranchers project. Now 70, I stared at my image, at all my years with this community. As their historian, here I was in the exhibit with my own honored place in Petaluma Jewish history.

I entered a banquet room packed with some 200 community members, everyone speaking furiously. I recognized people I had interviewed in the 1970s, the older ones now looking ancient, and my generation looking old, like me.

Petaluma’s Rabbi Ted Feldman was the evening’s first speaker, and he did what you want a leader to do. He presented their proud history back to the 19th century, placed it in the millennia story of the survival of the Jewish people, and offered a future vision of enduring values and new forms of community expression. I’ve had many conversations with Rabbi Feldman about Petaluma Jewish history. But that evening, as he referred to the community’s trials and conflicts along with its continuity and triumphs, I was reminded: He had absorbed my book.

At the sesquicentennial, the long-gone founders, the remarkable Eastern European immigrant generation, were reduced to revered icons, frozen in ancient pictures. They filled the community’s beloved picture of the 1925 banquet opening the new Jewish Community Center. It showed the social hall packed with immigrant chicken ranchers at long banquet tables, dignified in fine suits and dresses, posing with pride in their new community building.

I had long admired this old photo hanging at the Center, and was grateful to see it at this historical gathering. I had interviewed some of those people, and I wished they were present. But that great generation participated only as the ghostly pioneers.

Center stage went to the remnants of the American-born second generation, now in their eighties, reminiscing about their own heyday -- the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s -- when they had charged into mainstream American life from their immigrant chicken-ranching families. But now they were silent about the excruciating difficulties they’d described to me in 1970s interviews: growing up in their parents’ stormy stifling Petaluma shtetl, their hunger to break out of family chicken ranches and Old World ways, the difficult journeys to become Americans accepted by gentile Petaluma, the slow discarding of their parents’ socialist politics to become liberal Democrats, or apolitical, or even (one) conservative Republican. Here was the second generation telling the museum’s “California Dreaming” success story, celebrating Jewish assimilation, omitting the painful struggles and losses. I could only wish they’d re-read their own conflicted stories in my book.

Many of the grandchildren, my baby boom generation, were present that evening. But they gave no public recollections of their postwar childhood community or the dislocations of separation from it. They had not remade the community for a new third generation, and so they had nothing to add to the evening’s history tale. Most had departed from their community long ago, even those who still lived in the area, without leaving an historical footprint. Did anyone else notice the disappearance of a generation? Yes, but there was not much left to say about it.

The sesquicentennial’s presentation included many pictures of the newcomer community members - -the suburban settlers of the 1970s and the following decades -- but not much “history.” Some things had happened that interested me, all understandably omitted that evening: a bitter community dispute over burial of gentile spouses in the Jewish cemetery, some controversial rabbis, a persisting conflict over whether the old Petaluma Jewish cemetery was owned by the congregation or an old-time chicken ranching family. And -- historically significant in my reckoning, but not mentioned -- at last they had taken action on the old Center building: restoration, not rebuilding, including a sparkling refurbishment of the little shul that had been disputed at construction in 1925, the religious sanctuary that some of the immigrant generation never had entered during their decades in the building.

At my table, some leaders of the newcomer community explained to me that nothing “historical” had happened after my 1993 book publication, at least nothing significant like the sagas of the immigrant chicken ranchers. They were thoughtful about this history, and I liked them. But I had heard the same thing in the 1970s when I had interviewed the second and third generations about their lives. I had written about the lost sense of historically significant lives with assimilation. Here was more of the same.

In contrast to “California Dreaming,” the sesquicentennial’s homegrown history presentation did include the battles of the linke and rekhte. This was an honest attempt to remember those ancient politics from another century. And that evening’s account included other community differences: generations, religious and secular, Holocaust survivors and their children, chicken ranchers and suburbanites. This was a more accurate and complex portrayal of their history, a more probing account than the sterile ideological fictions of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Rabbi Feldman had asked me to write something for the 150th anniversary commemorative publication. I contributed an essay on my personal relationship with the community’s history. That essay launched this reflection on my 40 years with the Petaluma Jewish chicken ranching community: Why remember? Who cares?

I care. I had adopted that community in the 1970s as its historian. I had poured myself into the book, nineteen years from first visit to 1993 publication. And here I was, yet another twenty years later, still grappling with this unfolding story.

Constructing that history was a reckoning with my own past, a past shared by many of my generation: grandparents who were socialists and shopkeepers, American born parents who blazed their way into mainstream American life after the war, suburban upbringing and Sixties rebellion, New Left re-conception of American history, and, after the collapse of the Sixties upheaval, a quest for my own family, work, politics, and place. In Petaluma, I had found a community where I could locate myself in history and search for my future.

The Petaluma Jewish community cares about its history. Today it’s flourishing, with 125 member families, more than at the 1925 opening of the Center. The community has looked to its past to guide its future. Several years ago the board reorganized, from a congregation back to a “Center,” like the immigrant opening of the same building in 1925.  This new Center, like the original, reaches widely into the current Jewish community through secular social and cultural programs along with the congregation and religious schools. It draws in families from the old chicken-ranching community, linke and rekhte, aged children, some aging grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren of the chicken ranchers, together with waves of the young suburban newcomer families who had continued arriving in the decades following my 1970s interviews.

The museum creators of “California Dreaming” also should care. I wished that they had witnessed the Petaluma Jewish community’s sesquicentennial celebration, with all its exuberance and limitations. They would have discovered that today’s community is thriving in numbers, participation, vision, and historical imagination. They could have learned that community history, including turbulent political disputes, can be told without an agenda that denies facts and clouds understanding. They might have realized that censorship of history dishonors all our ancestors and distorts the present.  They might have understood that accomplishment, Jewish historical accomplishment, can include clashes, dislocations, loss, and regret.

It was not all harmony over the decades in the Petaluma Jewish Community Center. That’s why this Jewish chicken- rancher history was exciting. “Politics,” as one of the old-timers had told me,” we had plenty.”


Kenneth Kann is author of Joe Rapoport: The Life of a Jewish Radical (Temple University, 1981) and Comrades and Chicken Ranchers: The Story of a California Jewish Community (Cornell, 1993). He last appeared here with “Joe and Me: Two Generations on the Left.”