by Kenneth Kann
FIRST, ASTONISHMENT. Then outrage.
I was viewing “California Dreaming,” a 2013 exhibit on Bay Area Jewish history at San Francisco’s eminent Contemporary Jewish Museum. The exhibit included the story of an extraordinary Jewish chicken ranching community in Petaluma, thirty-five miles north of San Francisco.
This museum exhibit was false: factually wrong and grossly distorted. How do I know this? I know, because I am the world’s foremost scholar of those chicken ranchers.
While I was writing my doctoral dissertation at UC Berkeley in 1974, I learned about a group of immigrant Eastern European Jewish chicken farmers who had rejected city life to live rurally, raising chickens for the market and building a community with a spectrum of leftwing thinking. When I finished my dissertation, I turned down a job across the country as a history professor, moved to Petaluma, about an hour to the north of Berkeley, and spent five years interviewing the founders of this community, and then their children and grandchildren.
In my book, Comrades and Chicken Ranchers, I retold the great story of American immigration and assimilation over generations through this unique little community of 20th-century California chicken ranchers.
I was flabbergasted by the fabrications of “California Dreaming.” The exhibit’s description of Jewish Petaluma censored out half the old immigrant community, the Communists, known by the Yiddish term linke, the left. Instead, the exhibit concocted a utopian fiction of a fairytale Zionist settlement in Petaluma, a community of people who lived together in kibbutzim, agricultural communes, and advocated the creation of a separate Jewish socialist agricultural nation in Palestine. The exhibit completely excluded the monumental decades-long Petaluma struggle between the linke and the rekhte, the right, over Jewish destiny in the Soviet Union, Europe, Palestine, and America.
“California Dreaming” also ignored my book’s saga of social dislocation and cultural loss over generations: the vibrant shtetl-like immigrant community with modern socialist ideals, the troubled succession of culturally ambivalent American-born children, the disappearance of my own baby-boom generation, and the stormy inheritance of the community by suburban newcomers. Instead, the museum exhibit claimed that the community had died out in the 1950s from political squabbling. That “squabbling” was, in fact, the profound political battles of the McCarthy era. And I knew that today the Petaluma Jewish community, transformed, is still thriving.
I believe in retelling history from different perspectives with new insights, and had done plenty of it as a New Left historian in the 1970s. But I don’t believe in inventing an alternate reality, making it up. I sent the museum a polite letter about errors in “California Dreaming.” No response. I wrote again explaining in detail why Petaluma Jewish history could not be understood without including the Communists. Again, silence.
I was furious, and curious. I drafted an op-ed for the Bay Area’s Jewish community newspaper. I wanted to smoke out the museum’s explanation for its distortions. I wanted the museum to recognize the linke and acknowledge the losses with assimilation over generations.
I would not let the museum get away with this historical blasphemy.
I BEGAN RECORDING the “pioneers” in 1974. They were Yiddish-speaking people in their 70s and 80s, born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe around the beginning of the 20th century. They opened a door to the Old World of my own Chicago immigrant grandparents.
These immigrant chicken ranchers were socialists of many stripes — Communists, Labor Zionists, social democratic Arbeter Ringers, anarchists — with a volatile history of clashes among themselves and with gentiles, too. They were Yiddishists and Hebraicists with Slavic origins, literate people with a rich community cultural life. Dozens recounted giant lives within their tiny chicken-ranching community. They began with epic tales of Eastern European Jewish life: pogroms and antisemitic murders, World War I, marauding Ukrainian and Russian armies, upheavals with the Russian Revolution, and battles with parents over stifling religious orthodoxies and seductive modern ideas. I heard their tales of fantastic emigration journeys across Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and America.
Explaining settlement on Petaluma chicken ranches, some proudly recalled youthful agricultural idealism with plans to migrate later to kibbutzim in Palestine. Others spoke of wanting to show that Jews could work with their hands, or that they could follow the agrarian example of the ancient Hebrews, or just find a better life than city sweatshops and pushcarts.
And they did. They created a hothouse immigrant enclave in Petaluma, the “Egg-Basket of the World,” a dusty little northern California farming town of the 1920s and 1930s. They were a hundred families spread out on little farms, with an engrossing life in town on Western Avenue at the small Jewish community center.
The “Center,” built in 1925, had been the subject of raging disputes over whether to include a shul, a synagogue, for the community’s religious minority. The farbrente, red hot, Communists and Zionists and Arbeter Ringers,-all atheists, all rebels against their parents’ traditional religious orthodoxies, finally did build the tiny shul, according to community legend, for the tax benefits.
From the Center outwards,, the Jewish chicken ranchers participated in the world. It was the site for constant gatherings. With their American-born kids sleeping on benches, Yiddish and Hebrew organizations met late into the nights. They wired reports of their resolutions on the Tom Mooney defense, the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine, the Scottsboro Boys struggle, the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact,across the country and around the globe: HERE’S WHERE PETALUMA STANDS.
There was a ferocious 1930s ideological battle for control of the Center that was actually fought out in a gentile court with a rekhte victory. A year later, 1935, Sol Nitzberg, dubbed “the rabbi from Communism” because of his family’s rabbinical tradition and his fiery radicalism dating back to the 1905 Russian Revolution, was tarred and feathered by local vigilantes for organizing a strike by nearby migrant apple pickers. Then there were struggles against local fascist Silver Shirts and Brown Shirts, and the wartime Popular Front to defeat Hitler.
In the 1950s McCarthy era, the rekhte, remembering the 1935 tar-and-feathering, expelled the linke organizations from the Center out of fear of gentile persecution of all Jews as Communist subversives. The linke had impudently celebrated Stalin’s birthday at the Center by singing happy birthday, first in Yiddish and then Russian, and had brazenly staged public Yiddish concerts with Paul Robeson to raise money to fight the execution of the Rosenbergs for atomic spying. FBI agents had been in Petaluma questioning people about linke activists, and there had been rumors about rekhte informers.
Conducting interviews twenty-five years after the ousting of the linke, I learned that no one forgot, no one forgave. Petaluma was “on the map” in those decades, known worldwide, in New York City and Los Angeles, Palestine and the Soviet Union, as an enduring, political, agrarian community. When eminent Jewish political and cultural leaders visited Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1920s and ’30s, they also came to see the Petaluma Jewish chicken-ranching community. A lifelong Zionist, Khaya Eisenstein, described a Depression-era visit from Golda Meir, raising money for Labor Zionist kibbutzim in Palestine; I could picture Khaya in her jalopy, driving along dusty back roads, visiting the Jewish chicken ranches with Golda.
“What took you so long to get here?” an old-timer challenged me when I first walked in with my tape recorder. They knew they were titans of 20th-century world history, so of course this young historian would show up to hear their stories.
I relished my role as their curious student.
AS AN ASPIRING historian, I was part of a “new labor history” trend that shaped my Petaluma inquiry. Established by historians of the Old Left of the 1940s and 1950s, and fed by my generation of New Left historians in the 1960s and 1970s, we focused on workers’ lives — their work, communities, families, religion, politics, and movements. Our attention to “ordinary people” included immigrants, racial minorities, and women. We saw workers as actors, not victims, as people who resisted capitalism and struggled for power. Ours was a history of conflict. We contested a previous generation of historians who portrayed American history as a broad popular consensus over capitalism and democracy. My Ph.D. dissertation, on the incendiary anarchist labor movement in 19th-century Chicago, was in synch with my rebellious era.
In Petaluma I made a discovery: these chicken ranchers were the “ordinary people” we New Left historians were resurrecting. And there was nothing ordinary about them. They were outspoken about their historical significance: Old World rebellions against family and government, courageous emigration to new lives around the planet, and this boiling cauldron of a chicken-ranching community. They saw themselves in epic dimensions as part of the great currents of 20th-century Jewish world history.
I recognized these immigrants as the last generation of a disappearing culture, the Yiddish-speaking world of Eastern European Jewry remade in America. Their lives were momentous, and early on I began depositing my transcribed interviews in a museum library, so that in a hundred years there would be voices preserved from this lost Yiddish world.
Grateful future historians would thank me, I was sure.
I HAD YET another realization: there was a larger Petaluma story about the succeeding generations, the American- born children and grandchildren. Did the immigrant generation leave a legacy? Did the offspring inherit a dedication to farming? Was there more fevered politics, bubbling cultural life, devotion to family and comrades, hostility to religion, identity as secular Jews?
I planned a book that would recount the American saga of Eastern European Jewish immigration and assimilation, based on the three Petaluma generations. I would interview the second generation, my parents’ generation. And then my own baby-boom generation, with our European grandparents and American parents: Who were we, and where were we were heading?
When I abandoned a conventional historian’s career as a professor, I hoped to find financial support for several years of interviews and writing about chicken ranchers. I began fundraising in the Bay Area Jewish community. All roads led to the preeminent historical institution, the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, where I had deposited my first interview transcriptions. I arranged a meeting with the museum’s director, Seymour Fromer. He invited a prominent Jewish immigration historian, professor Moses Rischin.
Decades later, when I went to see “California Dreaming” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, I should have prepared myself by remembering that early meeting at the Magnes Museum. First things first: Fromer and Rischin let me know I was a latecomer. They had long been aware of the Petaluma Jewish chicken ranchers. Indeed, they were irritated that a young neophyte presumed to tackle this delicate history.
On to the main business: they raged against the Communist chicken ranchers. They blamed the linke for provoking Bay Area gentiles to associate Jews with Communist disloyalty. They castigated the dangerous Communist chicken rancher who had been tarred and feathered in 1935 for his reckless labor organizing, which invited gentile retaliation. They berated the 1950s Yiddish folk chorus for those provocative public concerts to defend the Rosenbergs. And the banishment of the linke organizations from the Center? Yes, they insisted, the expulsions were necessary to protect Bay Area Jewish communities from charges of Communist subversion. For them, Petaluma was infamous rather than famous.
They sized me up as a New Left fellow traveler of those Communist chicken ranchers. My distinguished academic credentials from UC Berkeley — another politically troubled place — counted against me, not for me. My two years of Petaluma interviews counted for nothing. Enlightened after an hour of their polemics, I realized that these guys, still fighting McCarthy-era battles to purge Communists from the Jewish community, never would support my project.
Following the meeting, I understood better when I re-read Professor Rischin’s acclaimed book,The Promised City, a pioneering history of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York City. Professor Rischin reduced Jewish radicalism to a short-lived transitional outburst on the immigrant journey to becoming “modern Americans” who enjoyed “the grandeur of American freedom” through electoral politics, collective bargaining, and other democratic institutions.
But I was not telling that familiar story of successful and seamless Eastern European Jewish Americanization. My Eastern European immigrant chicken ranchers persisted in Petaluma as Communist, socialist, and Zionist world- changers, not as immigrant clay destined to be molded into liberal democratic Americans. And as that stubborn immigrant generation gave way to the assimilation of their offspring, my parents’ generation, I found painful losses with the disappearance of the shtetl-like community and rich tumultuous immigrant political culture. I spoke for a third generation, the grandchildren, who rebelled against the accommodations of our parents to American middle-class life. We looked for inspiration to our radical immigrant grandparents and our own baby boom rebellion.
A year after my disastrous meeting at the Magnes Museum, the gentile Establishment blessed my project. I found support at the California Historical Society, where they celebrated the Jewish chicken rancher story as a fresh perspective on California history, far from Father Serra and the missions, remote from the Gold Rush and the great earthquake. The Historical Society won a supporting grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
I was launched.
Part 2 continues here.
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.”