The humorist in me wants to tell this eggceptional story about a city comprised of chicken ranchers and how they fowled up. In reality, the story is one of a hard-working immigrant community, unique in its philosophical and political makeup; it is a microcosm of a community whose Jewish pride could not overcome the generational burdens of assimilation.
I first heard the story of the chicken ranchers in Petaluma a few years ago and when I recently learned that there is a Chabad in the city, it presented me with the opportunity to tell the unique story of Russian immigrants and their acclimation and assimilation to life in California.
The Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma is located in the downtown area and is a welcome center for all Jews – whether they are descendants of the original chicken ranchers or a newer residents who find Petaluma to be a family-friendly community within commutable distance to San Francisco. Rabbi and Rebbitzen Dovid Bush moved to Petaluma four years ago. While their initial meeting place was in their living room, success in their programs and attendance required moving into an independent facility. The new site is in the downtown district and is conveniently situated near the historic Hotel Petaluma which can accommodate functions with larger crowds.
While the Chabad of Petaluma offers a resurgence of Jewish life, Petaluma’s story presents a glimpse into the uniqueness of several factions of immigrants and their formation of a shtetl in California.
Petaluma is located thirty-seven miles north of San Francisco and although it was incorporated as a city in 1858, the picturesque town is today considered a San Francisco suburb. The current population is approximately 60,000. First inhabited by the Miwok Indians, the 66,000-acre property on which Petaluma was founded was part of an 1836 Mexican land grant. Easterners flocked to the area after gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1848. Its riverfront location made it one of the major shipping areas, with steamers carrying produce and raw materials to San Francisco whose population exploded during the California gold rush. Due to its geological foundation – secure bedrock – Petaluma was one of the few towns spared from the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906. With its Mediterranean climate, the area became productive farmland in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The area is still known for its agricultural productivity with dairy farms, vineyards, and produce farming that includes berries, vegetables, and olives. The town is considered a “foodie haven” with award winning wines, olive oils, beer, cheeses, and world famous restaurants.
Its other claims to fame start with the invention of the egg incubator by Lyman Bryce in 1879. A notable event was the wrist-wrestling championships held from 1952-2003. It is also a choice filming location for dozens of television shows and famous movies. During the telecom start-up explosion in the 1990s, Petaluma was known as Telecom Valley. Today it hosts an active US Coast Guard training center, Chief Petty Officer Academy (training for non-commissioned officers in the USCG and the US Air Force), a California National Guard facility, and the California Maritime Academy in nearby Vallejo. The town holds its annual “Butter and Egg Days Parade” each April to celebrate its heritage as a large dairy producer and for its renown title as the “Egg Basket to the World.” The city’s second largest employer is the Petaluma Poultry Association with its 581 employees being half as many as the Petaluma City School District – the leading employer.
The Jewish cemetery in Petaluma confirms the history of Jewish settlers with Sephardic Jews being the primary Jewish population in the mid-1800s, German Jews during the late 1800s, and Eastern European Jews settling throughout the 1900s. The Jewish Community Center of Petaluma counted one hundred members in 1928, and would be thrice-fold at its peak 50 years later.
It was the substantial influx of Jews that began during World War I that put Petaluma on the world map and earned her the title of “Egg Basket of the World.” The city was known as far away as New York and Israel. When Golda Meir was raising money for the Labor Zionist movement in Palestine in the 1930s, she called on Petaluma. The book Comrades and Chicken Ranchers by Kenneth L. Kann (published by Cornell University Press in 1993) is a compilation of the history and stories of the Russian immigrants who learned the skill and business of raising chickens and the subsequent transformation of their lives and identities spanning four generations.
The original ranchers had a life filled with Jewish culture and old-world customs, a cohesiveness of identity that became less important as the children of the settlers assimilated and were not confronted with the anti-Semitism and politics of their parents’ era.
These Russian ranchers could primarily be divided into three groups: Socialists, Zionists, and Religious. The Socialists were also known as the Progressives, Communists, and Left Wingers. Many had been involved with labor groups in Russia and later in the New York trade unions. They continued their fight for social justice in their new locale. The Zionists included several who had been young idealists in Russia and had been members in Hashomer Hatzair and went to Petaluma to learn chicken ranching as a stepping stone for a productive trade in Palestine. The religious Jews comprised the smallest element of the city’s Jewish population. While several had learned in the yeshivos of Poland, they rarely had a minyan for Shabbos, however, they did meet to discuss Talmud and there was a shochet for those who wanted kosher meat. All three factions spoke Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish and had the common bonds of Jewish identity and community. Yiddish was more than a language, it was a shared culture. There were Yiddish plays, concerts, public readings of famous Yiddish authors, and, of course, the old-country foods. Their devotion to family, comrades, and community was an important part of their lives. Shtetl was an apt description of their way of life although there was more of a kibbutz philosophy and atmosphere.
Their stories spoke of czars, Bolsheviks, Ukraine, Crimea, White Russia, Siberia, Poland, and the afflictions and cruelty from civil wars, pogroms, epidemics, and starvation. One resident recounted time spent in the 1905 Russian Revolution and his subsequent exile to Siberia. This same rancher was tarred and feathered in Petaluma by a vigilante mob during the Labor struggles in the 1930s. Indeed it was ironic that in escaping the pogroms and anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe they rediscovered the anti-Semitism of pre-World War II and the anti-communism of the McCarthy era in their rural town in northern California. The dislike for the Jews was as obvious as the newspaper article entitled “The Invasion of the Jews in Petaluma.” Then there were the Nazi demonstrations by the locals in 1936 and 1937.
The newly prosperous American settlers reconciled their capitalist success with their unyielding principles of socialism. Many had left the sweatshops of New York, but working with the chickens was hard and laborious. It entailed other chores such as hitching the horse to the wagon to pick the kale that was mixed into the feed for the hundreds and thousands of chickens depending on the size of each ranch. Then there was collecting the eggs, cleaning them, packaging the frail goods, taking a lunch break and then later in the afternoon repeating the entire process. There was vaccinating the chickens, cleaning out the chicken houses, and getting rid of the dead ones. Yet they each had their families, their own land, their own house, and their communal friends.
And they had freedom.
The Petaluma Jewish Center was built in 1925 with a loan from Mrs. Haas of the Levi Strauss Company in San Francisco. The Haas family made many loans to the ranchers over the years to ensure their prosperity and continuity, although many lost their farms in the Great Depression that lasted from 1929-1939. The Jewish Center was the meeting place with Yiddish spoken at the club meetings that included the Jewish People’s Folk Chorus, Jewish Women’s Reading Circle, Jewish Drama Group, International Workers Order, and the Jewish Cultural Club.
Then there were the community rifts. One major schism was the shul. When the Jewish Community Center was built in 1925 it had a small shul. Although many of the ranchers were against having prayers in their community building, they agreed to it for the tax benefits it would provide. Years later, there were still residents who had never stepped foot into the small sanctuary – it had its own entrance so the non-attendees didn’t have to see it.
Another divisive break occurred during the McCarthy era when the Progressives brought a Russian flag into the Center and invited speakers who spoke about Communism. The non-Jewish community wouldn’t tolerate it and the left-wingers were evicted from the Jewish Community Center. Yet the Religious and Socialist factions were united in their support of the Zionist group. While many of the Zionists moved to Petaluma to learn the trade of chicken ranching as a means to having a productive income in Palestine, in the end, only two ever made the translocation.
In spite of the anti-Semitism and prejudice from the outside, it was eventually the acceptance by society at large that caused the downfall of Jewish life in the end, it wasn’t philosophy or politics that decimated Judaism in Petaluma, it was assimilation. While the original ranchers were self-contained for the most part, the second generation combined their old-world Jewish community with interactions with the surrounding American and Californian societies. The children of the original immigrants were expected to be Jewish, yet many had Pesach without a seder and few women lit candles on Shabbos. Speaking Yiddish didn’t equivocate with learning to be Jewish. There was even a machlokes for the Sunday school. While there wasn’t religious learning, there was the argument of whether the language in Sunday school should be Hebrew or Yiddish. These children didn’t grow up and marry each other; they were raised like brothers and sisters and subsequently dated those from the outside, which often led to their leaving Petaluma. Many served in the armed forces during World War II and were drawn to American culture. Numerous native Petalumans saw their Yiddish culture as something to escape and their Jewishness as a burden.
The deterioration in Yiddishkeit for the third generation, the grandchildren of the original ranchers, could be felt in their self-descriptions: “they felt Jewish.” Many of them intermarried or moved away. Now, most of the local Jewish residents are families that moved in due to the proximity to San Francisco, although there are supposedly about twenty-five families, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, of the original chicken ranchers.
And that’s where the Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma hopes to ignite a resurgence of Jewish life. The Jewish Center offers a variety of Jewish holiday programs, activities, curricula, and services. Additionally, they are offering Jewish identity. While Chabad is famous for their open display of Judaism such as a Car Menorahs, the Chabad of Petaluma trumps with a thirty-five foot sign downtown that says, “Chabad Wishes You a Shanah Tova.” As Rabbi Bush says, “There is a display of Judaism not seen before, it is more of a street topic than when we first came.”
Another public display and highly successful event is Chanukah At The River. This year they held the 5th annual Chanukah party on the downtown waterfront promenade with a nine-foot menorah, gelt-drop from a raised fire engine ladder, latkes, donuts, and an assortment of fun activities for children. Last year close to 300 people attended. Another popular Chanukah event is the Latke Master Chef. This fun activity is a latke cook-off with the latkes being judged by the local “foodies.” Last year, the winning latke recipe was vegan. Ironic that the winning potato latke, a time-honored food from the Old Country, was egg-free in a town that was founded on the selling of eggs.
More impressive statistics include the twenty-two children currently enrolled in Petaluma Hebrew. It is intentionally not called a school so as to keep it fun for the group of 4-12 year olds that attend. Camp Aleph has grown from 14 children at its inauguration three years ago to its current attendance of 35 children.
The First Friday program includes davening and Shabbos dinner. The “Shabbat 100” program actually had 120 people join for a gourmet dinner held at the historic Hotel Petaluma. While it is not always easy to get a minyan for Shabbos or a yarzheit, there is now a minyan on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shavuos.
Chabad is looking to change the landscape of Petaluma, a landscape that formerly provided a life of chicken ranching for poor, idealistic immigrants from Russia. While the promise of gold wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, they found a life of family, Jewish culture, and validation that America is a great country. The Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma is looking to eggcel in creating a vibrant future for the Petaluma Jewish community.