Comrades & Chicken Ranchers radio series in the works for fall

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If all goes well, a radio series will air this fall about a few inspiring Jews who had the courage to come together, overcome adversity — and raise chickens.

"Comrades and Chicken Ranchers," a series of six half-hour radio shows about the Jewish chicken-ranching community of Petaluma, is a step closer to the airwaves, thanks to a $20,000 challenge grant from the California Council for the Humanities awarded recently to radio producer Zelda Bronstein.

A community of Jewish ranchers thrived in Petaluma from the early decades of the 20th century well into the 1950s, not only as an economic community but as a cultural center.

The Petaluma Jewish Folk Chorus once sang with Paul Robeson. The community had drama groups, a ladies' reading group, classes on Zionism and a Yiddish culture club. Their community center, the almost nightly scene of lectures, concerts and meetings, once played host to Golda Meir.

"They were in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, in this small California farm town," said Bronstein, 48, a former professor of American literature at U.C. Santa Barbara. "Yet they had a vibrant social and political life. That's really something. I wanted to show how were they able to do it, and then what happened to it."

Interviews with second-generation community members and accounts read by actors standing in for first-generation members explain everything from the community's cloudy origins to the ugly rifts that marked its end.

Accounts differ on who founded the Petaluma community. It began sometime in the first 20 years of the century, but the exact year remains a mystery.

The reason the community grew is clearer. By running a small ranch, a Jew could escape the sweat shops of the cities, Bronstein said. Though farm work was hard, at least it offered leisure at the end of the day.

The five to 10 acres of land required for a ranch cost little in those days — Bronstein's grandparents paid $5,500 for their 8-1/2-acre tract. Chicken farming also demanded relatively little expertise, and the community helped people learn the necessary skills.

By 1925, about 100 Jewish families were raising chickens in Petaluma. Though ranching was an unstable, precarious existence, farmers that year had enough money to build the Jewish Community Center. (The JCC is now a conservative synagogue, B'nai Israel).

"The founders of the Petaluma community would be spinning in their graves if they knew," Bronstein says. "They were dedicated secularists."

The community gave so generously to various Jewish causes back then that Golda Meir met with the local chapter of Pioneer Women, well before the state of Israel had been founded.

Over the decades, the community's development reflected changes in the United States as a whole. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, for example, many of Petaluma's ranches went under. And in the 1940s, with rationing improving the price of eggs and poultry, the community sent aid to Jews in Europe and helped Holocaust refugees enter the United States.

But by the mid 1950s, many family farms gave way to mechanized corporate ranching. Meanwhile, the sense of community itself collapsed under the pressure of McCarthyism and the Cold War. When Petaluma's Jews became divided over some members' support for the Soviet Union and were no longer allowed to hold meetings at the community center, the community as it had existed was gone forever.

Virtually no small family farms remain in Petaluma, Bronstein said. The only large chicken-raising operation left from the old days is the Rocky Birds/Petaluma Poultry Processing ranch, a huge operation that raises, processes and sells organic free-range chickens; it's still run by descendants of the community.

Barlas Feed, previously the oldest continuously running operation connected to the old community, was recently sold after 65 years.

The old Petaluma Jewish Folk Chorus still exists as the 70-year-old Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco, which also absorbed another group.

Bronstein's grant promises her $1 for every $2 she raises over the next year. Since the project will cost $60,000, getting the show produced and aired on public radio stations sometime next fall will require that Bronstein raise $40,000 over the next few months.

If anyone can complete the project, it's Bronstein, who is intensely devoted to her subject matter.

Not only did her grandparents live in the Petaluma chicken farming community, but in the 1970s Bronstein helped her friend Kenneth Kann interview surviving members. The interviews eventually turned into a book by Kann, "Comrades and Chicken Ranchers," from which Bronstein's series takes its title.

After producing a public affairs show on U.C. Berkeley radio station KALX for a year and a half, Bronstein chose the chicken farmers as the subject of her first major radio project.

"These people had the courage of conviction to come together despite their difficulties and differences and take a stand," she said. "That's unusual, especially in our time."