Chicken farmers chutzpah intrigues Catholic dramatist

Pauline Pfandler readily acknowledges that her Irish Catholic ancestry is as solid as the Blarney Stone. But, she adds, there's more to her than meets the genealogical eye.

"There's one thin skin of Irish Catholic," says Pfandler of herself. "The rest is all Jewish."

Some might label such a claim an act of chutzpah in the first degree since she really has no Jewish blood. But considering Pfandler wrote and directed the play "Chutzpah," she'd take it as a compliment.

"Chutzpah!" is a hit.

The theatrical homage to Petaluma's Jewish chicken farmers of the 1930s has wowed audiences ever since its premiere last year at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.

Now, Pfandler's Cinderella story continues as "Chutzpah" makes its big-city debut, opening Thursday at San Francisco's Cowell Theater for a short run.

With its multimedia mix of music, drama and projected images, "Chutzpah!" tells the story of the Russian Jewish families who settled in Sonoma County in the 1900s. They were also socialists and went on to fight for civil rights, women's rights, the labor movement and social justice.

Because of them, Petaluma became a Yiddish cultural center, as well as an egg and chicken capital, in the early part of the last century.

For Pfandler, "Chutzpah!" is the culmination of a dream. Yet when she first read the play's source material, Ken Kann's book "Comrades and Chicken Ranchers," and began envisioning it as a theatrical work, she wasn't sure she could pull it off.

"I got disparate reactions," she recalls of her early soundings. "My WASP friends rolled their eyes, or gave me a blank stare. Just using the word 'Jewish,' they kind of left their bodies, which I found anti-Semitic. Then there was an almost hostile reaction from my Jewish friends, who said, 'This isn't your story.'"

Given Pfandler's own progressive working-class background, her friends turned out to be off the mark.

Growing up in San Bruno with five siblings and a few foster children ("whacked out boys" she calls them), Pfandler never knew any Jews. But that didn't mean she was unfamiliar with issues of importance to Jews at the time.

"I was raised by progressive thinkers," says the former Catholic schoolgirl. "During the '60s, when my mother realized nothing of any import was going on in the church, she pulled us out of Catholic school. Of course, being good Irish Catholics, we never talked about it."

Pfandler went on to enjoy the kind of eclectic young adulthood prized by many self-respecting baby-boomers.

She hopped freight trains all the way to Alaska. She graduated from UCLA. She came out of the closet.

But most of all, she credits her love of theater with changing her life. "Working in theater, I found the family I always wanted," she says. "Getting laughter from an audience was like a wave of love."

To pursue a career as a stage actress, she did lengthy stints in Minnesota and Peninsula theater companies before settling in Sebastapol in the late 1980s.

That's when she got busy. Pfandler taught drama, opened a nonprofit theater company (the West County Theater Arts Guild), wrote plays and even starred in her own autobiographical one-woman show, "Born Guilty."

But a whole bank of light bulbs lit up in her mind when she encountered Kann's tale of the Jewish chicken farmers. Pfandler has a few pet theories on why the story resonated so deeply.

Besides the fact that her life partner is converting to Judaism, Pfandler says, "I always found myself gravitating towards people curious about life, about intellectual pursuits, and who valued humor. As I started working on this piece, I realized all my friends are Jewish."

Moreover, after a rash of hate crimes against gays and Jews in the '90s, Pfandler found herself inspired by the chicken farmers' courage in the face of virulent anti-Semitism.

The inspiration is contagious. "Chutzpah!" has met or exceeded its box office projections from day one, much to the delight of Pfandler and her backers.

While thrilled with the play's success so far, Pfandler hopes to take it even further, maybe even to Broadway.

"In theater, you have this amazing opportunity to communicate ideas to people," says Pfandler. "Here we offer a piece of California history that's outside my Irish Catholic shiksa sphere."

Mostly, she feels grateful to the Petaluma chicken farmers for their tenacity, faith, and, er, chutzpah.

"The courage these people had!" she says. "Up here in Sonoma, it's 'Charles Schultz this,' and 'Charles Schultz that.' I want to see a memorial honoring these early Jewish immigrants."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.