Folk chorus offers musical tribute to chicken ranchers

Much has been written about the famed Jewish chicken ranchers of Petaluma. Not much has been sung.

The Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco makes up for that with a June 8 concert at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

Marking its 88th annual community concert, the 21-voice chorus, along with conductor-pianist Stephen Varney, will perform a musical tribute to the Jewish immigrant ranchers who flourished in Sonoma County in the first half of the last century.

The chorus will sing primarily in Yiddish, the mother tongue of the chicken ranchers (though a few songs are in Russian and Hebrew). Many of the songs have to do with farming, animals and good country living, all with a Yiddish accent.

Between songs, chorus members will read excerpts from testimonies given by ranchers of the era. Those long-silent voices recount the hard work running a chicken farm in Petaluma, known then as the egg basket of the world.

“Hard work never killed nobody,” says one farmer quoted in the concert. “You know what kills you? Worries! Worries will kill you like rust goes in the pipes.”

Chorus members hope the audience will get a feel for a vanished community that exemplified one aspect of the Jewish immigrant experience.

“The suggestion was made last summer that we do a tribute to the Jewish farmers of Petaluma,” said chorus president and Oakland resident Gail Rubman. “They were instrumental to the start of this chorus.”

Jewish folk choruses in America took off with a turn-of-the-last-century organization called the Jewish Music Alliance. Brandishing its motto, “A people who sing shall not perish,” the alliance formed choruses across the country.

The Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco dates back to 1926, a time when the Bay Area sported similar choral groups in Petaluma and Oakland. All three sometimes shared conductors and would occasionally perform together.

They shared something else: left-wing politics. Many chorus members, as well as many of the ranchers, espoused the socialist views that typified the kibbutz movement then thriving in pre-state Israel.

Most started to arrive in the North Bay near the end of World War I. For some, Petaluma was a way station, but most remained, with many making a living raising hens and selling eggs.

“[They] settled on California chicken ranches,” wrote Kenneth Kann in “Comrades and Chicken Ranchers,” his 1993 book used as a source by the chorus, “and established a vibrant political community that combined socialist and Jewish internationalism with the parochialism of an ethnic minority in small-town America.”

Ten-year veteran chorus member Diana Scott took the lead on shaping the material for the stage.

“There was almost too much,” she said. “We tried to choose selections and songs that evoke part of the story. Some are thematic, some musically seemed to fit what we selected.”

Rubman, who joined the chorus seven years ago, hopes audiences attending their concerts will get a taste of the life led by those long-gone ranchers.

“It’s a connection to a whole culture that thrived in the 19th and 20th centuries,” she says of the music she sings. “Local groups like KlezCalifornia are keeping this alive. Knowledge of Yiddish is holding its own and hopefully going to grow.”

The 88th annual concert of the Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco takes place 2:30 p.m. June 8 at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, 1835 Ellis St., S.F.  $12-$15.


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.