It’s an unforgettable image: A man in cowboy garb singing Yiddish songs. It’s found in a compelling and beautifully photographed short film by Bonnie Burt called Song of a Jewish Cowboy.
The film follows Jewish cowboy Scott Gerber as he works on the ranch in Northern California and as he performs, in cowboy gear, in both Jewish (Simcha Sunday) and Country Western venues, singing songs he himself has written, as well as classic ballads and Yiddish folk songs.
Against the background of songs he sings, we observe Gerber herd cattle and twirl his lasso. We also see him ride alongside his teenage daughter Leah, the product of his intermarriage. Gerber disagrees with those who say his daughter is not Jewish because her mother isn’t. “As I see it, she’s half-Jewish,” he says, as he talks of his commitment to teach Leah the Yiddish and social justice songs and values his mother and maternal grandmother taught him.
Commenting on those values, Gerber says, “To me, being real class conscious and caring about people who don’t have much, that’s very Jewish. To me, being a cowboy is Jewish. My ancestors were socialists or communists, and as a Jew and an American, I’m part of the working class.”
While the idea of a Jewish cowboy may startle viewers, Gerber tells of his uncles, Sol and Al, who were the first in his family to work the land. Shortly after World War II, they bought a ranch in Petaluma and got into the “chicken business.” For Gerber, working the land means following a family tradition.
As he talks of how the work on a ranch changes with the seasons, Gerber remarks that in the winter he has to “mark” or castrate the calves, which makes him a mohel, or ritual circumciser.
Divorced, and finding it hard to meet “nice Jewish girls,” Gerber has turned to the services of a matchmaker, as his ancestors did in the past.
Gerber also appears in another film Burt made, along with Judith Montell, called A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma. This film tells the story of the unique Jewish community that formed in Petaluma, California, in the 1920s, and lasted until the 1970s.
As the film begins, we see a field of white forms that turn out to be chickens and hear Norman Greenbaum’s “Petaluma Song”: “We’ve got chicken in the house, chicken in the fields…”
Through interviews with the few surviving Jewish chicken farmers and their children (who are now in their seventies), woven together with home movies made on the chicken farms back in the 1940s and 1950s, Burt and Montell tell the story of a particular vibrant, hard-working and socially conscious group of Jews–one that makes this reviewer proud to be Jewish.
Along the way, they also paint a picture of how the Jewish community has changed over the course of the twentieth century, as it became more accepted and assimilated.
Sylvia Schwartz, who grew up in Petaluma, says that her parents’ generation was “conscious of their obligations to their immediate society, the larger society, and to the world.” She has “mixed feelings” about the changes in our society since then but, “This is the American story. Change happens fast.”
The original Jewish chicken farmers of Petaluma, all of whom had been raised Orthodox in Eastern Europe, were for the most part secular socialists and communists. In those days, one of the adult children says, “intermarriage was when a kid of the left married a kid of the right.”
Being Zionist in that community meant being right wing. Very few still practiced Judaism as a religion, although they did celebrate Jewish holidays as cultural events. Yet all had a strong Jewish identity.
The Jews in Petaluma welcomed newcomers, teaching them how to farm and treating them “like family.” They gathered together for book groups, lectures and concerts. And on summer Sundays they left their “ranches” for a few hours to gather at a swimming hole and picnic.
By the 1970s, few of the original immigrant families remained in Petaluma. Most had gone bankrupt due to competition from huge agribusinesses and less expensive farms down South.
As the film progresses, we get to know the children of the original chicken farmers and learn that most of their grandchildren intermarried. Ironically, while the original chicken farmers strongly opposed building shuls (synagogues) or being religiously observant–even though they valued Jewish culture–many of those grandchildren are now deeply involved in synagogue life.
In telling the story of the Jewish chicken farmers of Petaluma, Burt chronicles the arc of Jewish history in the twentieth century: a first generation of poor immigrants from Eastern Europe who had been raised Orthodox and had a strong Jewish identity; a second generation who assimilated, often became financially successful, and wanted to identify as Americans; and a third generation who became so much a part of American society that many intermarried–while also seeking a meaningful Jewish identity.
Don’t miss this fascinating film.