CJM exhibit on Bay Area presents bland Zionist fairy tale
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As the author of a book on the extraordinary Petaluma Jewish chicken-ranching community, and a 46-year resident of the Bay Area, I was excited about seeing “California Dreaming,” an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum that depicts Bay Area Jewish life from the Gold Rush to the present.
I was surprised to find the exhibit excludes the story of left-wing Jewish social justice movements in Petaluma and the Bay Area. And it misrepresents Petaluma’s early East European Jewish community as a Zionist settlement.
One of two Petaluma panels describes the settlers as “mostly secular Zionists.” The other panel characterizes the community as “paralleling the kibbutz movement in pre-state Israel” and “an island of collective agriculture” with “many” who planned to settle in Palestine.
Yes, Zionists were among Petaluma’s immigrant Jewish chicken ranchers in the 1920s and 1930s, including a few who wanted to settle in Palestine. But there were also Communists, progressives, socialists, anarchists and others. The Zionists by no means dominated, in numbers or ideology, and the community consisted of small family farms rather than kibbutz-like collectives.
Most significant, “California Dreaming” completely omits Petaluma’s left-wing Jewish groups, the Communists and progressives, known as the “linke.” The linke comprised half the community, with its own constellation of organizations and activities. Its members fought a decades-long battle with the Zionists, Arbeiter Ring, B’nai B’rith and other anti-Communist groups known as the “rekhte.” The differences concerned Soviet Jewish life, how to fight fascism, the creation of a Jewish state and Jewish-Palestinian relations, and American social justice struggles. These conflicts culminated in the rekhte’s controversial expulsion of linke organizations from the Petaluma Jewish Community Center during the McCarthy period in the 1950s.
Also distressing, “California Dreaming” distorts the documentary film “A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma.” The exhibit’s excerpts omit the documentary ’s references to the community’s left wing, deleting the film’s treatment of prominent events like the 1935 tar-and-feathering of a Jewish Communist chicken rancher and McCarthy-era persecution of the community’s Communists. It is as if the museum decided to censor the linke from the film and Bay Area history.
I was astonished to see how badly the museum distorts the life of one of the community’s linke members in the “Basha Singerman” exhibit panel. First, the museum gets her name wrong. As explained in the introduction to my book, Basha Singerman is a fictitious name I devised for my book; her real name was Basha Rosenblum. And, second, Basha was not a Zionist or someone who wanted to settle in Palestine, as the panel claims, but rather a linke and an opponent of the community’s Zionists. Basha, who described herself as a “yiddishe tokhter,” a Jewish daughter, spent hours with me explaining her left-wing views, the linke’s conflicts with the rekhte and her beloved progressive Yiddish cultural organizations.
Without recognizing the Petaluma Jewish community’s political diversity, and particularly the Communists, it is impossible to grasp the community’s cultural richness, ferocious political disputes, uneasy relations with the gentile world, generational changes or the fear it inspired among many Jewish leaders in the Bay Area. Instead of portraying this vibrant complexity, the museum presents a bland Zionist fairy tale. It does a disservice to museum patrons, and it dishonors the Petaluma Jews who made this history, Zionists included.
Notwithstanding the exhibit’s professed exploration of Jewish commitment to social justice and one installation with biographical sketches of random progressives, “California Dreaming” lacks a coherent treatment of Jewish participation in social justice struggles, including Jewish fears of such involvement, particularly in the decades following World War II. This rich story runs deep and wide in Jewish history, and it opens a door to understanding the values and tensions of Jewish life in the Bay Area and America. The museum has expunged this saga from Bay Area Jewish history.
We expect more from a prominent Jewish cultural institution. The Contemporary Jewish Museum should include the story of the left in Petaluma and Bay Area Jewish history. And it should forthrightly recount Jewish social justice struggles, including controversial disputes and movements.
CJM’s response: Kenneth Kann’s passionate piece about the CJM exhibition “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present” reminds us that local Jewish history is a complex and diverse affair. Summarizing 150 years of that history in one gallery is an almost impossible task, and we rely on the expertise of scholars like Mr. Kann to ensure that the subtleties of that history continually come to the surface. “California Dreaming” was built around questions and designed to elicit them; in that spirit we welcome Mr. Kann’s critique as part of the robust discussion we hope will continue for many years at the museum, in the pages of j., and elsewhere in our community.
Kenneth Kann is a San Francisco writer and the author of “Comrades and Chicken Ranchers, the Story of a California Jewish Community” and “Joe Rapoport, the Life of a Jewish Radical.”