Documentary revisits Black Bear commune, Jewish idealism

From the civil rights movement to the anti-war movement, Jews were visible advocates for change in the ’60s. At around the same time, in Northern California’s Siskiyou County, Jews were key figures in yet another strategy to improve the world—communal living.

Jonathan Berman’s compelling documentary “Commune” does not promulgate an overtly Jewish point of view, but one can’t help noticing the number of Jews who comprised the nucleus at Black Bear Ranch.

During a visit to the Bay Area two summers ago when “Commune” screened in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the stocky New York filmmaker mused about the eagerness of Jews to embrace new social experiments.

“The search for utopia is very much a Jewish tradition,” he said, leaning forward on a couch in the lobby of his downtown hotel and tossing out names like Jesus, Karl Marx and Theodor Herzl. “I’m not a historian, but from a lay person’s point of view it seems like an obsession.”

The impetus for a persecuted minority to create a new society seems self-evident, Berman added. “People who are outside the mainstream and suffered discrimination are looking for a better world.”

“Commune” returns to San Francisco for a Feb. 23 to March 1 run at the Red Vic Movie House in the Haight — the ideal neighborhood for a film that revisits the anarchic spirit of rural escape, minimal rules, free love and anti-commerce.

“Young people in general are interested in the film in a way you wouldn’t expect,” Berman noted. “It’s a film about what you do in your 20s, when you get out of college but before you start a family.”

The fluid population of Black Bear, which reached upward of 100 people during the summer months, included Richard Marley, a red-diaper baby whose mother was the editor of the socialist publication “The Morning Star.” Marley and many of the other Jews at Black Bear reveled in the decision-making process, in which the group arrived at a consensus through discussion and debate.

“What worked about Black Bear was, ‘We refuse to have one leader,’ the way Jews refuse to make an image of God — always suspicious of one leader having the answer,” Berman explained. “Everybody has a brain, everybody thinks about it.”

He added, “The Jewish thing is very interactive, very Old Testament. I wouldn’t say the film is extremely Jewish, but in that way it is.”

Berman’s first film, “The Shvitz,” a 1994 portrait of the vanishing New York steam bath, was recently released on DVD. It centers on an institution of primarily Jewish importance, but is accessible to anyone as a poignant comment on a big city in constant flux.

Similarly, “Commune” has a Jewish core but describes a phenomenon that anyone can relate to. “I make a film and I don’t put it in a box and say ‘this is going to be a Jewish film,'” the blunt-spoken Berman said.

Black Bear Ranch was founded in 1968 and still exists today, albeit with a drastically smaller population. Its heyday was the late ’60s and ’70s, but its legacy consists of the contributions its members went on to make.

Harriet Beinfeld (acupuncture) and Michael Tierra (herbs) were pioneers in alternative medicine, while Osha Neumann became a public interest attorney. Peter Brucker founded and heads the Salmon River Restoration Council. Peter Coyote (nee Cohen) is known as both an actor and an activist, and Elsa Marley is an artist.

From Berman’s standpoint, “The whole Jewish vision of tzedakah played out.”

“Commune” runs Feb. 23 – March 1 at the Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight St., S.F. Tickets: $5-$8.50. Information: www.redvicmoviehouse.com or (415) 668-3994.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.