In the warmth of the morning sun, 71-year-old Herschel Schuman is wearing a T-shirt, work pants and a red beret as he grips a hose and waters a tall row of corn. Across his farm’s dirt driveway, a dozen chickens, three ducks, a pair of turkeys and a rooster are “bunkmates” in a large, fenced-in, open-air space.
The well-maintained coop is a scaled-down reminder of the heyday of the Jewish chicken ranchers — a storied community that began in the 1920s and was centered in Petaluma, about 15 miles south of Schuman’s land.
The Schuman family, including a 6-year-old Herschel, came to Sebastopol 65 years ago after surviving the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. What they found in Sonoma County was a supportive community of mostly secular Jews committed to helping each other forge successful lives in a sparsely populated region.
Living in what used to be called “The Egg Basket of the World,” many of them were established chicken farmers, and what helped tie them together as a community was the B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma.
The Schumans created a life for themselves in this new frontier where their entrepreneurial and community spirit could thrive, free from the constraints of anti-Semitism and war-torn Europe.
The first wave of Jews that settled in Sonoma County came in the mid-1800s, mostly from Russia and other Eastern European shtetls. Yiddish, leftist politics and industriousness reigned. They forged a unique, mostly non-religious community that welcomed in other Jews.
Up until the early 1950s, when egg prices plummeted, chicken farming provided a good income. When the industry moved to southern states, the Jewish chicken ranchers of Petaluma adapted and took on other occupations.
When the Schuman family arrived, the egg industry was nearing its final run. Yet much of Petaluma’s farmland was occupied, so they settled to the north, farther off than other Jewish families, in Sebastopol.
“The only people who lived there were Mexicans and wanderers — hobos — and Oakies, who were migrants,” he said, adding that only three Jewish families lived nearby, and they were Communists who kept a low profile.
At 71, Schuman is spritely. He smiles readily, his blue eyes light up as he easily recalls his stories, as if they happened a week ago. He laughs and jokes and sprinkles in Yiddish terms as he remembers the details of his life.
Schuman was born on Feb. 2, 1944 in a Belarusian forest, where his Polish mother, Luba, and her siblings were hiding from the Nazis. They spent much of their time in an underground bunker with a band of Jews, Poles and Jewish soldiers who had deserted the Russian army. The Red Army air-dropped food and vodka — and weapons, as a means to fight against the Nazis.
In the winter of 1943, the Red Army drafted all available men, including Jews such as Schuman’s father, Velvel Roza, and sent them to the frontlines. Luba was pregnant with Herschel at the time, and the group urged her to abort the fetus.
“She was very stubborn,” said Lena Hahn-Schuman, Herschel’s wife.“Otherwise, Herschel wouldn’t be here today.”
When Luba gave birth, Velvel’s unit was in Poland, and he died never meeting his son.
In the summer of 1944, the area Herschel and his family were hiding in was liberated, and the family found housing near Minsk. They waited out the war, and then returned to their native Poland in 1945.
“No one was left. There was nothing. It was just dirt. Everything was burned to a crisp,” Herschel said.
Eventually, the family arrived in a displaced persons camp in Schwandorf, Germany, where Herschel’s mother met the man who would become her second husband, Tsuvik Schuman.
“He was a mamzer,” Herschel recalled, using Yiddish to describe his charming, cunning and industrious stepfather.
Through various enterprises, Tsuvik earned enough money to take his family to the United States, and he got them free passage on an American Victory ship. “All we ate were oranges and hard-boiled eggs and a little bit of bread,” Herschel remembered.
After arriving in New York, the family took a cross-country train to Oakland, arriving in 1949. Cousins on his mother’s side who had emigrated before the war met them at the station and helped them get settled.
But Herschel’s parents hated living in the city, so when Luba’s brother, Sam, brought news of a Jewish community in Petaluma, they saved up for a move to Sonoma County in 1950.
“Petaluma was saturated already between the Jewish farms and the gentile farms, and there was not a lot of farms available to either rent or buy,” Herschel said.
He remembers his Uncle Sam wondering why the Jews hadn’t expanded beyond Petaluma. “Sebastopol is beautiful, and there’s hardly anybody here! It’s quiet, there’s a few little chicken farms, but it’s mostly apples.”
Land in the sleepy town was cheaper and available; many of the farms had been owned by Japanese families who were interned during World War II and lost everything. Herschel’s family, with financial help from Hebrew Free Loan and guidance from the B’nai Israel community in Petaluma, bought 10 acres.
“Being a farmer was a matter of necessity,” he said. “We had to do something that would keep us in one place.”
They raised chickens, beef and veal, and later expanded their business, selling chickens to stores in San Francisco and then starting their own scrap metal business. Herschel helped with all the businesses while attending school and working at the local fire department.
Through the hardships of war and making a new life in America, Herschel and his family valued community. Human generosity and kindness got them through the worst of times, and when they discovered that American Nazis lived down the road, Communists lived up the road and a Japanese farmer who had been interned lived next door, it didn’t faze them.
“We all survived. We all got along,” Herschel said. “Everybody knew the stories, everybody knew what had been done to them, but we never talked about it.”
By the time Herschel graduated from Analy High School in 1962, the Schuman family knew the farm could not provide a sustainable living. So after high school, he pursued a career in plumbing and pipefitting and raised two children.
But through his life, he always has used his strong sense of survival as a buttress. His wife, Lena, said this quest to survive manifests in everything he touches. When he builds something he overbuilds it so it will never break. He takes good care of his health and stays physically strong.
Outside, where he’s most comfortable, he marvels at his bees (he has four colonies) as they collect nectar from his flowers. He says he is impressed with their tenacity and agility, but he may as well be looking in a mirror.
He farms as a hobby these days, and he and Lena raise plants to sell in the spring.
The chickens in the coop come up to the fence as he approaches, expecting a handout. The turkeys are vocal, hoping to ward off the possible danger affronting them. The ducks are hiding under the wooden henhouse.
But there’s no time to dally and schmooze. Herschel, like he always has, gets back to work, tending to the chores of the day. The crops won’t water themselves.