“Who said Jews could not be farmers? Spit in his eye, who would so harm us?” Scott Gerber, a former resident of Petaluma, belts out the lyrics to his acoustic guitar. Although the chicken ranches in Petaluma have more recently been abandoned, Scott has maintained his Jewish culture and his love for the land, working as a cowboy and singing Yiddish folk songs.
A Home on the Range shows old photographs and archival color footage of Petaluma that bring the town to life. These visuals, along with interviews of former residents, reconstruct an idealistic society that put in hard work collecting and cleaning eggs but enjoyed lectures given by top notch Jewish poets and philosophers given at the Community Hall. United by their culture, the Jews of Petaluma cared for one another as extended family and survived the antisemitism of pre-World War II and anticommunist sentiments of the McCarthy era. But with time and assimilation, the quirky community dwindled, and, today, their chicken ranches have been replaced by telecommunication, dairy farms and vineyards.
For many of the Jews in Petaluma, Judaism was more of a culture than a religion. One former resident says that people kept the holidays for the social attachment, and another spouts, “Judaism—there wasn't any!” In fact, when they were building their meeting hall it was almost unanimously decided to not build a synagogue—until they learned it could be a tax write off. For them, Judaism had nothing to do with God. Instead, it meant that they spoke Yiddish, ate matzah, and wanted to form a kibbutz. But most of all, it meant they were outsiders to American society. They were second rate citizens, called names, and not allowed in Country Clubs.
They had fled pogroms in Russia and antisemitism in urban America to live in a rural Jewish community, but still they faced antisemitism from their surrounding neighbors. One woman remembers, “they used to call us dirty Jew.” And another woman remembers a particularly frightening night when an antisemitic neighbor threw a barn party and the drunk and rowdy crowd terrified her parents so much that they couldn't sleep that night. These incidents ingrained the Jews with a painful feeling of being “lesser” than other Americans. But nothing can compare to the violent night that Gentile leaders in the neighboring community took out their antisemitism and anticommunist fears through brute force against the men of Petaluma.
It wasn't prejudice that destroyed their community, but acceptance. Once Jewish Americans were no longer looked down on, they assimilated into society, and the vibrant community of chicken ranchers in Petaluma dwindled. One former resident who grew up on a ranch and raised her children on a ranch expresses her mixed feelings about assimilation. She pines that she lost, “the core” sense of attachment, but in exchange, “we were accepted as Americans.”
For the past twenty years, Bonnie Burt has been making documentaries about Jewish life. Her films have screened at the Museum of Modern Art and at Lincoln Center in New York. Bonnie says she'd heard about Petaluma before she moved to California from the East Coast. It wasn't until 1992 at the Madrid Jewish Film Festival that she teamed up with Judy Montell, and the two began to work on the project together.
A Home on the Range was well received. The San Diego Jewish Film Festival called it a modest film that "reads almost like an epic myth." Other reviews praised it for being a through and entertaining documentary that raises issues that are still relevant in Jewish American society today.