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January 02, 2004 - Image 41

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-01-02

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Song Of The Yiddish Cowboy

Bulbes" ["Potatoes on
Sunday"]; revolutionary,
heroic songs, like the
"Partisaner Lid."
He doesn't sing them all
the time — about half his
repertoire is traditional country-western stuff— but it's
The Jerusalem Post
still mighty strange to hear such songs come out of an
American cowboy's mouth.
here aren't too many real cowboys left in
Scott Gerber is a Jewish cowboy, not only that, but a
California. Wine grapes have squeezed out a
dyed-in-the-wool, Yiddish-speaking cowboy, the third
lot of the old ranching land, and the open
generation of his family to work the land, a self-
range has given way to huge corporate cattle farms,
described member of the agricultural working class in a
with animals in pens rather than running free across
country where Jews have no historic ties to farming or
the plains.
ranching. He's a real anomaly.
That makes 45-year-old Scott Gerber part of a dying
"There's not a lot of Jewish cowboys that I know of,"
breed — a real ranch hand who works the land and
he said. 'As far as anyone of my generation, I think I'm
runs cattle for "the boss man" up in
the only one.
Petaluma, a rural town barely an
Gerber is the subject of Song of the
hour's drive north of San Francisco.
Jewish Cowboy, an 18-minute docu-
Gerber lives in a ramshackle rented
mentary by Berkeley filmmaker
cabin on his employer's ranch, sleeps
Bonnie Burt that debuted in fall 2002
on a mattress on the floor, has a horse,
at the San Francisco Jewish Film
three dogs and a couple of chickens
out in the yard and works for wages.
It has since been traveling the North
He wears faded jeans, a work shirt,
American Jewish film festival circuit,
muddy boots and a white cowboy hat.
along with A Home on the Range: The
He's got a moustache and speaks in
Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma, a
the slow, Western drawl of a 1950s
full-length documentary by Burt and
her partner Judith Montell that tells
And — it's almost too good to be
the story of a unique, left-wing Jewish
true — he sings and plays guitar,
farming community that used to
sometimes even around a campfire to
inhabit this part of northern
entertain other cowboys. But — and
here the stereotype ends — he sings
Burt ran into Gerber a couple of
those songs in Yiddish: old Labor
years ago while she was filming A
Scott Gerber: feel really
Zionist songs, like "Dona, Dona";
Home on the Range. She included him
proud that In2 working the
songs from the shtetl, like "Zuntig
in that movie, but found his personal
land as a Jew.

story so fascinating that she decided to make a com-
panion piece just about Gerber.
Making a historical documentary is one thing, but
it's not often you run into a living, breathing, 45-year-
old Yiddish-speaking Jewish cowboy," said Burt.
"I kept wanting to include more and more of him in
the first film.
Gerber was born in Petaluma in 1958, at the tail end
of a short-lived chicken-farming experiment in cooper-
ative agricultural living. While their brothers and sisters
were draining the swamps of the Galilee, several hun-
dred ideologically motivated East European Jews left
the sweatshops of New York and Chicago in the early
years of the last century to "return to the land."
They moved west to Petaluma, a chicken-ranching
town already known as "the egg basket of the world,"
and went into the same business, maintaining their
own Jewish, politically left-wing community side-by-
side (though not always compatibly) with the non-
Jewish, much more conservative, small-town native
farmers and ranchers.
In the 1930s, Gerber's Ukrainia4i-born great-
uncles Sol and Al came to Petaluma from Chicago
to start up their own chicken ranches.
"Even in the Old Country, Sol raised calves and
chickens and ducks," said Gerber. "He was a little guy
who used to drive a horse and wagon. He loved agri-
culture. He inspired me a lot."
Gerber's parents also dabbled in the chicken business,
but gave it up when he was a baby, moving about nine
miles away to raise geese instead. But Sol and Al's
chicken ranches lasted until Gerber was in his teens,
and he learned from them a love of the land and a
commitment to working with animals.
He also learned their political line — a strictly left-
wing one.
"On my dad's side, they were all good union men,
but my mother's

of the classroom. "The classroom
process of learning about religion was
interesting, but it wasn't really what I
was excited about," he recalled. "I
[wanted to] learn how people practice
and why people practice."
Now 29, Levinson — a second-
year law student at the University of Chicago — has a
new book out, All

Buddhists, Muslims,
neo-pagans, witches,
Native Americans and
practitioners of voodoo
and Transcendental
The road-trip concept
was central to his plan
because of the economy
of driving as well as the
fanciful, Jack Kerouac-
esque notion of travel-
ing the open road.
"There was a roman-
tic idea of the road
trip," said Levinson. "In Author Tom Levinson
America, we love the
idea of getting up and
going, getting up and driving — Lech rcha (go). "
Some of Levinson's interviews were planned; others
were spontaneous. The first stop along his journey was a
halal .(set of dietary restrictions for Muslims) market in
Dayton, Ohio. He hadn't sought the market out, but
had simply spotted the Arabic writing on the storefront.
The discovery seemed almost providential to
Levinson. There, he met an Iraqi named Hayder
Almosawi, who
ARE You THERE on page 42

Cattle and mameloshen in California.




Are You There, God?

Author searches for the Almighty in America.


JUF News


rowing up on the East Side of Manhattan,
Tom Levinson knew the guy who ran his
neighborhood deli better than he knew his
own rabbi. Sure, Levinson celebrated his bar mitzvah
because it was the thing to do, but he knew very little
about Judaism.
A history of religion class during his senior year in
high school, though, piqued his curiosity and altered
the course of his future. The class interested him so
much that he became a religion major during college.
Though Levinson was fascinated by all religions,
including Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, he
found he wanted to delve deeper into Judaism. So
much so that this "doubting Thomas," as he labeled
his childhood self, even considered becoming a rabbi.
Instead, he opted to attend Harvard Divinity School
to learn more about other faiths as well as his own.
But Levinson yearned to take his learning outside

That's Holy: A Young Guy, An Old Cai; and the Search
for God in America (Jossey-Bass; $23.95).

It's the story of Levinson's three-month road trip,
when he drove his beat-up old Nissan around the
country looking for conversations with people about
faith. On his journey — to Levinson's surprise — he
discovered his own.
His trip took place in the summer and fall of 1999.
The world picture was rosier then: The economy was
still robust; it was pre-9/11; carnage in Israel and the
"new anti-Semitism" had yet to poison the atmos-
phere; and the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic
Church hadn't yet been revealed.
Age 25 and living in Boston at the time, Levinson
traveled the country, going from mosque to chapel to
synagogue, conversing with the faithful, seeking to
understand their beliefs. Along the way — in big
cities and small towns — he met Christians, Jews,




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