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January 02, 2004 - Image 42

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

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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YIDDISH COWBOY from page 41

ARE YOU THERE from page 41

parents were Communist Party mem-
bers, real selfless people," Gerber relat-
ed. "My parents weren't in the party,
but they were real left-wingers, Red
Diaper babies. I learned from them
about the robber barons who steal
from the working people.
'I know there are Jews who aren't left-
wing, but for me, that's part of it — to
be class-conscious, to care about the
people who don't have, because that's
how I grew up. A lot of cowboys identi-
fy with the ranchers, but I believe that as
a Jew, as an American, I'm part of the
working class:'
Gerber started working with chickens
when he was 16. He moved on to
orchards, and then to shearing sheep.
After two seasons of that backbreaking
labor, he headed up to Oregon when he..
was 21, determined to become a cowboy.
That's what he's done ever since,
working on cattle ranches throughout
California and into Montana and
Nevada before settling back in Petaluma
about 18 years ago.
The ranch he now works on has 92
mother cows, down from 400.
"They put in grapes on the other
ranch, and squeezed out the cows,"
Gerber commented.
Gerber and the other hired hands
herd calves every fall and take care of the
young ones until they're shipped to
slaughterhouses the following summer.
He does all the feeding and doctoring of
the calves, including vaccinating and cas-
trating the males.
"I'm-the mohel around here," he
quipped.
The only thing Gerber has ever done
besides cowboying, he says, is play
music. That, too, runs in the family. He
learned the old Yiddish songs from his
Grandma Lit, "a real left-winger" who
kept up her Yiddish and taught it to her
children and her children's children.
At the same time, he learned
American progressive folksongs from his
mother, particularly the songs of Pete
Seeger and Paul Robeson.
-
"The social justice songs and the old
Yiddish songs, I remember hearing them
when I was little," he said. "The old sto-
ries about life in the Old Country
always meant so much to me."
When Gerber was 19, he formed a
band with his younger sister Nina, and
they cut a record of Yiddish, Russian
and American folksongs. Nina soon
went off on her own, and is now a pro-
fessional singer .F1

had fled to southern Ohio with his
brothers in 1992 after the first Gulf -
War.
One of I,ev
- inson's most powerful
conversations occurred in Raleigh,
N.C., with a death-row prisoner nine
days before his execution. Convicted of
a 1983 double murder, Harvey Lee
Green became a born-again Christian
while on death row.
-
Levinson's interview with Green took
place during the Days of Awe, the
reflective 10-clay -period between Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The
author said he felt power in sharing his
Jewishness with this man, "discussing
the idea of redemption with a man who
faced his own imminent execution."
This was a turning point for
Levinson. At the onset of his trip, he
classified his project as an oral history
of other people's religions. In the end,
he realized the story was more autobio-,
graphical. Discovering faith in America
was inter-
twined with
revealing his
own beliefs.
During his
journey,
Levinson
began to face
his own inse-
curities about
why he need-
ed to take this
trip-in the
first place. "If
Jewishness is
so much
about comrnunity,".he wondered, "why
am I so focused on doing.this solo' trip
and finding community in places that
are so distinct and disparate from my
own community tradition?"
To Levinson, the trip felt safe. "It felt
comfortable professing my questions,
my inquisitiveness to people I didn't
know, who I didn't haw to have an
ongoing conversation with," he said.
During his journey, Levinson discov-
ered why he had been raised in such a
secular Jewish environment. His rela.-
fives like so many — had fled to
America to escape pogroms in Eastern
Europe during the early part of the
20th century. When they arrived, _they
found that as Americans, they didn't
have to live in the shadow of their
faith, a realization that caused them to
distance themselves from their Judaism.
"But just as America affords an
unprecedented opportunity to leave
behind the traditions of your home-
land," said Levinson, "it also affords
the opportunity to reclaim those tra-
ditions." Li

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