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Petaluma's Inclusive Center for Jewish Life

Finding Direction by Looking Back

03/26/2020 02:00:51 PM


Ruth Wilson

During these unsettling times, I find comfort in looking back and learning how people coped with and often rose above challenges in their lives. As a relative newcomer to the B’nai Israel community I have always wanted to know more about its storied history that began in the 1860s. Many of us own or have heard about Comrades and Chicken Ranchers,[1] Kenneth Kann’s collection of interviews that included the Russian Jewish immigrants from the turn of the 20th century, to successive waves of settlers from mid- to late-century. Under the Fair Use doctrine, I offer a short excerpt. N.B. the names of the interviewees have been changed. I wish it weren’t so but I understand why the author chose to do it.

from Ch. 8 When There’s A War It Gets Busy

Diana Rabin Hartman (b. 1925 Petaluma)

The war was marvelous! Absolutely marvelous!! Right near Petaluma was Hamilton Air Force Base, the Coast Guard at Two Rock Ranch, the cavalry at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds. Boys everywhere! I had a lot of fun!

The war didn’t really hit me until my brother got drafted. Before that, when a girlfriend got me a date with a soldier from Hamilton Field, I was afraid to tell my mother. Jewish girls did not go out with soldiers! They were the dregs of the earth! But when nice Jewish boys from Petaluma became soldiers, it was entirely different. That’s when this nonreligious Jewish community started holding Oneg Shabbat, Friday-night services. So the Jewish soldiers in the area would have someplace to go. It brought all the Jewish soldiers into the Center! Non-Jewish boys came too. Oh, we had a lot of boys around.

I met my husband at one of those Friday-night services. He didn’t have a chance, poor guy. I met him in February of 1943 and we announced our engagement at the community seder in the spring. Joe Holtzman toasted us with champagne!

We had a huge wedding. Everybody came – 400 people. This was wartime, so the whole community gave sugar stamps for the cake. All the women helped with the cooking. Bill’s parents flew out from New York for the wedding. They were very religious – sixteen sets of dishes – you couldn’t mix anything – kosher kosher. When they arrived my mother-in-law asked, “Who is the shoykhet [ritual slaughter] for all this chicken at the wedding dinner?”

Bill says, “Me! I string up the chickens, take the knife, and whoosh – slit their throats!” [Much laughter.]

She almost had a heart attack.

We tried our best to have a real Jewish wedding. Rabbi Solomon Platt came up from San Francisco to marry us. We had the whole thing – the khupe [traditional wedding canopy], the banquet, music, dancing. We did it all after dark, do everyone had time to put their chickens to sleep.

[1] Comrades and Chicken Ranchers, Kenneth L. Kann, 1993, Cornell University Press

Thu, June 1 2023 12 Sivan 5783