A Conversation with Filmmaker Bonnie Burt

By Ronnie Friedland

May 3, 2007


As I interviewed Bonnie Burt about her two recent films–A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma and Song of a Jewish Cowboy–I was stunned at how much I didn’t know about this old friend.

Although we had met in elementary school and had stayed in touch since then, it wasn’t until our recent phone interview that Bonnie told me her paternal grandmother and her father’s siblings (though not Burt’s own parents), were card-carrying communists. It wasn’t a topic that we broached in the New Jersey suburb where we grew up in the Red-bating 1950s.

Burt, a warm, vibrant and outgoing woman who is now active in her Conservative synagogue, recalls that she had never seen a haggadah until she became an adult. When her secular communist relatives came to celebrate Passover at her house, they spent the evening arguing politics rather than retelling the Passover story.

This family background sparked Burt’s life-long interest in politics and fostered her affinity for others who shared her relatives’ commitment to social action and justice–such as the secular Jewish chicken farmers in Petaluma, California, whose lives she documented in her new film, A Home on the Range.

She can thank her old friend Leonard Fein, the well-known columnist and activist, for sparking her interest in Petaluma.

In 1985, when Fein heard that Burt planned to move to Northern California from Cambridge, Massachusetts, he suggested that she look up the left-wing community of Jewish chicken farmers there.

At that time, Burt, who had been a therapist and then a photographer, had recently completed her first film, about her Uncle Ben–who, true to the family’s left-wing ethos, had fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War against Franco.

Burt says that while each of her careers has accommodated her fascination with people’s stories, it is film that enables her to most satisfactorily combine her visual interests with the stories. “When I was doing photography,” she says, “I also used writing on the photographs to combine word and image. In Boston [where she lived in the 1970s and early 1980s], I took a Super-8 film course because I felt that I needed more than still images to tell the story.”

Thanks to the special bond she felt with her own progressive family, Burt was intrigued by Fein’s suggestion to look up the former Petaluma residents.

Eventually, after taking time to marry and have a son, she did locate some of the people who had participated in the chicken farming community in Petaluma, many of their children, now in their 70s, and even some grandchildren. Finding her subjects was a challenge, but through contacts her Uncle Sam had made over many years as president of the furrier’s union, Burt did locate one person, who then led her to others.

As she met the families of the Jewish chicken farmers, Burt felt great affection and empathy for them. Like her father’s family, they were Jews from Eastern Europe who had immigrated without knowing any English. They then went on to create a socially conscious community where people looked out for and helped one another. In free moments, they gathered for reading or study groups, lectures and theatre, creating a vibrant intellectual life, as well as a politically active one.

Aware that the surviving members of the Petaluma community were not getting any younger, Burt decided to document their experiences with a tape recorder. As she interviewed them, she used skills she had honed as a therapist to help them feel comfortable enough to open up.

As she became involved with the people of Petaluma, Burt also completed documentaries on compelling Jewish subjects–Coming of Age: Adult Bat Mitzvah; a trilogy about the Jews of Cuba [The Believers: Stories from Jewish Havana, Abraham and Eugenia: Stories from Jewish Cuba, and Trip to Jewish Cuba]; and Trees Cry For Rain, a film about about a Sephardic Jew who traces her ancestry back to pre-Inquisition Spain. Then, in 1992, in honor of the 500-year commemoration of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Burt was invited to Madrid to show Trees Cry for Rain. At the Jewish film festival there, she encountered Judith Montell, another California-based filmmaker who had also made a film about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Sharing a commitment to left-wing causes and an admiration for the politics of the Jewish farmers in Petaluma, Burt and Montell decided to collaborate on a documentary film about the community of progressive Jews who had lived there. They spent nine years working on and seeking financing to complete A Home on the Range. Finally, with funding from the California Council for the Humanities, the Pioneer Fund, and the Nathan Cummings Fund, it was finished in 2002, just in time for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival–where it was a hit.

For Burt, At Home on the Range raises the fundamental question: How are we Jewish today?

“Our generation of Jews is trying to define how we will hold on to Judaism,” she says, “and it isn’t clear yet.”

The answer, so far, varies among people.

For Scott Gerber, a Jewish cowboy who was intermarried and is featured in two of Burt’s films, being Jewish meant singing Yiddish songs and teaching his daughter Leah Jewish culture.

For Burt herself, being Jewish means documenting the past as well as taking on an active role in her Conservative synagogue. Her husband Mark Liss had grown up in a Conservative synagogue, and so when it came time for them to choose a congregation, they decided to affiliate with a Conservative one. While saying Kaddish (a prayer extolling God that is said by mourners) for her father, Burt grew close with the older generation in her congregation and feels lucky to have found a sense of community there.

“They’re my West Coast family, like aunts and uncles,” Burt says, although her left-wing relatives, who were all secular, “would probably have been shocked” at her synagogue involvement.

Burt believes that the story of the Jewish chicken farmers and their families conveys the arc of Jewish history in the twentieth century: the movement from poor immigrants to more assimilated children to more fully assimilated and intermarried grandchildren.

She particularly wanted to document this history for her 16-year-old son Adam and his generation, who know so little about this rich and intriguing episode in Jewish American life. “It is so important to know our history, where we come from,” Burt says.

To this interviewer, it is clear that A Home on the Range pulled together several strands of Burt’s identity–her passion for Jewish history and people’s stories; her secular, left-wing family; her skills as an interviewer; and her visual perceptions, shsarpened over the years she was a photographer.

To see A Home on the Range in your area, check with your local Jewish film festival. You can also order any of Burt’s films directly from her at www.bonnieburt.com. For more information on the Jewish chicken farmers, look for Comrades and Chicken Ranchers: The Story of a California Jewish Community, by Ken Kann, published by Cornell U. Press.


About Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.