Commentary Magazine

From Coalinga to the Negev

The first news report of the day in English spills forth from Kol Yisrael at 7 A.M. with a brassy fanfare of Artza Alinu. Too often that musical measure sounds the brightest riff of the ensuing quarter-hour. Still, like everyone here—fourth-generation Jerusalemite and born-again newcomer alike—we are addicted to our twice daily news fix. It was different when we lived in California’s San Joaquin Valley, fortified within a ranch-style world. The most appalling news would float benignly and touch down elsewhere.

The hour is a poor one for concentration. The latest dispatches surface amid the ceaseless chatter of our two kindergartners: inflationary percentages, political in-fighting, another war casualty. A wry look or exclamation generally suffices for commentary—but not on the morning of May 3, 1983. Far more than for any other Israeli residents, the news for Marcia and me exploded with great force, and our perfunctory shushing of the kids grew suddenly urgent. Even an outbreak of hostilities could not have mobilized us more. A major earthquake had struck central California. We abandoned breakfast and hovered over the radio like late moths of the morning. The place hardest hit was Coalinga, a town of 6,000 some sixty miles southwest of Marcia’s home town of Fresno. Hundreds of houses were damaged; the downtown was a shambles; dozens of fires were raging; scores of people were injured. Our eyes sought each other unbelievingly. Coalinga!

Remote, bucolic Coalinga, the America our two teenagers best recall when so moved, for nearly seven years our last stand in America, Coalinga was the epicenter of the day’s headline fury. Had we heard that Begin and Arafat had been discovered secretly convening in Nepal or that the messiah had revealed himself in New Zealand, our amazement could not have been greater. We couldn’t fathom it, but there it was that evening on television, a lengthy clip from one of the American networks: buildings razed, neighbors in tents, a sea of distraught faces. How we peered into that little screen for a flick of the familiar and how raveled the skein of thought.



We first arrived in Coalinga in 1969 at the end of a three-year tunnel of counter-educational, antiwar activism in New York City where I helped direct an experimental college at Fordham University. The constant state of embattlement had left us exhausted, and a slot teaching English in a small college pocketed in the foothills not far from Fresno seemed a remedy. A year earlier we had vaguely considered aliyah to Israel; now we desired a peaceful refuge. Our focus would shift to raising our two preschoolers, a garden, and our spent spirits. Emerson several times offers an apt tidal metaphor for the larger phases of our lives: we were ebbing out. But after a 3,000-mile journey into the sun, we felt refreshed and ready to wade into our new lives in classic American fashion.

Coalinga is Gothic American-Western. It saddles a small plateau above the first range of hills of the Great Valley. Undulating hills on three sides are leased by Shell, Standard, and Getty—an oil field producing diminishing returns of oil and revenue to support local services. The situation has been chronic for some decades now, but still hundreds of grasshopper oil rigs—some gaudily done up as kangaroos and rabbits—dance back and forth in an endless marathon. And the “oil people” constitute one of the important groups who comprise the town.

Twelve miles to the east, where the highway rises to cross the interstate, an enormous feedlot is host to some 50,000 head of cattle, surely more than in all Israel. With their thousands of acres and cattle, the ranches of the American West both overstimulate and overwhelm the popular Israeli imagination for which Dallas reigns as a supreme metaphor. Whereas most “hands” live on the ranch, many of the owners have family homes in Coalinga; several were our immediate, Yale Avenue neighbors. They are a small but highly influential segment of “Old Coalinga” people.

In addition there are business and real-estate people, Anglo working folks, college people, other teachers, retirees, and Chicanos. Most outlying Valley towns are predominantly Chicano, but Coalinga is mainline Anglo, its origins fueled by energy rather than grapes or tomatoes. The various groups interact largely among themselves, save for intermingling at the Catholic and outreach churches (especially the Mormon), civic extravaganzas like Horned Toad Derby Day, and the regular gatherings of men and lady Moose, Elks, Rotarians, and Lions. With one exception, none of Coalinga’s four Jewish families was active in any of these organizations, though we gradually discovered more former Jews and Jewish descendants in the town’s churches than we had any notion of initially.

Depending on the sophistication of the observer, we “real” Jews were viewed somewhere along a scale between heathen intellectuals and a variant sort of Seventh Day Adventist. In fact, we four families, together with our erstwhile brethren, struck not merely a vertical slice of middle-class possibilities for Coalinga but, it seems to me in retrospect, a just representation of the generality of Jewish possibilities in America at large. It makes, I think, for a melancholy but instructive panorama.



The Gersteins,1 two decades our senior, had come to Coalinga a few years before us from Chicago. A talented violinist, he taught music at the college, but felt himself greatly undervalued by small-town, tone-deaf yahoos. Their son, married to a non-Jew, was an expatriate who lived in London and rarely communicated. During our second year, their artist daughter died suddenly at thirty, leaving a cloud of sadness in her wake. Their attitude toward Jewishness was a compound of pride and bitterness. They didn’t attend any synagogue service in Fresno; nor did Gerstein absent himself from classes on the High Holidays (which I did as a matter of course from the start). When some years later he requested these days and experienced some administrative flak, he complained of anti-Semitism. We were their closest friends, along with a sprinkling of other college “intellectuals” and some musical Fresno families.

The Zenders were “oil people” with two children slightly older than ours. An engineer, he came from Germany and spoke with an accent which must have sounded queer to many of the Upper South transplants among whom he worked. A diminutive but forceful woman, she came from Connecticut. The Zenders were heavily committed to psycho-emotional self-improvement; they meditated transcendentally and family-retreated, making major claims for both disciplines. For a number of years our four children attended Sunday School in Fresno together. For most of our seven Coalinga years, the Chertoks, Gersteins, and Zenders gathered together annually for a Passover seder, Hanukkah, and occasionally Sukkoth. However, since the Gersteins and Zenders tended to quarrel with each other, our joint celebrations were terminated toward the end. We remain friendly with both families.

The fourth Jewish family, the Berliners, was old-time Coalinga. They were the same age as the Gersteins. He was born and raised in Coalinga, and until he retired, owned and ran the town’s largest clothing store which had been established by his family two generations before. (Once, when touring, we were astonished by the number of Cohens and Levys on a sketch of the business district of Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880’s hanging in a local museum. But the same is true of San Francisco. In the West, Jews stand among the first families.) Berliner’s wife was an Eastern import. Always amiable in their store, they neither extended nor accepted any invitations from us or any other Jewish families. We heard that they celebrated Passover with out-of-town relatives; they didn’t attend any Fresno synagogue. Berliner was a Rotarian.



Such was the visible Jewish community of Coalinga in the 1970’s. During our seven years at its hub, we felt the continual tug of contrary forces which ultimately imperiled each other. While all too conscious of them both, it was not clear to us at the time that the kick of one was related to the suck of the other. One motion drew us centripetally; variously viewed, we were digging in, selling out, or settling down. The counter-spiral was powered by an intensifying assertion of Jewishness. I suspect we would never have moved so rapidly in this direction had not the temptations posed by Coalingahood been so profound. (The tension had been quiescent during our three-year stay in New York, but then New York was never for us a viable environment.) These counter-movements, like the subterranean plates that undergird our earth’s surface, ground inexorably past each other for a long period. When our lives were jolted—and we jilted Coalinga—we proved as startled as anyone.

Our natural element in Coalinga was reformist. After attaining tenure, I headed, in turn, the Faculty Senate, the English Department, and the Teachers’ Union. On the outside, I chaired (to my present chagrin) the area’s McGovern Election Committee. Marcia and I spark-plugged an independent Citizens’ Action Group and organized the Valley’s first chapter of Amnesty International. Marcia led a girl-scout troop, an environmental committee, and, more significant than any of the preceding, successfully ran for the local school board. In short, we found a mildly eccentric niche in the town’s civic life, in the process buoying our social lives.

We bought a vacation house on the coast. We spent hundreds of pleasant hours in gardening and house repairs, transforming the house truly into our own. A room was added. In summers we went to British Columbia or New Mexico for extensive camping trips. All in all, we were anything but discontent with the range of Coalinga possibilities. Where they didn’t exist, we created them. Our children were in good schools. Indeed, Coalinga provided precisely the safe, stable haven we had sought when our VW had nosed west out of New York in 1969, and we were settling snugly into the golden American landscape. Almost. . . .



It was only as Jews that we felt increasingly restive, particularly as our children moved along in their schooling. We joined and abandoned each of Fresno’s two congregations, even trying a synagogue at San Luis Obispo for a year. When the Conservative congregation hired an older, more learned rabbi, we rejoined it for our final two years, though by then we had become Sabbath observers, so synagogue attendance, which would have required travel, became an academic matter. (The children continued at the Reform Temple’s Sunday School in order to meet some Jewish playmates.)

Looking back, our gradual accretion of the mitzvot in the fastness of the coastal foothills seems a small miracle of perversity. We stocked our freezer with chickens and roasts acquired on our seasonal jaunts to the Bay Area, the mainstays of which were the Berkeley bookshops and the Oakland kosher butcher. The receiver of the phone was disengaged on Friday afternoon, something Ma Bell never accepted, and we fashioned a separate world of the Sabbath. After a day of total involvement with the family (friends knew we were out-of-touch), the children and I would search the dusky sky for three stars signaling havdalah, TV, phone, and Coalinga-time. Marcia and I made mysterious, monthly, evening excursions to a secluded place in the hills ten miles west of town where a mountain brook served as a mikveh, with its dark, cold waters. The final step, as I well recall, was the “beanie” I began sporting when teaching my college literature classes. As it happened, many black athletes also wore garish headgear, so I was almost fashionable.

What an odd family were the Chertoks on the local scenel We were bothered by Christmas carols in the schools, and obviously our Jewish lives were increasingly separating us from the usual round of our neighbors’ activities. But we so thoroughly enjoyed so much about our heart-of-the-country lives that I suspect we could have sustained the evident tensions past the point of psychic retreat had we not been joltingly confronted by living evidence of its deep-seated insupportability.



Coalinga then had three lawyers. We had some early dealings with two, but only encountered the third after some years. Jeff Franklin, I discovered, was a Jew married to an Episcopalian. His wife, children, and he were communicants at the local church. Friendly, he also seemed interested in our meeting socially; we invited them over for a Friday evening meal. It was a blunder. His children blurted a few questions; our response made them giggle. Their mother was stony. Franklin had negotiated a separate peace years before. We embarrassed him.

Somehow the dismay this stirred in me seemed all out of proportion to the banality of such a familiar occurrence on the American scene. What had I anticipated, after all? But still, here we were daily performing the high-wire act of sustaining ourselves as Jews in America (and we had long since realized that only the observance of mitzvot actively enhanced our Jewish well-being) and suddenly it was all too clear: no matter the degree of our dexterity, knowledge, or even daring—the odds on one or another of us slipping were inordinate. If not this generation, then the next. And the Jewish current spiraling in us would flow into larger channels, finally merging in the receptive American ocean without leaving a trace. The Franklins departed with relief, and the cheers from the nearby football field where “our” team must have scored a goal crashed louder than usual.

A few months later an item in the Fresno Bee took us aback. Fresno’s Rabbi Greenberg had officiated at a funeral in Coalinga. How could we have known nothing of it? Dead at ninety-one was Frieda Zwenger, widow of a major ranch owner in the area. I recalled I had taught what must have been her great-grandson in one of my classes. He was a quiet young man who wore cowboy boots and a prominent jeweled earring. Frieda Zwenger, we learned, was the last Jew in her family. Children and grandchildren had long since assimilated into a variety of local options. I thought of the Einlands, the prominent Fresno family of converts whose grandfather, then Einstein, had founded Fresno’s largest bank. The wayward thought that, had we known of her stubborn existence, we could have asked the old woman to a seder flitted through my mind. Now her Jewish bones were laid to rest in the California foothills, and with startling clarity, the deepest meaning of America for us, its Jews, declared itself. By 1976, two years later, we were living in Israel.

The Gersteins now live in Santa Maria where he conducts the community orchestra. The Zenders moved to Bakersfield. For reasons very different from our own, both were very happy to leave Coalinga. A few years ago we were surprised by an unannounced brief visit from the Berliners. On their first trip to Israel, enthralled with the country, they had persuaded their guide to track us down for a buoyant half-hour break in their touring. As far as I’m aware, they are the only Jewish family still residing in Coalinga.



Aftershocks of the great quake in the form of newspaper clippings sent by friends and family hit us for months afterward. I haven’t seen mention of Berliner’s name or spotted his face among the pile of clippings. Perhaps they too finally abandoned Coalinga to the Franklins, Zwengers, and the rest. Indeed, perhaps it is Skokie and Tea-neck which reflect aberrant, vestigial reflexes of false vitality, like Jewish Hans Castorps skiing down a Magic American Mountain, whereas parochial Coalinga—the Gersteins, the Zenders, the Franklins, the Berliners, and, yes, the Chertoks—define with greater accuracy the true range of response for the vast majority of America’s Jewish families.

Coalinga, its downtown a ruin, its college in serious disrepair, will surely pull itself together and rebuild. Letters from old friends make this clear. It really doesn’t need any Jews at all.


1 All names have been changed throughout this article.

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