The Search for Utopia Reaches the End of the Road in ‘American Commune’
Sex and drugs and Passover Seders: In a new documentary, two sisters reflect on their years on The Farm in the 1970s
On an autumn day in 1970, Jan Spigelman boarded a caravan of converted school buses in northern California along with a few hundred other hippies and set out across America in search of utopia. The Beverly Hills-bred daughter of the chief of surgery at Cedars-Sinai, niece of an Orthodox rabbi, veteran of Brandeis Camp Institute, and confirmand of Sinai Temple on Wilshire Boulevard, Spigelman was 23 at the time. She had studied English at Berkeley, although her attention had increasingly shifted toward Eastern spirituality and other popular preoccupations of the day—peace, love, etc.—which had led her to the popular Monday night classes taught in San Francisco by a fellow named Stephen Gaskin.
Gaskin, a lanky and captivating former Marine, drew throngs of young people to his weekly this-dimension exegeses of the revelations they were all having on LSD, and eventually he floated the idea that they needed to go back to the land to live their values. The result, after a five-month pilgrimage, was the settlement of The Farm, a 1,700-acre tract in the Tennessee backwoods that grew to become the largest commune in the country. That’s where Spigelman’s bus trip ended.
Her daughters Nadine Mundo and Rena Mundo Croshere tell the story of The Farm in their new documentary American Commune, which will have its U.S. premiere this week at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The dominant cultural verdict about hippies was, and basically still is, that they were drug-fogged kids with naive ideas about the world that dissolved as soon as they shed their love beads and the music died. While elements of this caricature are no doubt true, what’s most remarkable about American Commune is that it manages a level of nuance that’s rare in depictions of the era, poignantly challenging the usual snide tropes about the period’s idealism without sugarcoating it either.
The Mundo sisters are a couple of stylish, cosmopolitan TV producers whom one probably wouldn’t guess grew up on a commune. They structure the film around their first visit to Tennessee since they left in 1985 as preteens, weaving their personal family history through the larger tale of The Farm and soberly reflecting on the unusual, sometimes painful circumstances of their childhood. The details of how their mother met their father, Jose Mundo, a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx, are hazy. (“It had something to do with a VW van and a holy-man jam,” Nadine says in the film.) But what is certain is that after Gaskin decreed that his followers quit using birth control due to its chemical makeup, it wasn’t long before Jan and Jose were expecting a baby. In the film, Jan Mundo—née Spigelman—admits her early apprehensions about the relationship but says she was nervous about going it alone, and anyway, they didn’t have much of a choice, according to another of Gaskin’s doctrinal rules: “If you’re balling, you’re engaged, and if you’re pregnant, you’re married.”
The young couple was high on mushrooms when Gaskin performed their marriage ceremony in the woods in 1972, and Jan’s parents, who had flown in from Los Angeles for the occasion, looked on in befuddlement as their daughter and new son-in-law greeted well-wishers inside a teepee. The Mundos spent the following years building The Farm along with hundreds of others who had taken official vows of poverty, turned over their assets and inheritances to the commune, and dived into learning to survive on the land—a challenging feat for a bunch of mostly middle-class exiles.
As depicted in a rich trove of archival footage, much of which the directors unearthed in a trailer back in Tennessee, The Farm members lived at first in giant army tents that were sectioned off with hanging Indian blankets to create bedrooms for four families, centered around communal cooking, eating, and living spaces. They plowed and planted, hoed and harvested. They built roads and houses and a school and small businesses, including a publishing company and a soy dairy. They hewed to a strictly vegan diet and established a thriving midwifery program as they pumped out babies by the hundred. (Ina May Gaskin, Stephen’s wife, became a world-renowned midwife and the author of the book Spiritual Midwifery.) They established a humanitarian organization that sent aid missions everywhere from Guatemala to the South Bronx. By the late 1970s, the commune had grown to around 1,500 members.
There was nothing expressly Jewish about The Farm, but Jewish kids were heavily represented there, accounting for between 25 and 40 percent of the population, according to rough estimates solicited on a Facebook group of original members. They were drawn, presumably, by the same preternatural utopian impulse that gave us communism, kibbutzim, and other Jewish-led efforts for a more perfect world. And although they initially eschewed the doctrines of their youths in favor of universal consciousness, Jewish culture always seemed to have an informal little place there.
I asked Jan Mundo and another original Farm member, Phil Schweitzer, about this, and they recalled Gaskin including wisdom from the Baal Shem Tov and Martin Buber in his wide-ranging stew of spiritual teachings. They also recounted a memorable night in 1976 when Shlomo Carlebach paid a visit and commune members who knew and loved the so-called singing rabbi from his House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco packed The Farm’s community center to hear him play. The most colorful tale Mundo and Schweitzer shared was about a member who rescued her great-uncle from a Florida nursing home and brought him to happily live out his last years on the commune. Uncle Bill, as he was known, was born in Poland and had spent most of his life as a delicatessen manager in New York. At The Farm, he was revered as a wise elder and celebrated for the vegan versions he concocted of Eastern European staples like onion rolls, knishes, and pickled “herring” made from eggplant.
Although exploration of universal consciousness was at the core of spirituality on The Farm, as people had kids some regained an interest in the traditions they were raised with. Jan Mundo went to her first Passover Seder on The Farm at a neighbor’s army tent in 1973, and she started making her own annual Seders in 1977, with dozens of people packed around huge tables, eating handmade matzo and reading from mimeographed Haggadahs that, in their meditations on human rights and liberation, perfectly aligned with the ethos of the commune.
“For me, being Jewish was cultural and heart-related rather than about laws and rules,” she told me. “I kind of re-found my personal connection to it through that feeling of celebrating freedom.”
Although The Farm flourished in many ways, problems persisted both within families and on the commune at large. The family effects seem to have been particularly damaging for the children born of “four-marriages,” a situation in which two couples married each other as an expression of nonattachment and a vehicle toward enlightenment. The film includes a wrenching interview with Genevieve Perkins, a young woman who grew up as the product of a four-marriage—her “parents” had seven children among them, although she was the only product of her biological parents’ coupling—and the pain she recounts is halting. “I didn’t understand why, but I hated my parents, and I hated the whole hippie thing,” she says. “They fought all the time.”
The Mundo family was more typically structured but not much less fraught; Nadine and Rena were hyper-aware of near-constant tension and bickering between their parents. It was only as adults that they could fully process the marriage in the context of the commune.
“Our parents were so invested in saving the world that they sacrificed their personal relationship for that, which was sort of the Catch-22 of The Farm,” Rena told me. “There was this feeling like they had to maintain their relationship when they were never really happy together.”
The commune came to a crossroads in 1983, facing mounting debt and an inability to support the burden of its own booming population with limited income. In an event known as “the changeover,” members of The Farm voted to decollectivize and became a membership-based community in which people maintained their own livelihoods and finances. The vast majority left.
Jan and Jose Mundo stuck around for a couple more rocky years, but in 1985, they divorced and went their separate ways. The Mundo sisters ended up in southern California with their mom and, as told in a section of the film that’s both hilarious and moving, went about the adopting the peculiar mores of the land like aliens who had arrived from another planet. Outwardly, they shellacked themselves with make-up, donned Spandex, and grooved to Deee-lite. Inwardly, they absorbed the dual traumas of their parents’ split and of being wrenched from the only world they had ever known. They hid what they regarded as their shameful past.
The commune’s end as a commune per se would seem to cement its legacy as a failure, but as with any family history—and The Farm seems to have been nothing so much as a massive extended family—it’s more complicated than that. Its imperfections sit beside its considerable achievements. The Mundo sisters reflect that their childhood was amazing in a lot of ways, something they’ve come to appreciate in reckoning with it as adults. They grew up in a tight-knit community of people who took care of each other, and, divorced from American material culture, they didn’t crave possessions or place any value on how they looked. The particular beauty of life on The Farm—beaming packs of children tromping through fields to school, residing in collective houses with their friends, and roaming through the woods full of pluck and freedom—is visceral in American Commune. As Nadine recalls wistfully in the film: “I remember never wanting the day to end.”
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