University of Washington Press, 2009
Paperback, 306 pages
Photographs, Appendices, Bibliography, Notes, General Index and Name Index
Historian Charles Le Warne’s book The Love Israel Family: Urban Commune, Rural Commune adds an important new chapter to the study of U. S. intentional communities. Any commune that lasts more than 35 years -- as Love Israel’s did -- deserves special note but the Family story also has particular significance for readers of Pacific Northwest history since it takes place in our region and is close to us in time.
The Love Israel Family’s charismatic leader, Paul Erdmann, was born in Berlin in 1940. Paul fled Germany with his family during the war years and eventually settled in Seattle. In the 1960s he became part of the colorful countercultural movement. Like many of his contemporaries, Erdmann rejected mainstream values and adopted Eastern philosophy, meditation, and drugs to define new beliefs. Experiencing a spiritual awakening, he changed his name to Love Israel and began assembling a commune. Members adopted the Israel surname (meaning “children of God”) and took biblical or virtuous first names such as Serious, Honesty, Luke, Charity, and Richness. The family message was simple: “We are one. Love is the answer. Now is the time.”In 1968 the small hippie commune moved into an old house on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill and during the 1970s the group grew to about 350 members who lived in various houses in the neighborhood. The family also purchased acreage in Snohomish County, near the town of Arlington, a place they called “the ranch” and used for seasonal retreats. Neighbors had mixed feelings about the family. Members seemed industrious and pleasant as they engaged in economic and social activities. Quite a few were good craftsmen and some were excellent musicians. At the same time the family was known for their drug use, unconventional sexual arrangements, and obvious male dominance.
Problems within the family grew as well and in 1983-1984 the Love Israel Family experienced what members call “the divorce.” The group split at that time. Many left permanently but about 100 remained. These faithful abandoned the Seattle commune and moved to their rural property. Love Israel joined them and took on a less dominating role. They began an upscale restaurant, engaged in the remodeling and construction business and annually held a popular garlic festival on the property. At first doing well, they eventually became financially overextended. Hassles over building code requirements and the slumping economy following 9/11 caused the Love Israel Family to go bankrupt. They lost their property in 2004.Le Warne admits in the book’s acknowledgments that he was unaware of the Love Israel Family during its urban phase. Instead he was absorbed in finding a dissertation topic as he pursued his doctorate in history at the University of Washington. He chose to write about five utopian communities that had existed in Western Washington at the turn of the twentieth century. This research led to his book Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1911 published in 1975 and Le Warne began his lifelong interest in communes. But it was not until the 1990s that he began his acquaintance with the Love Israel Family, while they were living at the ranch near Arlington. Le Warne interviewed about a dozen family members, both the faithful and the disaffected, as well as outsiders who had an important perspectives to share. His sympathetic and balanced telling of the family story weaves in quotes from those who experienced events firsthand. And he tells the whole story -- even the dark side -- from many angles and explores the changes that occurred to family members over the years. It is to the credit of Love Israel himself and other long-standing family members such as Serious Israel that they supported the author in his study.
As Le Warne notes, the Love Israel Family’s longevity as well as their adaptability make the group unusual in comparison with other historic communes. In their 35 years of existence, their physical location changed: half was lived in an urban setting (1968-1983) and half in a rural location (1984-2004). Over the years they became less separatist. Yet the heart of their spiritual message remained the same. And even in breaking up, members felt they had learned good lessons from the experience.The Love Israel Family is very good reading and may be Le Warne’s best work to date.
By Margaret Riddle, January 7, 2010