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Love Israel Family

HistoryLink.org Essay 9313 : Printer-Friendly Format

The Love Israel Family, the largest and most prominent communal group in the Washington to emerge during the 1960s and 1970s  counterculture, was located in Seattle between 1968 and 1984 and in rural Snohomish County for 20 more years. Its founder and leader, born Paul Erdmann (b. 1940) in Germany, was raised primarily in Seattle and became drawn to the hippie culture.  A seeker after spiritual truths, in October 1968, he gathered a half-dozen friends at a bungalow on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill.  Shortly thereafter, he divined that his name had become Love Israel.  Followers originally and later also adopted the Israel surname along with first names that represented virtues or biblical figures. Their untraditional spiritual teachings and experimentation with sexual, drug, and other lifestyle practices aroused curiosity and controversy. The Family expanded to approximately 350 members plus others who visited briefly, and they acquired more than a dozen homes and established businesses on the hilltop. But in the early 1980s internal concerns dogged them. During a bitter breakup, several key lieutenants of Love led about two-thirds of the members to depart. One hundred remaining faithful recouped on a 291-acre ranch near Arlington, in Snohomish County, where they developed a rural, communal lifestyle while still subservient to their leader. Various entrepreneurial ventures included a gourmet restaurant and small eateries in downtown Arlington, and an annual garlic festival drew crowds to the ranch. Their children became active in local schools. But financial over-extension forced them to sell this property late in 2003. Members scattered while Love acquired a house in a Seattle suburb and retained acreage in northeastern Washington. In the early twenty-first century, many Family members retained a loose connection.

An American Tradition

The Love Israel Family followed an American tradition of  varying communal endeavors that began during the colonial period and paralleled more mainstream events.  Shakers, Oneida Community, Brook Farm, and Iowa’s Amana villages remain among the better known.  Washington became home to several as early as the 1850s; notable ones appeared at the turn of the twentieth century and the later hippie era.  Despite differences among them, most communal groups shared an ideal of common work practices and benefits, often under the leadership of a charismatic, dominant figure.

Such a man was Love Israel, born Paul Erdmann in Berlin in August 1940 to a German father and a mother from Idaho;  when she was a child her family had inherited an estate in northern Germany.  After World War II the Erdmann family settled in Seattle, but the parents soon divorced.  Paul grew up amongst some European influences but having clear American tendencies.  During the counterculture of the 1960s, he gravitated to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district and then returned to Seattle where he gathered several friends at the Queen Anne Hill bungalow. Amongst sparse furnishings, the group read the bible, silently meditated, and smoked marijuana until one day Erdmann announced that he had become Love Israel and instructed his followers to change their names as well.  Their simple, somewhat New Age religious set of principles centered on the precepts that all people are one, that love is the answer, and that now is the time.

Gradually newcomers were attracted to the Love Israel Family and their numbers grew.  As they embraced Family life, members gave up former names for Israel names and also contributed possessions.  Principal elders included Logic Israel (b. 1947), son of famed entertainer Steve Allen (1921-2000), who led a Family construction business.  An academic raised in suburban Washington, D. C. became Serious Israel (b. 1940); he handled many business affairs and often served as spokesperson to the larger community.  Strength Israel (b. ca. 1945), from a small town on South Puget Sound, supervised the Family’s ranch in Snohomish County.  Other members played specific roles  in Family matters, but all were subservient to the will and domination of Love Israel. 

Family Life on Queen Anne Hill

They acquired some 15 houses interspersed throughout the Queen Anne neighborhood, and they developed a life style, originally based on simple living and embracing unconventional practices regarding dress, sexual partnerships, drugs, child rearing, and social conduct.  In time two small houses were combined to create one distinctive mansion, home of Love and headquarters for the Family and its spiritual life.  Customarily, yards between adjacent Family houses were developed into pleasant,  refreshing gardens.

Homes were sparsely furnished but immaculately kept.  Nighttime passersby noted flickering candlelit interiors.  Members followed a regular daily routine, customarily starting with a before-dawn meeting at which coffee and marijuana, viewed as sacraments, were served, while members meditated, sang, and heard spiritual messages from Love. During the day some members worked at jobs about the houses, or, in later Seattle years, in Family businesses.  These included a construction business, several shops in the Sixth Avenue and McGraw Street neighborhood that included a craft shop and the Front Door Inn, and a small hostel for visitors and prospective members.  A food store selling locally raised produce plus some gleaned from Yakima Valley fields had an “Abundance Table” out front offering food items free to all comers. Women for the most part were busy with household chores; a small cadre of teachers and nannies looked after the growing number of  children.  An evening dinner was followed by completion of any lagging work to be done along with more bible reading and meditation.  Past midnight, a group of members patrolled amongst the Family houses to see if all was well, thus also performing a watchdog service to the neighborhood.  Neighbors held differing views about the group who often walked the streets clothed as hippies or later in Old Testament type robes.

The religious views centered on  emulating the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and focused on three essential principles: We are one, love is the answer, and now is the time.  This stressed the acceptance of all people, all the world’s people as one God-like body bound together in a compelling sense of love while paying attention to present issues and creating a better world with little thought of an afterlife.  Regular spiritual meetings and an annual Passover -- not a replica of the Jewish holiday -- punctuated their lives.  Sexual experimentation seemed at different times to range from celibacy to polygamy and exchanging partners.  Yet, over the years, long-term, conventional monogamous relationships became common.  Marijuana was viewed as a sacrament and there was experimentation with hallucinogenics and some other drugs; in time, the presence of cocaine posed problems. 

Despite early neighborhood concerns about the Family, they came to play a part in the  larger community including participation in the Queen Anne Community Council and the Church Council of Greater Seattle.  Civic officials learned to  tolerate and accept them as worthy citizens and contributors. They maintained neighborhood parks and even sought to acquire abandoned school buildings as potential centers for Family activities and community service.

Beyond Queen Anne

The Family’s enterprises grew beyond Seattle environs. They regular picked and gleaned crops in the Yakima Valley and then owned property there.  At various times they had properties in Hawaii and Alaska, as well as a horse ranch above the Columbia River near Goldendale. For a time the Family operated a converted World War II minesweeper as a fishing boat.  A parcel of land on Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake just below the Canadian border came to figure in Family activities especially after the 2003 sale of the Arlington ranch. Of all their extended properties, the acreage near Arlington was most significant.  Acquired in the mid-1970s, it became a permanent housing and farming site for one contingent of members and a retreat for all, especially during Passover celebrations.

All of this was presided over by the highly charismatic Love Israel whose control was absolute.  Love’s word was final in all matters including ones very personal to members.  He demanded obedience and had essential control of finances.  A layer of elders just beneath Love presided over houses, handled many business matters, and dealt with some social concerns.  In this highly patriarchal society women were honored, although they enjoyed little real power or say in decision making.

The Break-Up

By 1983 it seemed as if the Love Israel Family, though not without critics and controversy, had become a significant aspect of the Seattle landscape.  But all was not well.  That summer, two of the principal elders, Logic Israel and Strength Israel, led a revolt during which about two thirds of the members left the Family.

The many and complex causes of the break can be compiled into four essential issues.  Subordinates who had acquired business expertise and savvy had come to view themselves as more capable of handling such matters than Love, their clear spiritual leader.  Family numbers had grown well beyond the small, close-knit group who had once shared much together; increasingly members were scattered and many did not know one another as intimately as during the earlier phase of the Family.  The needs of the growing number of children, including sustenance, clothing, and schooling, led some parents to feel they were being neglected.  Finally, Love himself was becoming more removed and distant, living a better life than the mass of  followers who decried such inequities.

Dissidents wrote and signed a letter to Love imploring him to relinquish some authority and allow other members to assume greater responsibility for business affairs and certain other matters while he remained their spiritual leader.  He angrily tore up the letter, a significant action which signaled a forthcoming break.  As a few members left -- including leaders who had been closest to Love -- the rank and file had to make up their minds where they would turn.  The proverbial line was drawn in the sand; would they leave the Family or remain loyal to their leader? 

It was a wrenching decision for people who had lived, worked, and shared together as family for most of their adult lives, had loved one another as brothers and sisters, and had raised babies and children together. Ultimately about two thirds left the Family. Many of these persons found it difficult to resume life in the traditional society they had long ago abandoned.  Most were uncertain where they would live and how to acquaint themselves with a life style and surroundings that had become unfamiliar.  Even simple details could pose difficulties for men and women in their 30s and 40s whose entire adult lives had been spent in the Family.

As these events unfolded, Richness Israel, formerly Daniel Gruener (b. 1945), whose inherited wealth had helped bankroll the Family, sued Love and the Family to reclaim what he had given.  In an out-of-court settlement, Gruener obtained the Queen Anne Hill properties, while several other former members also obtained portions of properties they had donated.  What was left to the 100 or so remaining Family loyalists was a 291 acre parcel of land in the foothills of Snohomish County outside the town of Arlington.

Regrouping in Arlington

Known as the ranch, this acreage had belonged to the Family for a number of years.  Many members had lived and farmed there, and all had enjoyed it as an occasional retreat from city life, both during their Passover celebration, and during a longer period of construction on the large mansion on Queen Anne Hill.  Despite some initial indecision after the break, the reduced Family recouped on this property and began a second, clearly rural phase of Family life.

The beautifully set property had fallen into some disrepair since the departure of many who had been stationed there.  A central meadow reached from the end of a county road to a large pond called Butterfly Lake.  This core of the property was set against a steep hillside forested with evergreen and deciduous trees.  A small wooded knoll accentuated the meadow and beyond that a large workshop building was constructed. An old, broken-down barn was gradually converted to fine housing for Love and a few other members as well as a sanctuary and Family community center.  Other small structures were refurbished.  A chicken coop across from the barn, for instance, became a small office building.  Small cabins were improved, some mobile homes brought in, and new canvas yurts were added to several from earlier times and placed on  raised platforms.  Other small homes were built.  Few members enjoyed the household conveniences customary to most people in the late twentieth century.

Old garden patches were restored and new ones planted to provide food for members and for sale; in time members secured a choice stall at Seattle’s renowned Pike Place Market.  An herb garden and wine grape arbor graced the ranch grounds. Successive greenhouses included an early one of plastic sheeting and then a modern “bells and whistles” structure that failed to live up to expectations. Trees were cut and the wood sold, with some of the income used to pay off a lingering disputed debt to Gruener.  After first offering themselves as workers willing to take on odd jobs and minor construction in the Arlington environs, the Family eventually formed a steady construction and wood finishing business.  Other members brought specific interest and skills to create varied revenue sources.  A half-dozen years after the breakup, it seemed that the Family, still retaining its spiritual base and a communal spirit under the firm leadership of Love Israel, had found success in these rural surroundings.

The Family became known within the larger Arlington community. Children, traditionally home-schooled, began to enter local public schools as they reached middle school. A number of them achieved success in academics, student leadership, music, athletics, and other activities, sometimes serving as a bridge between the rural commune and the broader Arlington community.  By the middle 1990s the Family was involved in businesses in Arlington with several successive small eateries and most notably The Bistro, a fine gourmet restaurant in the heart of the town’s business district.  High-quality food nicely prepared and served in pleasant surroundings helped The Bistro obtain formal and word-of-mouth reputation as a premier dining spot.

Most significantly on the regional scene, the Family started in 1990 to open their grounds for an annual garlic festival, held in the meadow on the second weekend of each August.  The atmosphere hearkened to an earlier countercultural era that somewhat distinguished this event from other fairs and festivals in the region.  Along with other foods and craft items, garlic in every possible form was displayed and sold in booths situated below the forested ridge.  There was music, dancing, a beer garden and other eateries, along with tours of the compound that gave outsiders a glimpse into the lives of this erstwhile countercultural commune.  Despite concerns from neighbors living along the road to the grounds, the annual garlic festival became a significant summertime feature in the region, conducted with increasing professional expertise.

The Family pondered other ways to use and develop their property. Although much they did on this land did not satisfy Snohomish County building and zoning codes, infractions had generally been overlooked.  Then a temporary county ordinance provided an opportunity to develop land outside the traditional requirements.  The Family jumped at the idea, designing a model rural village with somewhat European attributes.  Leading to a central square, pedestrian streets and arcades would link well-designed, craftsman-style shops and living quarters.  But as the Family planned and submitted their ideas to county officials, obstacles arose.  No matter how much the Family felt they were attempting to comply with the county’s demands, officials considered the specifics to be insufficient.  An intricate series of dance steps between the two entities continued for several years until the ordinance allowing the effort expired.  Unable to complete the project, the Family claimed a substantial financial loss in their efforts.

Difficulties and Changing Times

Increasing financial difficulties helped compound new crises as the twenty-first century began.  Business ventures, including the once profitable Bistro, soured in a growing economic downturn and the Family sought ways to dispose of all or a part of the property. Confronting the reality that they could no longer continue as they had during recent years, the leaders sought alternatives to selling all their land.  Despite several efforts to find ways to keep the land, in February 2003, they filed for bankruptcy, a procedure that still allowed some time to find ways to recover whatever they might.  But  their efforts came to no avail.  By the autumn of 2003, 35 years after the original Queen Anne Hill founding, they sold the ranch to the Union of Reform Judaism, who constructed a camp and recreational retreat that would serve Pacific Northwest Jews.

Several dozen remaining Family members left the ranch, some somewhat scattering about the region.  Love Israel and his core group settled in a small neighborhood in the Seattle suburb of Bothell.  The Family also retained and began to develop 50 acres at China Bend in Northeastern Washington; here former Family members had long raised garlic and other crops and operated a winery and condiments business.  By 2010 the once compact Love Israel Family still held a core of members adhering to their original principles and practices; if it retained a sense of the earlier communalism, it had become a larger “extended family” of former members and close associates.

Sources:
Roger Downey, "All in the Love Family: Will Success Spoil Love Israel's vision?" The Weekly (Seattle), December 1-7, 1982, pp. 30-35; Serious Israel, "Bringing the Vision Down to Earth," In Context, Spring 1983, 22-25; Charles P. LeWarne, "The Love Israel Family: An Urban Commune Becomes a Rural Commune," Pacific Northwest Quarterly,  89:65-76; Charles P. LeWarne, The Love Israel Family: Urban Commune/Rural Commune (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2009).


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Unfinished Queen Anne Hill mansion, Love Israel Family, Seattle, 1993
Photo by Charles P. LeWarne


Garlic Festival, Love Israel Family ranch, Arlington, 2001
Photo by Charles P. LeWarne


Butterfly Lake, Love Israel Family ranch, Arlington 2002
Photo by Charles P. LeWarne


Meadow, Love Israel Family ranch, Arlington, 2002
Photo by Charles P. LeWarne


Barn used as a home, sanctuary, and family center, Love Israel Family ranch, Arlington, 2002
Photo by Charles P. LeWarne


 
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