The communal Love Israel Family was located in Seattle from 1968 to 1984 and in rural Snohomish County for 20 more years. Its founder and leader was Love Israel, who was born Paul Erdmann in 1940 and died in 2016. His followers -- as many as 350 at one point -- adopted the Israel surname along with first names that represented virtues or biblical figures. In this personal reminiscence written for HistoryLink, Eve Ingraham writes about how a personal betrayal by family elders led to lasting bonds with other women in the Love Israel Family.
A Shocking Christmas Evening
I've never lived in a time of war threatening my very existence, such as the Nazis invading and destroying the lives of the Jews or the experience of my homeland being invaded and my rights as well as my life being put into jeopardy. There was a time of my life, however, through my own choices, that I allowed a serious infringement on my human rights.
I belonged to a large communal family called the Love Family in the '70s that was based on living a reinterpretation of the bible. This was represented in theory by the dreams and revelations if its members and its leader, Love Israel. Love had a particular interpretation of the value of beauty, which related to the world around him and more specifically to how his "women" looked. A virtue of God, of course, could only be lean and svelte in her biblical garments.
I remember that Christmas evening, tired but reveling in the beauty of the snow beginning to fall in the trees, a white Christmas. As I looked out the window, I saw one of our messengers approach the door. As I greeted him, I was surprised that the message was for me. I was commanded to pack one bag and be waiting for the van to go out to the ranch within one hour, no questions asked. Needless to say, I was in shock and filled with questions. Instead of the cozy night, reliving a pleasant day by the fire that I had imagined, I was to go out into the cold and unknown. I had essentially given my life and my right to question, to the summons of Love and the Elders. So I went.
Going down to the van, there was an edge if hostility in the brothers around me that I didn't understand. As I opened the door, I was greeted by 12 of my sisters who had received the same summons. All we were told was that we were being sent to "fat camp." Huddled together in the van we began to project what this meant and what was happening to us. I felt confused, betrayed, and rejected by the intent of those I thought loved me.
Banished to the Barn
The 350 lushly wooded acres of our family ranch were startlingly beautiful that evening as we arrived in the newly fallen snow. The farmhouse was alight with candles and smoke coming out of the chimney. As we stepped out of the van, the ranch elder met us. This usually friendly rancher and musician told us in a growling voice that we were not to go anywhere near the farmhouse, nor could we even speak to anyone in the household except him, for the length of our stay there. He led us up the barn stairs into the loft, which is where the hay and feed was kept for the cows and six Belgian horses that spent the evening below. The upper level of the barn was not insulated and had holes in the roof that let through scattered snowflakes. We discovered that this was to be our new home and sleeping quarters.
We huddled together around an empty stone fire pit in the middle of the barn loft floor. We were crying and talking amongst us, shivering, trying to figure out what was going on, when the barn door opened and the Ranch Elder entered with his edict from Love and the council of Elders. This was not the loving support of a brother helping us to seek change. I'll never forget the anger and condemnation as he spoke to us of being a disgrace to our community. He said that we were sent to the ranch to become the image if our true spirits by eating raw veggies and rice with no condiments. We were to become "milk maidens," taking care of the animals, milking, feeding, and of course cleaning the pens until we lost enough weight (the extra 5-20 pounds). Then we would be allowed back into the family and could return to our previous lives in town.
That evening I slept cuddled next to my sisters trying with no luck to get warm, wondering what had gone wrong in my vision of heaven on earth to get me to this place.
Oh, those first few days ... we would arise out of our bales of hay at dawn and go down the icy steps to milk the cows, feed the animals and then begin hauling their shit in wheelbarrows about a quarter mile down a rocky path to dump it. At least it was a way to warm up. Our spokeswoman was trying to get us the use of the tack room to eat and warm up in. It was the only place that had a log stove for warmth in the barn. The Ranch Elder didn't like the idea because it was a favorite hangout for his ranch hands. After our first week a notice was sent "from on high" that we were allowed to use the tack room to warm ourselves and heat our meals of rice. It was the first sign from our "loving" family that we were not totally estranged.
"Bonding of Sisterhood"
These times turned out to be some of the richest and most poignant of my life. Created out of this hole of existence was a richness and bonding of sisterhood that has sustained me often in my life. Eating our rice, soft gooey or crispened at the bottom of the pan, we would take turns reading passages from the bible. We would crochet hats for the babies in the family, singing far into the night or relating our visions.
In some ways, as sisters, we all felt happier than we had in a long time. Our connection was deep and real in spite of the alienation of our loved ones. Some of us, goals completed, left our circle of the thinning sisterhood and some stayed on and on. As our spirits were filled, our bodies slowly responded to the lessening of guilt and our own sense of betrayal.
We could have left at any time, just walked out the gate, but each of us felt bound by our word, our commitment to the family. No matter how demeaning and forced the experience was from one point of view ... from another it was a matter of choice.
I am now a retired teacher, mother of three, and grandmother of six. I’m a full-time artist. I’ve recently started a blog called Life Threads ([email protected]) about my life adventures, where I tell it how it was, no holding back. I’ve lived a rich life, my Love Family experiences being some of the deepest, most meaningful times of my personal growth and including an abundance of rich exploits.
More Love Israel Family Stories: A Broken Rainbow by Understanding Israel, Counterculture Crossover by Rachel Israel, Flip Flops and Naked Breakfasts by Toshav Israel, Losing My Voice by D. L. Rivers.