Archive for December 1st, 2008

Why "Jewishfarmer?"

Sharon December 1st, 2008

Every so often, I get an email enquiring about my email handle “Jewishfarmer.”  They want to know why it would matter that a farmer was Jewish, or (if they are Jewish) why I would want to advertise it.  More recently, I’ve gotten a lot more such queries, and I know I have a lot of new readers, so I thought it might be worth answering the question. 

I actually have a couple of answers, from the light to the serious.  One of them is “Well, it wasn’t taken.”  That is, there are sufficiently few agrarian Jews out there in the US (not none, and the agricultural history of Judaism in the US is quite fascinating) that being both Jewish and a farmer is something which spared me the necessity of choosing something like “Sharon22608″ as my email handle.

The more serious answer is that there are reasons why being a Jewish farmer is different than being another sort of farmer.  And I thought it would be worth talking about them because other Jews on farms outside of Israel probably have the same issues.  If there’s one thing we rural Jews need, it is solidarity.

The thing about Judaism is that it is a communal religion - that is, there are large chunks of Jewish observance that simply can’t be done outside of a reasonably dense population of other Jews.  Some of these are religious acts - one can’t, for example, say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for a family member or friend without 9 other adult Jews (in some denominations, but not mine, 10 adult, male Jews).  A minyan (a quorum of 10 adult Jews) is required for many, many major religious observances.  And since prayer in a minyan is performed multiple times daily, a minyan doesn’t just depend on 10 adult (or male) Jews, but on 10 Jews observant enough to want to be there, able to get there around their other obligations, etc… That is, you need a critical mass of observant Jews to achieve these goals.  Even settling for a Shabbos minyan only requires enough Jews that if some are on vacation or sick, you still can manage it.  Not to mention the costs of acquiring a Torah scroll and ritual objects - one can do without them if necessary, but no one wants to, and expensive projects work best if they costs can be borne on many backs.

Others are practical - kosher food is available where it is reasonably profitable to sell it.  The internet has made it easier to live out in the boonies and keep kosher, and if you are vegetarian, it gets easier still, but it is still hard without a certain population concentration.  The same is true of kosher restaurants, and stores that sell Judaica.  I live near enough Albany/Schenectady to take advantage of the reasonably dense Jewish population there, for a small pair of cities, but it is worth noting that when I told friends I was spending the week in Boston, and visiting the Little Israel neighborhood of Brookline, everyone had orders for things I should pick up for them - books not easily acquired in the neighborhood, kosher food not available in our region, etc…   They just don’t sell “Sofer:The Story of a Torah Scribe” at Barnes and Noble, nor ”The Comic Book Siddur” or the Yiddish version of ”The Cat in the Hat” come up at my local library sale.   All, however, are on my Chanukah gift list.

More importantly, maintaining Jewish culture requires a critical mass.  You have to be able to bring your children to participate in religious school.  You want your kids, ideally, to go to school in a culture where you won’t have to explain “No, Chanukah is not “Jewish Christmas” and “No, my child cannot sing songs about the birth of Christ” every single bloody year.  Experiencing Jewishness as an identity means immersion in that identity - and without that immersion, the attractions of secular cultures and identities can overwhelm one’s faith.  In New York City, the old Lenny Bruce joke goes “Even if you are black, you are Jewish.”  Up where I live, far, far above 125th St., Christianity (at least a relative version of it) is as assumed and central to the culture as Jewishness is in Brooklyn.  Now our neighbors and friends have been hugely supportive of us with our funny hats and odd holidays, but the assumptions of Christian culture as a whole are one of those things that you just have to deal with.

All which means that being a rural Jew in a place where there aren’t lots of other rural Jews (ie most places) is hard.  My kids attend synagogue 20 minutes away most Shabboses.  Before we moved here, we did not “ride” on Shabbat - that is, in accordance to Jewish law, we didn’t use our car on the Sabbath.  We looked for a long time for a rural area that would allow us to walk to a shul or college Hillel - and couldn’t find one with land we could afford, in a place Eric’s grandparents were willing to live.  So while our denomination technically permits riding on the Sabbath as preferable to not coming to shul at all, we made a compromise I’m still not comfortable with.  We still ride only to and from synagogue or to the homes of friends sharing our religious observance, and we do not engage in any kind of commerce - but something that makes the day distinctive and special is lost, and we look longingly at our friends who walk home, talking and pushing their strollers,  as we drive past.

There are other compromises, some ecological in nature - this year, my two older sons became old enough to go to Hebrew school two days a week - in a year, this should increase to three.  Do we drive that extra day?  I’m not sure - I think we will ask to compromise and do the work at home on those days, and they will accomodate us, I’m sure.  But it does mean separating my kids from their peers.  Our faith is one of the reasons we homeschool - my kids get their religion and culture integrated into their lives.  But we find ourselves separated from many local homeschool groups, that are Christian in nature.  We can and do share math and anatomy lessons with our Christian homeschooling neighbors - but we can’t join the nearest homeschool group, because it includes Christian focused activities.  We’re incredibly fortunate - a Rabbi friend of mine is homeschooling her kindergarten aged daughter and preschool son, and we get together weekly to work on Jewish projects, but eventually they will go on to the local Jewish day school, and we already are sad in anticipation of the end of such a fruitful and fun collaboration.

Don’t mistake me -  we’re reasonably content with our choices.   My point is, rather,  that the pressure of Jewish culture pushes us strongly towards dense concentrations of other Jews - not just dense in a suburban sense, but because most observant Jews don’t drive at all, walkably Jewish neighborhoods. In many ways, this is good - observant Jews eschew commerce once a week, they do not drive on the Sabbath, they tend to congregate in tight knit commities, usually walkable.  These are good things for the future and the environment.  But they do come with a price - a level of decreased access to land, and loss of agarian elements in Jewish culture.

The other force pushing Jews towards urbanization is historical - Jews have lost their land in every place they lived in for thousands of years.  As a minority, diaspora population, Jews have always been vulnerable and anti-semitism always prevalent - taking Jewish land was something of a hobby of most governments through most of Christian history, in large part because it was hugely profitable.  Jews would settle on a farm, improve the land, and then, when the next round of scapegoating came about - and it always did - the powers that be would displace Jews and take over their land and wealth.  For thousands of years, Jews were taught, over and over and over again that land in the diaspora was tenuous, that other forms of wealth, the kinds you can take with you in hard times in the forms of coinage or metals, were far more valuable and secure than land. 

The memory lives in Jewish culture in deep and profound ways - my husband’s grandfather, Ali, had a farm on the German-Danish border in the 1930s, and in the way of things, that farm might have come down to my husband, but it was taken from them.  Once, years ago, when travelling in Europe I suggested we attempt to find the farm - but husband’s reply was that he didn’t want to see it, preferred not to think about what his family lost.   (The deep irony and grief that some Jews are so willing to displace Palestinians by force and justify it with their history seems to me one of the saddest and most troubling results of our disrupted agrarian ties). 

Jews are not merely urban people because they need urban population densities - thriving Jewish agrarian cultures all over the world have been systematically destroyed, and with it, the faith of Jews in their relationship with the land.  Thus, most American Jews feel stronger ties to Israeli soil than they do to the soil of their foodshed.

If it is so damned hard to be a Jewish farmer, why do it?  What on earth does it mean to be a “Jewish farmer?”  In our case, we do it for several reasons.  The first is that Judaism is an agrarian religion, one that prescribes ways of living ecologically and in relationship to the land.  We believe those ways have value for us now and that it is no accident that so much of the Torah deals agricultural life - for us a sustainable agriculture isn’t just a good idea, it is an idea integral to our beliefs.  Farming Jewishly is an expression of our faith. 

We also believe that eating and living Jewishly require ties to the land - it means that Jewish farmers are needed to grow Jewish food, and Jewish eaters need to be connected to those farmers.  Our first agricultural venture was our CSA, which may have been the only “Jewish themed” CSA in the US.  Every Thursday evening, we delivered our customers (many of them not Jewish) not just food, but what we thought of as sustainable tools for Jewish observance.  Our Sabbath begins on Friday nights, so on Thursday evenings we would provide our customers with a basket of fresh fruits and vegetables, fulfilling the obligation that the freshest, best and most special foods be served for the Sabbath.  Thus, the first strawberries, or first arugula would be eaten on Shabbos.

Besides the produce, there was a bouquet of flowers, some cultivated, some wild.  We are commanded to make our Sabbath table into an altar, and to beautify it.  But how could we make a beautiful observance with flowers, sprayed with chemicals by inadequately protected laborers, then flown from Ecuador or Columbia to table?  Instead, we gave our customer truly beautiful and natural local flowers, never sprayed.  One week it was  a huge bouquet of Peonies, later in the season, zinnias, baby’s breath, sunflowers and roses.  Then came eggs from our chickens, and two loaves of Challah, made each week by my husband - much of what is needed to make the Sabbath both beautiful and celebratory, as we are commanded.

Sadly, the CSA came to an end when I became a professional writer - I simply couldn’t do both.  I’ve still got hopes of putting up hoop houses and running a winter CSA, and taking up beekeeping and perhaps raising herbs for medicine and tea that like our moist soil and woodland areas.  In the meantime, we’re livestock farming - raising kosher pastured, organic chicken and turkey, exploring sheep raising with a friend, and hoping to expand our goat project to help other people get small sized dairying going on in suburban neighborhoods.   For the rest, we subsistence farm, concentrating on producing as much as we can of what we need in a place, reducing the amount of money we need to earn from our work and our soil.  

For now, I’m recognizing that with young kids, producing a lot of our food, and writing, I can’t farm on the scale I’d like to.  I’m not always sure whether it would be better for me to grow more food, to do more and talk less about it, but right now it feels more urgent to help other people get started on their journeys. But we’re still a Jewish farm.  We still leave a portion of our ground fallow, still feed our animals before we feed ourselves, still glean our own garden and donate to local food pantries.

The other reason we’re Jewish farmers is this - we are especially concerned about Jews and food security in the coming years.  Because Jewish culture is so urban, so disconnected from its agricultural traditions, Jews face a particularly hard transition in a food-insecure society.  Our disconnection from our food system already has a price - as we have seen in the slaughterhouse scandals.  Elderly Jews and those on a low income are already struggling in large numbers, because a kosher diet that includes traditional meats is generally much more costly than a typical American diet - I’ve heard anecdotal reports from Jewish neighborhoods of rapidly increasing claims for food stamps and WIC. 

But if this is the beginning of a larger crisis, Jewish people are deeply vulnerable, both to scapegoating (as has happened many times in our history) but also to difficulty in adaptation.  If, for example, urban food production becomes, as I think it is likely to, central to urban food security, most Jews are fairly far removed from their old country memories of gardens.  And with few Jews in rural areas, and comparatively few farmers who care enough about Jewish urban neighborhoods (because of a shared cultural identity) to come into densely populated Jewish areas, access to food may be seriously challenging.  In a transportation-tight society, Jewish populations will need access to kosher foods nearby - not shipped from thousands of miles away. 

And while many Jews are highly ecologically literate and concerned about environmental issues, I personally have not found that many quite grasp how tenuous our present stability is.  In the past, Jews have faced their crises best with a passport, leaving the dangerous lands for less dangerous ones.  But a worldwide climate, fiscal and ecological crisis means that passports aren’t as useful a solution anymore.  In the past, the way out of poverty and towards security have been the pursuit of education, and the high paying careers it could provide.  The self-sufficiency of days when immigrant and European Jews were poorer has been left behind, as money has ensured our security better than land.  But those things too may be changing - and yet, comparatively few Jews are preparing their children for self sufficiency. 

Now I don’t have a crystal ball, and it may be that relying on old patterns may serve the Jews of today better than I anticipate.  But one of the reason I’m a Jewish farmer is this - because I fear that if Jews don’t grow food, despite the inconveniences, difficulties and moral compromises required to be observant and agrarian, there will be real and serious Jewish hunger in the US.  I wish very much that my rural corner of upstate New York could support a shul instead of an occasional minyan, that I could walk to Jewish stores and restaurants, have my kids go to school with other Jewish children, while also raising my chickens and eggs to sell to my Jewish neighbors, and sharing gardening projects together.  And I’m sure there are some places where that is possible.  But if I can’t have those things, I’ll content myself with connecting with rural Jews in other places who are just as alone, with my occasional minyan and the tiny group of Jewish homeschoolers who support one another.  Because Jewish food security depends on Jewish farmers.

In this territory, I was long preceeded by a remarkable couple at my synagogue, Rose and Paul Westheimer.  They live out in rural Schoharie County, and for many years, they grew carrots and parsnips on a 700 acre farm (they were Farmers with a capital “F,” as opposed to small “f” me) , sold out of a building everyone knows as “The Carrot Barn.”  Paul and Rose have retired now, and the farm was sold to another couple, who have expanded it and its offerings.  But the ties to the Carrot Barn still remain.  The synagogue’s annual harvest festival, our “Carrot Festival” was founded by the Westheimers.  Every year our synagogue hosts a farmer’s market, music, kids activities and a craft fair, and people come and buy vegetables on the lawn of our shul.  The produce came from the Carrot barn, and Rose and Paul and I and others stood out and sold vegetables until nearly everything was emptied.  This year, the Westheimers helped bring a speaker who talked about the ethics of eating both ecologically and Jewishly, and a luncheon rife with local food, again mostly brought in from their former farm.  

The ties that they created between a piece of land away from the city and the Jews who live in Schenectady and suburban Niskayuna are deeply important to our whole community and congregation.  They are felt every year when I go in to buy decorative corn, and RB, proprietor of the Carrot Barn grins and says “Sukkot, huh?”  Yup, sukkot.   They are important to me, because there exists, embedded in our community, a Jewish agricultural tradition that can be revitalized - we can invoke the past as a way of getting back to the future.

I don’t know what will come top pass, but I admit, despite the difficulties, I have hope for the day that someday someone emails me and mentions “Oh, I’m [email protected].”  ;-) .