People of the Land: Exploring Judaism’s Rural Roots

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Produce and herbs from Pearlstone’s fields.
Produce and herbs from Pearlstone’s fields.

“Judaism as a religion is deeply tuned to seasonal and agricultural cycles,” said Josh Rosenstein, founder of Edible Eden Baltimore Foodscapes, which designs, installs, and maintains ecological landscaping and food gardens for schools, homeowners, and businesses around the Baltimore area. “The opportunity to practice Judaism and farming together elevates and deepens the experience of both.”

Side bar by Lonna Koblick.

Rosenstein, an Israeli-American farmer, permaculturalist, and entrepreneur began his career in agriculture at the age of 15 on a plant nursery, and spent the 19 years afterward working on farms, nurseries, and landscaping crews in Israel, South Africa, Greece, and Mexico. Rosenstein remarked that some of Edible Eden’s more memorable local projects have included working with St. Paul’s School, the Larder restaurant, and “a beautiful rooftop garden on 414 Light Street.”


“There’s a national movement that’s been growing over the past 30 years,” Rosenstein said. “I think as traditional Jewish organizations realized their constituents were going elsewhere in search of meaningful, relevant, environmental engagement, young Jewish leaders started creating transformative, immersive, educational programs, utilizing organic farming and sustainability skills in service of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam.”

Rosenstein is hardly the only member of the tribe who has felt the call of a life closer to nature, nor is he the only one who sees a connection between agricultural work and Judaism.

“The Jewish tradition is very land-based,” said Rabbi Psachyah Lichtenstein, Pearlstone Center’s director of education and the owner of his own farm, which features everything from grains and chickens to goats and bees. “The traditions have a lot to do with agriculture, and a lot of the system is assuming that you are involved in the production of your food.”

Lichtenstein feels this becomes particularly clear when a person makes a blessing over a loaf of bread they have made themselves. “When you are not personally involved in the hard work of making that bread, you have to struggle to make that connection. But when you sow the seeds, process the grains, bake the bread, and when you’re holding it in your hands, the gratitude and the blessing just comes out of you. The truth of that is why Judaism and farming are so connected.”

Perri DeJarnette, Pearlstone’s perennials manager and land steward, agrees that there is a connection between Judaism and farming. At McDaniel College, she studied literature and art history but was reluctant “to use my degree in a manner that was expected, like a teacher or a writer.” Uncertain of her path and struggling with depression, DeJarnette remembered a nature writing course that “had a profound effect on me, and was part of the inspiration.”

She settled into a position at Pearlstone, where she initially divided her time between fundraising, grant writing, and working on the facility’s farm. As time passed, however, she “discovered I was happiest outside, growing food, learning what I could from the land, and I decided to continue that journey. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It just feels like my place.”

Today, DeJarnette is tasked with safeguarding some 180 acres at Pearlstone that includes grassland, ponds, and cultivated spaces, and she has tended everything from vegetables, to animals, to fruit trees. In particular, she mentioned her work with apples, blueberries, and grapes.

Working at Pearlstone greatly contributed to DeJarnette’s discovery of her Jewish heritage and its agrarian nature, she said. “Our calendar is based on agrarian life cycles. Passover comes at the time of the barley harvest, and Sukkot is a celebration of the wheat harvest. During Sukkot, people would sleep outside where they were harvesting, which was the point of the sukkahs.”

In the current climate, however, that spiritual connection comes with its share of hurdles.

Rosenstein harvests greens from his cold frame.
Rosenstein harvests greens from his cold frame.

One issue is the high cost of productive land, particularly for those who are just starting out in farming. “A lot of farmland is being bought by suburban developers,” said DeJarnette. “The cost of land is skyrocketing, so farming is far less affordable now.”

DeJarnette also noted government regulations around farming, the threat of climate change, the need to adapt to a global farming market, and the burden of student loan debt and health care costs on first-generation farmers.

Meanwhile, Lichtenstein highlighted what he saw as the nation’s lack of interest in quality food. “Sometimes making a living as a farmer is challenging in an economy that doesn’t value the act of the production of food. … What I mean is a society that values the cheapness of something over all other decisions.”

Other challenges to Jewish farmers were more social in nature. “Farming is notoriously perceived as self-selecting poverty,” said Rosenstein, “and Jewish mainstream culture expects, demands, and assumes a professional level of income.”

Shani Mink, former Baltimore resident and co-founder of the Jewish Farmer Network, concurred with Rosenstein. “There is a classist notion in both American society and the Jewish community against farmers, preferring doctors and lawyers,” she said.

In addition to the perceived loss of social status, there are also issues of isolation and solitude for Jewish farmers, arising from the difficulty of finding good land near Jewish communities.

“Traditionally Jewish culture is predicated on proximity,” said Rosenstein. “Living close to the kosher butcher and local synagogue. And if you want to farm, you need to be out there where you have some access to land. … It’s very challenging to find farmable land in the suburbs close to a Conservative or Reform synagogue.”

Perri DeJarnette, harvesting radishes. Photo by Mira Menyuk.

Challenges like this inspired the creation of the Jewish Farmer Network. Co-founded by Mink as a nonprofit in March of 2019, the network aims to create a greater sense of community for Jewish farmers around the country, and to help Jewish farmers see there is no disconnect between their profession and their culture. “A lot of these folks don’t even want to be called ‘Jewish farmers,’” said Mink, who now lives in North Carolina, “as they feel a disconnect between their heritage and their agrarian lifestyle.” Mink seeks to remind them that before “we were the people of the book, we were people of the land.”
To this end, the network is organizing “Cultivating Culture: A Gathering of Jewish Farmers,” at Pearlstone, Feb. 13-16. According to Jewish Farmer Network Co-Founder Sarah Julia Seldin, it will be the first event of its kind since 1943. Much of “Cultivating Culture” will focus on providing Jewish farmers with practical information on farming more effectively, while also helping isolated farmers recognize they are not alone.

Mink also hopes to counter some of the stereotypes that work to preclude Jews from agricultural lifestyles. “Jewish farmers who I’ve talked to have told me that when they tell their families that they’re going to be a farmer, their families say, ‘Jews don’t do physical labor.’ This comes from Nazi propaganda that said Jews don’t do physical labor, because Jews are weak. We want to celebrate the farmers in our communities, instead of ostracizing them because they don’t fit the mold of what we’ve decided is Jewish in the modern world.”

Perhaps it is appropriate that “Cultivating Cultures” will take place just a few days after Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish “New Year of the Trees” that has taken on environmental connotations. This year, the holiday falls on Feb. 10.

“Tu B’Shevat is one of the holidays that has been embraced by people in this kind of work,” said Lichtenstein. “It feels significant because the energy of Tu B’Shevat is the energy of the tree, the sap rising up through the tree. And I think for Jewish practice that is connected to the natural world and the other beings around us, it has that feeling as well, that feeling of rising up.”

 

Five Ways to Be More Eco-Friendly

Listicle by Carolyn Conte

“While walking along a road, a sage saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him: ‘How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ ‘Seventy years,’ replied the man. The sage then asked: ‘Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?’ The man answered: ‘I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise I am planting for my children.’ ”
— Talmud Ta’anit 23a, via RitualWell

The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, “New Year of the Trees”, begins the evening of Feb. 9 this year. If you’re inspired to invest more in the local environment, here’s a list of ideas to do just that.

  1. Support Local Farms

Local farms offer healthier food, empower the community’s economy, and build a more social community. Food in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to your plate, and getting your food locally means using fewer resources to get it to you. Some places to get local food from include Foxleigh Farm Produce Stand in Owings Mills, Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar at East Saratoga and Holliday Streets, Reisterstown Farmers Market, and the Plantation Urban Farm at 3811 Park Heights Ave. Also, remember that for your parties, even a caterer who does not buy exclusively organic or local food may be willing to source some local produce for your meal. Another opportunity is to buy local flowers.

2. Beware the Printer

As the Baltimore Jewish Green and Just Celebrations Guide explains, environmentally conscious people should consider printers with less-toxic inks, chlorine-free paper, or even recycled paper if you must print something. You can also forgo paper and use email instead. According to The World Counts, a data collection agency from Denmark, 42% of all global wood harvest is used to make paper. Opting for emails, Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or online options would significantly reduce this. Consider: Every tree produces enough oxygen for three people to breathe.

3.  Choose Fair Trade

Support fair trade coffee, tea, sugar, or chocolate. Fairtrade is a movement that ensures that producer cooperatives in developing countries can support their families, and it cuts out the “middle man” of production and waste. You can even go fair trade for kippot. The Baltimore Jewish Green and Just Celebrations Guide recommend MayaWorks, a cooperative of Guatemalan women artisans who use proceeds from their handmade crafts to improve their lives and their community.

4. Be Careful With Clothing

Consider getting previously used clothing, vintage clothes, or secondhand wear more often. Throwing out clothes to be burnt releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 84% of unwanted clothes in the U.S. in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.

5. Attend Local Eco-Events

Last week, the JT spoke with Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. Members of any congregation can reach out to find out about bringing environmentally friendly updates to their own synagogue. Some of their programmings includes nature walks, planting trees, plant sales, or auditing chemicals at your congregation. Another local organization that often hosts opportunities to improve the community is Jews United for Justice, which supports sustainability projects.

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