I wish I knew more about the way of life of my great grandparents and the earlier pre-industrial generations. On both sides of my family, we were in Galicia as well as the Ukraine and Hungary. My grandparents who were either born here in the USA or on the way here, never told me about the old country. They might not have known much about the old world since after seeking asylum in the USA around the turn of the century, there was a taboo in the family on talking about the old country.
In Brooklyn in 1919 my grandfather Alexander started butchering chickens in his father’s chicken coop at the age of 11. The chickens were mostly sold in a big market across the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan. The rabbi would come on Fridays to shecht and oversee the slaughter, so the chickens on Friday were kosher and sold among Jewish neighbors for Shabbat tables.
Also across the bridge was my grandmother Molly, in the Lower East Side. Her father Nathan pushed a fruit cart for a living on Rivington Street. When her grandparents came from the old country to meet the new granddaughters, they saw a shipment of food being delivered to a kosher store on Shabbat. At seeing the halachic (Jewish legal) violation, they thought that Judaism in the new world was mishugenah (crazy).
My great great grandparents preferred to return to Galicia and they took a granddaughter, my grandmother’s sister, back to the old world with them. It was years that went by before she could return, and she was traumatized by warfare and starvation. I recall stories of my great aunt sneaking food out of the refrigerator and hiding it.
Fast forward to my high school years, in 1988 the student club World Hunger Action Group was raising funds to donate to organizations that helped impoverished communities in Third World countries grow their own food. A vegetarian since age 7, I also joined the student group PETA. After becoming an 80% raw foodie and graduating college, I headed off to support indigenous communities within the borders of the USA, who are fighting to sustain their traditional way of life and protect sacred sites.
Indigenous Food and Security
At Big Mountain on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona in the mid-late 1990s, I spent many days peacefully herding sheep to support the elders’ subsistence – and sometimes helping find ways to get back their herds that had been confiscated by the Hopi Tribe that evolved for over a century, of corporate coal mining and federal policies that pitted the tribes against each other and forced their removal from ancestral lands. The first meat I ate in about a decade was from a cow, of a US federal government family’s brand, which was poached while it roamed on the traditional land use areas of the Navajo in what was now deemed Hopi Partition Land. I felt so full of protein, I thought I wouldn’t need to eat for a few days.
Sometimes we would hear strip mine blasts and see dark explosions in the sky over the hills, while we were busy planting corn fields, hauling drinking water, or building gavions and swayles to halt the erosion that grazing and the new climate was causing in the valleys. Permaculture methodologies and indigenous seeds were some of what I gathered in my activist arsenal, among a people whose simple, traditional existence in their ancestral lands made them illegal. At the time I noticed how the landscape of Dinetah resembled Israel, and I craved a visit to the holy land of my ancestral roots.
Back in the city in southern Arizona, I learned about water harvesting and year-round urban gardens. Inter-ethnic and inter-generational relationships would grow between communities and neighborhoods at community garden work days and participatory arts mural programs, while building mud ovens and through wild cactus fruit harvests. Not far off, in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado, I wrote articles about the Latino communities still irrigating their valley fields with the pure mountain waters flowing through centuries-old acequia ditch systems.
In Tucson, beginning in 2001, I lived in a cohousing community and joined a CSA, enjoying weeding on the 1-acre farm that fed 30 households each season with my baby boy playing by my side, hands in the dirt, munching from a fresh strawberry patch. Public schools designated outdoor space for school gardens, the produce to be used for school lunches. The Farmacy Garden was an amazing project of homeless people growing medicinal plants, enabling them to care for their own ailments when possible.
Now that my baby is 12 years old and I have three little ones, my day job and familial responsibilities make maintaining our garden at home next to impossible. We plant vegetables and fruits now and then, sometimes from seed, and take care to water together. At times we have made a quick project out of harvesting parsley from the yard, cleaning it, checking it for bugs (assuring its kosher status), and throwing it into a soup on the stove together. Almost every Friday afternoon I send my big boy out to fetch some rosemary from the yard for the chicken that will be served at our Shabbas table. I find ways for my kids to interact in real time with the produce of the land as it nourishes our bodies. I have finally decided to turn some more yard space into a garden in hopes of having it become part of an urban CSA.
Every Friday night and Saturday afternoon as we observe the Sabbath, my family and community experience many benefits around meal times. Particularly for us, Saturday afternoon after the Torah reading, we participate in or host a second Shabbat meal. The table becomes a central altar for our Jewish community relationships among the presence of our highest selves. In our Berkeley, CA community, many Shabbat tables are plentiful with fresh and roasted local organic foods. Around these tables together, we utter our ancient blessings, we praise G-d, we sing traditional songs that honor the holy gift of the Sabbath – the feminine crown of the masculine work week, the crowning ormanent of Creation.
Jewish Food Movement
The emergence of the Jewish food movement has been no less than a prayer answered. Over a decade ago when I got involved during the early days of COEJL, I brought my Earth First! background with me and set up an Apache-Jewish cultural exchange which explored the spiritual existence of Jews and Apaches and the importance of the Earth in both traditions. It was during this time of my life that I was acquiring and distributing indigenous heirloom seeds among permaculturists, gardeners, and Native American farmers.
Last year, months after I devised a grand concept for a coexistence center based in Berkeley with Green Arts, urban agriculture, and inter-generational/inter-cultural participatory arts programs at its core, I was ecstatic to learn that Urban Adamah was coming to Berkeley. From introducing local Jewish organizations and city council/leaders to the new entity, to supporting its social media capacity, to finding items to fulfill its wish list, and sending my kids to its summer camp, I am determined to see this new Jewish eco-organization on urban agriculture succeed in my town.
Since this past December when my family was awarded a scholarship to attend the Hazon Food Conference, I have felt truly honored to be part of this international organization, the largest Jewish environmental group in the world. It is my pleasure to be part of this network of Jewish people who share the vision of land-based agricultural communities living in balance with the Earth.
Kids growing up amongst our Jewish environmental network are being raised as conscious people. They are an integral part of the holistic intergenerational experience that our communities are building.
As a woman, I look forward to the Hazon conferences as a place to connect with other Jewish women who are oriented toward our spiritual work in the world from a traditional perspective. After I discovered ecofeminism in the early ’90s, and then thru cultural exchanges with Native Americans whose cultural preservation I was actively supporting as part of my environmental activism, I was driven to explore the indigenous experience of the Jewish people as a Jewess. Today I am a doula and founder ofImeinu Birth Collective, a group of Jewish women and friends who are serving Jewish and non-Jewish ladies at all stages of a woman’s life cycle.
I want to learn the needs and the issues that the women in our Jewish environmental networks are facing, and see how we can develop our awareness and our voice in representing femininity in all its strength, by the framework of our ancient understandings which we have inherited through the oral tradition. I believe that the wellness of women across Jewish denominations will reflect and guide the success of our Jewish environmental movement, but we need to speak with and support each other as women to realize our potential.
Thinking back to what my grandparents’ lives were like a century ago, fruit-carts and local kosher chicken are back in style. Beyond the industrial era, our generation is reclaiming Jewish earthly spirituality alongside simple living that was lost to oppression and assimilation over centuries. Through practices like the mikva and traditional blessings which intersect with our ancient communal structures based in Torah such as tzedakah, Shabbas meals and shmita, we are remembering the keys to living in balance in this physical world which are central to the spiritual tradition of our heritage. Our Jewish environmental movement’s vision for tikkun feels a breath away.
This article originally appeared at the Pursue Action blog of the American Jewish World Service.