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August 30, 2014 | 4th Elul 5774

Back to the Land

Galilee Diary #528, March 2, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

In Palestine we must do with our own hands all the things that make up the sum total of life. We must ourselves do all the work, from the least strenuous, cleanest, and most sophisticated, to the dirtiest and most difficult. In our own way, we must feel what a worker feels and think what a worker thinks. Then, and only then, shall we have a culture of our own, for then we shall have a life of our own.
        -A. D. Gordon, "People and Labor" (1911)

On my recent trip to the US I had the opportunity to visit the Kayam Farm, at the Pearlstone Retreat Center just outside of Baltimore - a similar venture to the Adamah Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut - sponsored by the Baltimore and New York Jewish Federations, respectively. Kayam means "sustainable" in Hebrew; adamah means "earth." Both are examples of a sort of Jewish "Back to the Land" trend that seems to be happening in North America these days. Both are driven by idealistic young Jews seeking to combine environmental activism with spirituality and Jewish sources. Both engage in practical, hands-on agricultural work - field crops, livestock - the products of which are marketed through CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscription and farmers' markets; and both operate educational programs for schools and other groups and institutions in the Jewish community, on nature, agriculture, and sustainable living as these are reflected in Jewish texts. Both are or aspire to be organic (in both senses of the word) communities. Kayam's founders seek to build a long-term community - which they call a moshav - and the teachers there emphasize the biblical agricultural commandments such as tithes and gleaning and sabbatical year.

These young farmers and teachers are impressive, and their work is a worthy example of how the Jewish tradition can be a force for tikkun olam in every age. And perhaps they will also succeed in helping other young Jews find their way back to the Jewish community through involvement in social issues of current relevance and even urgency.

At the same time, I think that this [small] new world of Jewish eco-farmers can be seen as an indicator of the ambivalence of North American Jews today toward Israel. The Mishnah, which was redacted in around 200 CE in Eretz Yisrael, contains several tractates dealing with the application of the agricultural laws set forth in the Torah (e.g., gleaning, tithing).  A few hundred years later, these tractates were further explicated in the Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud; the Talmud compiled in Babylonia, meanwhile, does not contain these tractates, as the Mishnaic rulings on agriculture were not relevant outside of the land of Israel. Throughout the centuries since, Jews longed to return to Israel in order to be able to keep these commandments that were inoperative in exile.  This longing was the religious "engine" of Zionism. And secular Zionism saw the return as an opportunity to be reborn as a healthy, organic people rooted in the land, deriving sustenance from working the soil of Eretz Yisrael. The ideal of the Zionist pioneer, the young, strong Jewish farmer, was a powerful image in Jewish literature and art for nearly a century.

But that was then. Now, kibbutzim are plowing under their fields and orchards to make room for shopping malls and industrial "parks." Israel's cultural heroes are high tech entrepreneurs. Settlers in the West Bank claim the title of the "new pioneers," so it is difficult to talk about "settling the land" without getting into a political debate. And so the obvious connection between Israel and Jewish agriculture has become less obvious and even problematic, and idealistic young Jews are settling in rural Connecticut and Maryland to be reborn as organic farmers with a deep spiritual connection to the land, playing again those harps (and guitars) that we had hung up by the rivers of Babylon.

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