Many of us raising families and managing full time jobs have ideals about family time, environmental responsibility and Jewish engagement. These are things we know are really important both for the cohesion of our families and for the long term viability of our communities. Truly though, in trying to get it all done, these values get pushed aside as we attend to the immediate needs of scheduling and then living the rat race that we so carefully planned for ourselves. I know that we need more down time, that we need to cherish food and family, and work towards meaningful spiritual engagement, but I have difficulty making those ideals fit into the teetering Jenga structure that is my work / life / family / community balance.
Enter Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and you get to peek into a community that operates the way life would be lived, if our values and priorities matched up.
When I returned to Detroit from Adamah, the Jewish Environmental Fellowship in 2008, I had only two things on my mind: food and Jews. Having grown up in the Detroit suburbs, I had never before grown my own food. Coming of age in a secular family that belonged to a large Reform congregation, I had never sung Jewish songs, and had never celebrated Shabbat. At Adamah, we sang at every opportunity, and felt the meaning of Shabbat through the grateful rest of our aching muscles. From the moment I returned to Detroit, this time to the urban center instead of the 3rd ring suburb of my youth, I wondered if there would be some way to lead a Jewish life as rich and grounded as life at Adamah had been. There were a few realities that allowed me to excuse this as an impossible dream.
First, most of Detroit’s Jewish population exited the city for the suburbs over the course of the 50s and 60s. Much of this exit was motivated by post-WWII upward mobility, demographic shifts, and consequent racial tension. Also, most Jewish communities I’ve known in my life have been defined by insularity and exceptionalism, which led to my belief that, because the city of Detroit is 85% black, any Jewish Renaissance within its boarders was more likely to result in gentrification than integration.
This year it seemed that even the Sugar Maple Trees at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT celebrated Purim. We’ve been tapping about 30 trees over the last three weeks, during this short late-winter maple syrup tapping season. On the day before Purim, unlike any other day until now, some of the buckets were bone dry. Maybe the trees were reminding me to fast? Purim night, conditions were terrible for sap flow; the temperature stayed above freezing all night and by nine in the morning it was already over fifty degrees. The trees flow best when it dips below freezing at night and reaches forty degrees during the day, so I would never have predicted that by eleven o’clock on Thursday morning most of the buckets would be full to the brim with cool sweet sap.
Appropriately, on the night of Purim the trees couldn’t tell the difference between good conditions and bad conditions. Thursday morning, I did a mad dash to collect all the sap before the buckets overflowed.
Sabrina Malach is an inspiring leader of the New Jewish Food Movement in her native Toronto. She is currently the Director of Outreach and Development at Shoresh, a grassroots organization that aims to build a more ecologically sustainable Toronto Jewish community. Having received inspiration from her experiences as an Adamah Fellow and her work at Hazon, Sabrina has channeled her passion and knowledge into new food projects in the Toronto Jewish community. Most recently, she is one of the coordinators of the Shoresh Food Conference coming up this February.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with her and hear about her work on the Shoresh Food Conference, and how the New Jewish Food Movement takes a Canadian twist north of the border.
Sukkot is the holiday that celebrates the autumn harvest. The last of the three annual pilgrimage festivals on the Jewish calendar (if we’re counting from Pesach), these were the days in ancient times when our ancestors would gather the best of their seasonal produce and travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks as a community. In modern times, the communal table often takes the place of the Temple, bringing people together to give thanks for the abundance of the harvest. At the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center’s Sukkahfest more than a hundred people from all denominations of Judaism come together to celebrate and give thanks for the fruits of the season. Participants are able to see firsthand the source of their sustenance, with opportunities to visit our farm, orchard, and barnyard. Another way to show gratitude for the abundance of the harvest, and to continue to feed oneself with locally grown produce through the colder months, is preservation.
At Isabella Freedman we make every effort to utilize our farm’s produce when it is a fresh as possible — when it tastes the best and has the most nutritional value. Much of the produce grown on the Adamah farm is made into live cultured, lacto fermented pickled products. After the first frost in the fall, cabbages are harvested, chopped, salted, and made into sauerkraut. Scallions, daikon radishes, carrots, Napa cabbage, and hot peppers are mixed together to create our spicy kim chi. The last of the season’s hot peppers are mixed with sugar and cooked down to produce Bomb Jelly. After the jelly is finished cooking, it is poured into sterilized jars and canned, making a shelf stable product that can be stored anywhere in the kitchen. Lacto fermentation and canning are two time-tested preservation methods. One can imagine our ancestors marveling at their harvest of cucumbers, cabbages, or beets and covering the abundance in a brine of salted water to keep for the coming seasons.
When I participated in the Adamah Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in the fall of 2006, I remember feeling such amazement at the way that the High Holidays perfectly lined up with the agricultural calendar. I arrived at the farm just in time to see summer turn into fall — to harvest the last of the tomatoes and eggplants, clear out old cucumber and summer squash plants and begin to put the field “to bed,” planting cover crop and spreading manure to ensure fertile soil for the next growing season. As we celebrated the New Year, we dipped the first of the season’s apples into honey and feasted upon the frost-sweetened storage crops of the season: carrots, beets, and potatoes.
This year, the beginning of fall brought on the terrific force of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Connecticut rainstorms usually bring about an inch of rain, but these storms together brought between 9 and 11.5 inches of rain. This massive amount of water caused our main field, the sadeh, to flood — not once, but twice. As these waters rushed over the rows of carefully tended vegetables, they wreaked havoc. Low-lying vegetables such as cabbages and carrots were drowned. Other crops were simply swept away. The winter squash, which had been gathering sugars to be as sweet as possible for harvest, floated in the floodwaters to the woods at the edges of the field. Because of possible contamination in the floodwaters, vegetables that remained after the waters receded have been deemed unsafe to eat. Topsoil — the fertile, soft soil that farmers spend almost as much time cultivating as they do vegetables — was completely washed from the field. The past seven years of composting and cover cropping was lost and will have to begin our next season on hard, compacted soil.
Around the country, a number of synagogues, JCCs, day schools, and other Jewish institutions are doing inspiring work to integrate the physical spaces of gardens and farms into their core work of transmitting Jewish ideas and values. Last month, I highlighted the increased popularity of school and community gardens and pointed out some of the necessary measures needed to maintain them properly and maximize their impact. Innovative Jewish institutions from synagogues to JCC’s and educational farms around the country are also taking broad steps to engage members, students and teachers in Jewish garden programming.
Agudas Achim a Conservative synagogue in Columbus, Ohio had installed a garden about a year ago, but as with many synagogue garden projects, the enthusiasm around it waned. When synagogue leaders heard about their congregant Ariel Kohane’s experiences in the Adamah program, they hired her as an Environmental Scholar in Residence. They saw the potential beyond offering a few “green” programs. With her experience, Kohane could develop a program that would inspire younger Jews to connect to the synagogue community through environmental ethics, food and spirituality. A new and exciting culture could grow from its garden.
What in years past could be featured at a Passover Seder as the first vegetables of the spring — curly fiddlehead ferns and baby leek-like ramps — have yet to sprout in the Midwest this year. According to my local farmers market in St. Louis, everything’s coming up a bit late this year, including ramps. But the delightfully flavorful and delicate vegetables are showing up in east coast farmers markets and restaurants and will soon be available across the country.
Ramps, or allium tricoccum, go by many names — ramson, wild leek, wild garlic, rich woods leek, and the list goes on. They are generally grown and harvested in the wild, however, they are also cultivated by some farms, and carried by my local Whole Foods and other specialty markets. It’s possible that you’ll receive a nice bundle of ramps in one of your early CSA shares, so I wanted to share some tips as you discover them.
Recently, the phenomenon of value-added products has come to the forefront in the Jewish community, particularly through two innovative Jewish food businesses. The first, Adamah’s value-added lineup of dills, sauerkraut, pickled beets, and bomb jelly, has flourished in the New York area since its inception in 2007. The second line, comprised of the olive oils and jellies made by kibbutz Neot Smadar in the Arava desert, testifies to the business and marketing sense necessary for a small farm to succeed financially.
Before we dive deeper, let’s back up for a second and define. Value-added products are the result of engaging with a natural or cultivated resource like a vegetable or an olive and transforming it into something new and improved. Take sauerkraut, for example. By shredding a cabbage, smushing it down so that it sits in its own released juices, and adding a little salt, a fermentation process begins that adds to the shelf life, taste, and positive digestive bacteria of what once was just a cabbage. We’ve got a great side dish now to bring out at dinner, and from the producer’s point of view, this slight alteration provides a much nicer profit for the effort.
When winter arrives in the northeast, local farms are blanketed in snow and even some of the most conscious cooks’ attention shifts away from farmer’s market and into the sad acceptance that it’s nearly impossible to eat locally-sourced vegetables and fruits during these cold months. Folks look around at the snow and ice and then look at me, an organic farmer, and ask the inevitable question: What do farmers in the northeast do now? After I let them know that I’m on “summer vacation”, relaxing from growing their food, I let them in on the rarely-told story of the farmer in the winter, and how that story can help them eat locally year-round, supporting small, sustainable food businesses.
The winter is definitely a time for farmers to catch their breath, let their bodies recover from the physicality of the rest of the year, and read (I’m currently nose deep in “Atlas of Remote Islands”. It is also a time for farmers to get busy crop planning, scheduling the timing of plantings, determining how much of each crop to grow, ordering seeds and equipment, and hiring apprentices or farm labor for the coming season.
Eleven months into planning our April wedding, and my fiancé and I feel like we should write a book — the ultimate guide to the sustainable Jewish wedding. We dove into the world of wedding planning together, and decided to plan a wedding that would truly reflect us — with our desire to live sustainably and to also fulfill our families’ desire to have a large simcha.
Once we started on our venue search, the next question was obvious — what will we eat? For us, having a vegetarian wedding was of utmost importance. You might remember that Chelsea Clinton served meat at her wedding, although she’s a vegetarian. We fell on the other side of that debate. Why should we serve meat when we wouldn’t eat it ourselves? And along those lines, did we need to have a kosher caterer, or could we have a vegetarian-only wedding and satisfy the needs of most of our guests? But then we fretted — what about our orthodox guests? What about the fact that it’s a wedding — shouldn’t it be kosher?
Throughout this process there has been the tension between providing for what we feel our community expects, and serving food that mirrors our daily food values. As a natural foods chef, Adamah alumnus, lover of local food and preacher of eating healthy cuisine, the process of planning the food for our wedding has challenged all of my food values. For a split second, I even considered catering the wedding myself, but then I realized that was crazy.
“Goats are the Jews of the animal kingdom,” Aitan Mizrahi told a group at the Hazon Food Conference on Friday morning. The workshop participants, gathered in the warm, cream-scented air of a small industrial kitchen at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, immediately picked up on the tongue-in-cheek theme: They wander, they are intelligent, and they are stiff-necked, they said. And, Mizrahi pointed out, “They enjoy to be in a minyan and they also enjoy to go off on their own and shmooze.”
So the gentle and friendly milk-producers make a perfect fit for Freedman, an eco-conscious retreat space in the Berkshires.
During the session, Mizrahi described how the annex of the center’s staff housing where farming fellows make fermented delicacies, called the Cultural Center, turns goat milk into cheese and “goatgurt.” offering samples and sprinkling his presentation with biblical references. He and Adamah fellows Mònica Gomeryand Rachel Freyja Bedick also explained how the participants could turn their own kitchens into cultural hot spots.
When people ask what I do, I usually smile widely before answering, “I’m a pickler.”
There are few things more intriguing, bizarre, or comical than a fairly average looking 25 year old purporting to form her career around being elbow deep in brine. This is undoubtedly because careers like “pickler,” and “farmer,” have become something of an anachronism for several generations. And although pickling wasn’t taught in school, and the closest my suburban upbringing came to homesteading was my mother’s nightly ritual of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, preservation has truly become my daily bread.
I re-joined the Hazon staff at the beginning of the summer, after a three-year stint at ADAMAH. Since then, one of my major projects has been pulling together the East Coast Hazon Food Conference (our California staff is simultaneously working on the Hazon Food Conference – West Coast).
At Hazon, people often ask about what goes into planning a food conference, particularly one that represents the New Jewish Food Movement. Our conferences are the center of the conversation about Jews, food, and contemporary life, and they must show those values, as well as talk about them. We can’t just teach, we must also do. There are a lot of questions that we ask ourselves while planning the conferences. Here are some examples of how we begin to them.
Former JCarrot contributor, Jeffrey Yoskowitz writes in the New York Times Dining Section of the first Hebrew language pork cookbook, “The White Book” and the varying opinions surrounding the topic of “the white steak,” or pork, in Israel.
J. Weekly announces a new Adamah fellowship on urban Jewish farming to start next summer in the Bay Area.
JTA launches Chocolate and Kalamata Olives a food blog focusing on food and cooking in Israel.