What is the purpose of a community garden? A few weeks ago, I would have said that I knew the answer to this question: that a community garden’s purpose is to nourish people with healthy food and to subvert a corrupt system by providing an alternate model.
However, at this year’s Hazon Food Conference at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, Rabbi Noah Farkas challenged me to imagine the larger impact community gardens could have in creating a more just food system across lines of race and class. He pushed me to question how community gardens can lead us not just towards rejecting the system, but also changing the system itself.
As we prepare for Tu B’Shvat, I can’t help but grow more introspective. Over the past century, Tu B’Shvat has evolved into a primarily mystical food holiday incorporating a Kabbalistic seder, dating back to 16th century Tzfat.
At the center of our Torah lies our relationship to the natural world. In our Biblical stories, we are part of the natural world —and set apart from it. God gave us the ability to name the creatures that roamed the Earth and we are God’s own creation. The first human being took the name Adam, for it was from the Adamah (earth) that he was created. God gave us a garden to cultivate, while living within that garden. We are natural and social creatures, living among the swarms of life and reaching beyond it through the study of Torah
Jews across the world today will participate in the second-most-common spring ritual — lugging to work and parks brown-bag lunches filled with leftover turkey or brisket and some matzah. Last year at a local farm (a favorite spot for kids on spring break), a group of friends in Los Angeles set up a kind of “leftover shuk” where families traded their cold seder delicacies in hopes of finding something new and tastier. Most of us don’t like leftovers — they smack of age and rejection. Nobody wants to eat that again.
But I love leftovers, especially at Passover.
A new dish on our plate creates excitement and anticipation. The aroma wafting off the spoon, the split-second burst of heat touching our lips just before we take a bite, the taste rouses our slumbering taste buds creates something new, alive, even sexy. There is great spirituality in this newness. In fact, the Passover Sacrifice of the Exodus story — embodied by the shank bone on our seder tables — symbolizes this very act of newness. “You shall eat the flesh that same night … Do not leave any of it over until morning, if any of it remains in the morning you shall burn it.” (Exodus 12:8, 12:10)
In cities across the globe this month, Jewish communities are celebrating Tu B’Shvat. One of the types of celebrations is the mystical Tu B’Shvat seder. It started in the 16th century, by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, who took the New Year of the Trees and gave it an other-worldly spin. Through the ritual of the Tu B’Shvat seder, the Jew celebrates the fecundity and blooming of the trees as a totem for spiritual perfection. Basically, the seder is a ritual that leads the Jew through four divine worlds culminating in the world of emanation—the world of the spirit which is perfect and holy. Here we eat fruits that are fleshy and without pits, teaching that in the world of emanation, all is perfect and sweet. It’s lovely and spiritual, and totally backwards. Let me explain.
The problem with the totemic thinking of Tu B’Shvat is that it ignores the underlying structure of the human-eco balance on which this day relies. Luria’s seder is a ritual journey that elevates the soul up and away from the physical to the metaphysical, from the body to the spirit, from this world to the world beyond. Notice, the subtext: the world we live in is nothing but a beginning—a way station to the real world of God’s essence felt in the undiminished mystical union. Understood this way, the purpose of the seder is to elevate ourselves away from the physical, turning our backs on this world, and on our responsibility for it, for a chance at a mystical union with God.
With the New Year comes the New Year’s Resolution. Polls say 45% of all Americans make at least one resolution, the most popular of which is to lose weight. But according to Opinion Research Corporation, one out of every four people never follow through on their resolution because they set a goal they can’t achieve. I believe the whole process of goal-oriented resolutions is a bit dangerous. Goal-type resolutions set behavioral patterns that are often out of character for who we fundamentally are, and they risk our self-esteem when we miss our mark or give up. Think of it this way: If you resolve to lose 100 pounds but only lose 50, did you achieve your resolution? If you are too goal oriented, then your achievement (50 pounds!) is for naught. Resolutions based on goals are too flat. We need something deeper.
Elsewhere I wrote that the core problem of our food system is that our food has become flattened into mere objects or commodities to be consumed. The solution to this flattening is the reclamation of the depth our food represents. More than a mixture of ingredients, our food is freighted with values, memories, and political processes. When we place a morsel in our mouth we immerse ourselves into these depths. I called this process Deep Kashrut. When it comes to making resolutions for the New Year, instead of thinking of resolutions as flat goals, let’s think of them as life-adjustments to deepen ourselves.
When I walked into Roxbury Park’s Community Center this past Sunday night, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve been involved with the New Jewish Food Movement for a number of years, and one of the many questions I keep asking is, “What exactly is the landscape of the Food Movement?” In my work as a community rabbi both within a congregation and outside of it, I know that community needs definition, even in the broadest possible sense. Without definitions, a community can fail, especially one that describes itself as a “Movement.” So when my food-based organization, Netiya, co-sponsored a food justice event, Harvesting Justice, along with JFSJ/PJA and IKAR, I walked in with a number of questions in my pocket: what is the message of this “movement,” who makes up its committed core, and what can we learn from each other? In short, my questions could be surmised into a single query: “Who are we, really?”
Harvesting Justice brought together a large swath of organizations and individuals who self-associate with the word “food.” In the courtyard of the community center, a number of invited groups put on a foodie fair with booths with everything from making vegan-raw chocolate pudding, to “shopping” (read: taking for free) from a selection of fallen fruits and vegetables from around Los Angeles, to advocates for restaurant worker justice. One would need a very wide-angle lens to capture the panorama of issues, programs, and initiatives associated with the Food Justice Movement, let alone the entire Food Movement.
If Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, fulfills his vision, 101 food-bearing gardens will blossom at synagogues, Jewish organizations, schools and private homes throughout urban Los Angeles — with 90% of their harvest going to feed the hungry through his new organization Netiya: The LA Jewish Coalition on Food, Environment and Social Justice.
The organization, which was founded in November 2010 and is getting off the ground this season with two gardens, is named for the Hebrew word for planting used in passages about the Garden of Eden.
The idea for the organization germinated at a 2009 Hunger Summit convened by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. When a participant asked if gardening could be a way to combat local hunger, Farkas stood up and said that Valley Beth Shalom day school students and their families were doing precisely that. Working with the synagogue’s Green Team, they have established a budget and set up a work schedule to grow food that is given to local food banks to help feed the hungry. Several participants joined the effort and Farkas hosted a series of group meetings with Jewish professionals in the area to gain more volunteers. The organization also teamed up with the local federation’s Fed Up with Hunger campaign to which the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles granted $250,000.