‘Shtetl Skills’ Workshop Series Blends Farming, Jewish Knowledge

Hannah Slipakoff leads the Winterizing Your Garden workshop. | Photo by Selah Maya Zighelboim

Nati Passow grew up in what he describes as an intellectual household — his parents are professors, and his brother and sister are rabbis — a far cry from his Holocaust-surviving ancestors who worked with their hands.

Passow, Jewish Farm School executive director, started to notice a do-it-yourself culture emerging, one that celebrated brewing your own beer and baking your own bread. But often, as he saw it, this DIY culture didn’t acknowledge this expertise’s origin.

In 2013, Passow started the Shtetl Skills workshop series to meld the two worlds of ancestral knowledge and DIY culture together. He wanted to explore how his shtetl-dwelling ancestors may have lived, rather than how they died.

“I had the thought that there is so much focus on Holocaust education, but very little of that seems to be teaching people practical skills that might save them, that saved their ancestors,” Passow said.

On Nov. 19, JFS, which is located in West Philadelphia, held a workshop called Winterize Your Garden, one of six workshops that comprise the Shtetl Skills series. Hannah Slipakoff, JFS program manager and Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming and Environmental Education fellow, taught the class. Upcoming workshops include Fall Medicine Making II, Chanukah Candle Making and Crop Planning for Abundance.

For Slipakoff, growing food has been a spiritual experience since she started doing it at 16 years old. Now, she makes an explicit point to connect farming with her spirituality.

“During Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, when you’re a farmer and you’re working your butt off, and it’s the end of the season, it brings a whole new meaning when you’re having a centuries-old harvest festival,” Slipakoff said. “It brings a new perspective to what you’re doing.”

Slipakoff began the workshop by framing winter in a Jewish context. Holidays on the Hebrew calendar generally line up with the agricultural cycle of Israel, and during the winter, there is a gap in holidays — except for Chanukah, which occurs around the winter solstice.

She shared a Midrash about Adam, who, as the winter solstice approached, noticed the days growing shorter. He thought the world was returning to chaos and fasted for eight days. After the solstice, he saw that the days were lengthening and celebrated for eight days instead.

The workshop attendees and Slipakoff discussed how to prepare a garden for winter — what plants will survive the frost and when to plant them, what materials to cover vegetables with and how to prevent disease and pest problems, among other topics. As they talked, attendees sipped holy basil tea — an Indian tea that helps people adjust to seasonal change — and shucked soybeans. Afterward, they went outside and checked out the Jewish Farm School garden.

According to Passow, though different workshops attract attendees of different skill levels, this one was particularly technical and so attracted attendees with more established gardens.

Passow said he hopes the series helps Jewish people connect to their Judaism, especially those who are passionate about issues such as urban farming but who have never learned about how Judaism could be personally relevant to them.

“Part of the goal of this workshop series is to let people realize that Judaism has a lot to say about issues you’re already passionate about,” Passow said. “It’s probably not what you encountered in Hebrew school or at your synagogue, but let us be a channel through which you learn about these lesser-known aspects of Judaism that are actually more interesting to you.”

Alex Zaremba, a farmer and workshop attendee, said that he’s involved with JFS, particularly its Philly Farm Crew, because he is passionate about urban farming and food justice education. He came to the workshop to learn more about farming.

“It’s meaningful to me, that connection between any sort of spirituality and agriculture,” Zaremba said. “The Jewish approach is the one that I was raised with, that I grew up with and the one I have the most ownership over, and I like that about it. Any time we talk about ancient wisdom and how it connects to seasons, it’s pretty cool stuff.” 

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