By Maya Kassutto
It seems like every family I know has a garden this year. Everyone and their mother (and maybe especially the mothers) is spending a portion of their days tilling their backyards and planting tomatoes.
There are a number of reasons for this mounting trend in a pandemic-swept country.
There is growing concern over the dissolution of supply chains, the desire to avoid the hazards of grocery shopping and the amount of time that many seem to have on their hands. It is a familiar phenomenon to those familiar with World War II victory gardens, when similar worries over food supply led many to plant their own vegetables for the first time.
While it may seem like an apocalyptic contingency plan, some argue that, for the Jews, turning to gardening is actually returning to gardening. As Shani Mink, executive director of the Jewish Farmer Network, put it, “Before we were the people of the book, we were the people of the land.”
The Jewish Farmer Network represents a fast-growing subsection of the Jewish community which views the Jewish tradition as an essentially agrarian one. Its mission is to connect these people and create a community for them.
Mink explained that, for a Jew, becoming a farmer is no easy feat. Historically, anti-Semitic propaganda has painted the Jews as weak and unable to perform physical labor. In addition to external dissuading pressures, there are the internal ones. According to Mink, “a lot of us, we grow up being told that what it looks like to be Jewish is to be a doctor and to be a lawyer.” When young people tell their families “I’m going to be a farmer” the response is often “that’s just not something that we do.”
She views the mission of her organization not as creating a Jewish tradition of farming, but unearthing the Jewish wisdom and tradition on the subject that already exists and is often ignored.
Jewish agricultural knowledge includes hard skills, such as how to till the fields. The Jewish practice of shmita, allowing the land to lay fallow periodically, is one of the better-known Jewish farming principles. This regenerative practice allowed Jews to stay on a single tract of land and develop communities while other agricultural groups were forced to periodically migrate.
Jewish farming is also intrinsically linked with food justice. Mink stressed, “Our Israelite ancestors were designating the corners of their garden for those in need.”
While this may not be literally applicable in your own garden, the ethics of feeding your neighbors can manifest in other ways. Especially now, when so many are struggling with unemployment and a growing number of Americans are going hungry, there are many ways in which our tradition urges us to be of help.
Mink called attention to the synagogues and summer camps that are empty at the moment. There are, she said, “hundreds of acres of lawn mown by the Jewish community.” If we recognize land as a resource rather than a given, we might pay more attention to all of its potential uses at the moment, including as a food source for those in need.
For those looking to get involved, a member of the Jewish Farmer Network, Nate Kleinman, is helping many Philadelphia families get started.
Kleinman and his project, the Cooperative Gardens Commission, are working to “to share resources and get millions of people to grow food for themselves and their communities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.” These resources include advice on how to get started, procuring seeds and assisting in the obtaining and maintaining of land.
The Jewish Farmer Network is growing. Its Facebook group has more than 1,000 members. Its first annual conference, held in February, was sold out, with 165 members attending.
Since the pandemic, it has launched a series of virtual workshops. The first session sold out in a day, and sessions were added to meet growing need.
“People are hungry for understanding the relationship between Jews and land because that’s so often left out of the conversation around Jewishness,” Mink said.
Even as the network gains momentum, she meets Jewish farmers who do not identify as such. They tell her, “I’m not a Jewish farmer. I’m a farmer, and I happen to be Jewish.”
With closer attention paid to the Jewish history of agriculture and more emphasis placed on the continuing Jewish relationship to the earth, this will no longer seem like a coincidence. Jews will not be farmers despite their tradition, but because of it, and their knowledge will be enriched by Jewish systems and ethics.
It may come as just as much of a surprise to those dabbling in their backyards as it does to those who grow food professionally, but the truth, Mink said, is a simple one: “My ancestors were farmers, too.”
Maya Kassutto is a writer and editor from Elkins Park.