August 25, 2004: I met farming as a full-on amateur,
all at once. My hands first fingered seeds at the same time
I was spreading biodynamic preparations on the compost pile.
This was in rural northwest Connecticut, where everything
seemed glorious, even the mass of black flies and gnats above
Growing up in New York City, my connection to the natural was
always confined to weekend camping trips, which involved spending
as much time in the car as on the hiking trails. During college,
I got more adventurous and spent my days working with urban
environmental groups, my vacation time backpacking through spots
of pristine beauty in the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
||"I feel like I am going to visit
an extended family, a close-knit group of farmers who
have chosen to embrace their land through healthy living,
connecting to a strong agricultural history rather than
the political disputes of a dead-end war."
Yet for all that geographical observation as a visitor in
a place, I had never been able to wake up and watch the colors
of the morning carelessly unfold over a wild horizon, knowing
I was home.
So, when offered the chance, I left the deceptive overabundance
of New York City's countless fresh vegetable stands to join
four other amateurs in Connecticut, on a piece of land that
had never before been farmed. The program was called Adamah,
a Hebrew word for land, one that finds its meaning through
the union of Adam, Hebrew for human being, and the
sound of the breath, which is the spark of God. http://www.isabellafreedman.org/adamah/adamah_intro.shtml
The devotion of the eight months that followed was as far
as could be from the dominion-orientation “Adamah”
most people reference. This has its biblical origin in those
haunting words: "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth
and subdue it."
The vibe of this place was experimental and challenging,
but a challenge that motivated through excitement rather than
pressure. My greatest teachers were the senior citizens from
the nearby retreat center, scolding me for planting the tomatoes
I learned to savor the sensation of organic material behind
my toenails and fingernails, the taste and scent of freshly
harvested produce. Every moment was filled with awe and wonder,
living on a beautiful piece of land amidst an intimate community
of farmers and educators.
|"Israel was the spot where the
sacred converged with the earth, where the divine permeated
the water, air, soil, and plants."
When the frost killed the summer squash and the season shifted
to winter I felt the urge to leave, to embrace a place that
made no sense, where death was more alive than life. I could
have gone to any industrial farm in America, but I chose Israel
When I was 13, my parents brought me here for the summer.
In Jerusalem's markets, vendors peddled tacky Holy Land hats
and t-shirts, along with Holy Land canned air and bagged soil.
They were the ugliest souvenirs I had ever seen. Holy Land.
A false representation in the current day and age, I think.
A long time ago the collective consciousness of inhabitants
here understood this phrase. Israel was the spot where the
sacred converged with the earth, where the divine permeated
the water, air, soil, and plants. It was the land herself
that stirred the spiritual energy in the atmosphere, something
that took form in passion and longing, a desire to tread on
her soil and eat from her fruit.
Hints of agricultural antiquity
Hints of the biblical era are still apparent, even to those
who ignore them. Ancient stone olive presses are commonplace
along hiking trails, covered in graffiti or overgrown by vines.
Etched across the countryside is the mark of the land's first
farmers in the hill-side terraces, with edges seemingly as
even as a child's building blocks.
Jewish religion is filled with spiritual and practical agricultural
laws, defining the proper relationship the farmer should have
with his or her land. Two of the most festive Jewish holidays
(Sukkot and Shavout) have agricultural roots, harvest celebrations
that culminated in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s Holy
I arrived in Israel in November at the beginning of the rainy
season, something dictated by the inclusion of rain prayers
during the Silent Meditation of the Eighteen Benedictions,
recited three times a day by observant Jews.
Two weeks later, when the clouds finally responded, I was
standing at the doorway of an apartment in Nachlaot, a pedestrian-designed
community of claustrophobic streets, a maze of winding alleyways
flowing from one to the next, where everything is constructed
completely with stone. Unable to find exposed soil, the rains
collected in massive pools and mini-floods, erupting down
the alleyways in search of an outlet.
|"It was the land herself that
stirred the spiritual energy in the atmosphere, something
that took form in passion and longing, a desire to tread
on her soil and eat from her fruit."
Somewhere in Jerusalem's Old City, Chasidim* were
dancing ecstatically as the rains fell and were lost through
rapid run-off to storm sewers. For a country that experiences
regular droughts and is over-pumping its fresh-water resources,
I saw no attempts to harvest and capture rainwater. Modern
Jerusalem is built upon the ruins of ancient Jerusalem, a
city with hundreds of well-positioned cisterns, now ignored.
The rain prayer has remained the same over the ages but --
from what I can see -- the agricultural intention and ideal
behind it have been lost.
It seems it is the ancient, the biblical, which has been
forgotten -- and it is that which haunts me, too. Through
the haze of the bus’s thick, bullet-proof windows, I
catch glimpses of Bedouin tents -- a compilation of blankets
and corrugated steel pieced together to house a family and
their flock. I see the backs of Arab shepherds, their heads
wrapped in white scarves for protection against the sun, their
legs lost in the dust stirred by the goats around them. Against
the backdrop of the lunar landscape that is comprised by Israel's
desert, rocky mountains and overgrazed soil, these characters
are somehow surviving.
I have no language to connect to these individuals. They
seem like ancient peoples walking in the present, fellaheen
[peasant] figures shrouded in the mystery of what the biblical
may have looked like.
“Make the desert bloom”
At some point, a war was declared on this desert and everything
it represented. Someone said "Make the desert bloom--now."
I am still vague on the details, but clearly there was a general
consensus that the status quo of animals, grapes, figs, dates,
nuts and olives presented a destitute scene, a barren wasteland,
ill-suited to profit and commerce. By now, things have changed.
Israel is a proud cultivator of modernity, known for her high-tech
irrigation and greenhouses, a powerful player in the world
citrus and flower markets, with high exports of pesticides
and herbicides. I can't understand why the blood of all who
have died for this sacred place should fertilize imported,
Western-style, big-bed designs and stretches of greenhouses
that seem like plastic cities. I can't understand how agribusinesses
and mono-crop cultures are becoming established in a country
designed for collective agricultural communities where, less
than 50 years ago, biodiverse and ecological farming was the
You would think that in a country where everyone is sacrificing
themselves over the land, someone, Arab or Jew, would be preaching
stewardship. Instead, all I feel is the consuming intent of
ownership fueled by other forces entirely.
But this all sounds like a conclusion, as if the subject has
been dealt with. As if I’d been here more than two weeks.
I know nothing about any of this. All I can take ownership of
is the weak impression of an outsider.
All I have is my curiosity. Luckily, this seems like an offering
many people can't refuse.
Curious knocks open doors
||"I knock on the owner’s
doors and introduce myself with questions about organic
agriculture in their country. Those with an answer graciously
allow me into their homes, as if to say, "See, Israel
is not as destructive as the world paints it."
There is no developed infrastructure for agricultural volunteers
in Israel. This has not been a problem, though. I come across
gardens where conventional lawns usually dominate. I knock
on the owner’s doors and introduce myself with questions
about organic agriculture in their country. Those with an
answer graciously allow me into their homes, as if to say,
"See, Israel is not as destructive as the world paints
it." They hand me seeds and phone numbers and tell me
to go visit so and so.
I now have a knapsack full of seeds, and enough destinations
in mind to take me all over the country.
I feel like I am going to visit an extended family, a close-knit
group of farmers who have chosen to embrace their land through
healthy living, connecting to a strong agricultural history
rather than the political disputes of a dead-end war.
On a personal level, this is something that excites me not
only as a transient observer or would-be farmer, but as someone
with roots rotting in a country I cannot yet call home. I
have never fingered the makeup of her soil. I have never breathed
in the scent of her early morning mist, lingering on her foliage
and in her air.
I approach the land only with preconceived notions, useless
to me now that I am here.
* Chadisim are Orthodox Jews of Eastern European descent whose daily activities
reveal a devout love and awe of the Creator.
Yigal Deutscher is a freelance writer. He is also a Permaculture
activist and religious Jew exploring time and space for connections
between the earth and Jewish spirituality.
To learn more about the Adamah program visit: http://www.isabellafreedman.org/adamah/summer_pil.shtml