Vine and fig tree: Restoring agriculture in the Holy Land
Farmers on the margins test lush agricultural notions
against Israel’s dry climate, charged politics

Young New Yorker encounters six communities who love the ancient soil of the Holy Land enough to care for it well. First in a series.

By Yigal Deutscher

JERUSALEM, Posted 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 my head.

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.

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.

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 so late.

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.

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 instead.

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 Temple.

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.

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 communal lifestyle.

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

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: