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. 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 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
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
“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
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