Today is Shemini Atzeret, when Jews pray for rain, and when we say goodbye to Sukkot. Sukkot is the holiday in which Jews eat and sometimes sleep in funny looking little houses in their yards. One of my more urban Jewish friends used to say that carrying the soup out from the house to the sukkah was the closest he ever wanted to get to camping ;-). There are a lot of Jewish jokes about not going anywhere near nature, because Jews are overwhelmingly an urban people, for a whole host of reasons. Many places forbade Jews to own land, or much land. Through most of Jewish history it was only a matter of time before you would be cast off your land or driven out of it. So urban life made sense, and gradually, most Jews left the land and agriculture, and mostly even forgot what it was like to be an agrarian people. But we are reminded of the agricultural roots of our faith in a whole host of ways, one of which is sukkot.
Sukkahs are temporary dwellings, with roofs made of branches that let you see the stars and feel the rain, to remind Jews of the booths they lived in in the desert after escaping slavery. They remind us of our vulnerability. Irving Greenberg argues that Sukkot is the Jewish people's reminder that we don't usually get to stay much of anywhere - so don't get too attached to any bit of soil. In fact, he argues, we shouldn't get attached to our land, because it can kill us, if we don't leave in time when things get bad for the Jews.
Despite that reminder of our vulnerability and our instability, Sukkot is a happy holiday, a harvest festival. And that's perhaps the most remarkable thing about sukkot to me - sukkot reminds us of dwelling in the desert, where there was no harvest from the soil, only manna from heaven. But, it is implied, we still celebrated the harvest, even though we were far from the people harvesting. That is, our agrarianism doesn't depend on our being *present* or participants in agriculture, merely that we know and understand that right now, the most important thing going on in the harvest, and that even in cities, we live our lives around that knowledge.
And it is that part of Sukkot that most fascinates me - the insistence that we live the agricultural rhythyms of the earth no matter where we are, that we are fundamentally tied to our agrarian culture. My husband grew up in an apartment in suburban New Jersey. His family had an agricultural past - his great-grandfather had a farm on the German Danish border, until the day the Nazis came for him. Eric's great-grandfather, Ali Wolfe, escaped, but the farm no longer belongs to his family, of course. And thus, my husband and his family were left to express their ties to the land through religious holidays and the occasional backyard garden.
My husband grew up, as most Americans who live far from rural places do, only dimly aware of the links between rain and agriculture, food in the stores and on shelves and food in fields. He grew up far away from the places where food was grown, far away from the rites and rituals of agriculture, seeing them only through the lens of his synagogue, which was itself a suburban place, where ritual foods come from the store. In two generations, my husband's family lost not just a farm, but an awareness, a systemic understanding of how nature and human will and
the blessings of G-d unify to feed and clothe and shelter them - that is, precisely the facts that shaped the development of their faith.
Urbanization is the biggest trend in history. For the first time, more human beings live in cities than in the country. More than 50,000 farmers worldwide leave their land or are driven off of it every single day, most of them moving to cities, often to slum dwellings on the outskirts of growing megacities. And in each family, there is a cycle in that movement. The first generation who moves from the farm to the city remains agricultural in mindset and practice. They will never fully assimilate into urban life, but will be the grandparents who embarass their children by picking edible plants from the side of the road and giving nutritious soups instead of vitamins. Their children will want to fit into the urban life. They will disdain and reject the skills of their parents, in many cases, or at best view what their parents know as irrelevant. The second generation recognizes that what the first generation knew is now gone, and wants it as far out of the way as possible. The second generation will be taught how to pick and use those plants, but they will see such knowledge as old fashioned, embarassing or even "dirty."
Then comes the third generation removed from the land. They may have eaten grandmother's soup, or seen her pick the greens, but they will also have absorbed their parent's rejection of these things - at least at first. And only when they are grown will the grandchildren begin to see the value of what their grandparents knew, and to try and recreate it a little. If they are fortunate, they will have noticed their lack before the first generation is gone. If not, they will try and recreate what is lost as best they can, knowing that it is never the same as the first. They will start searching for the echoes of their agrarian past everywhere, and begin trying to remake the world from the echoes in their religion, their practices, their habits.
This process, with variations, gets enacted everywhere that people move out of the country and into the cities. Sociologist Lynda Kim argues that this is pretty much universal in the transition from rural to urban cultures. But does it have to work this way? We may not be able to reverse the tide of urbanization - indeed, there are good reasons for concentrating people into cities. We simply don't have enough land to allow every single person on earth an agrarian life. But how do we keep the link between city and country? It is a link that is important to both parties - the exploitation of farmers who are underpaid and disregarded is only possible when you don't know any farmers, when you don't care what they have to do to make your dinner. And urbanites who have lost touch with natural rhythyms need to get in touch with them, to have a relationship not only to their food, but to their agrarian origins.
America has an unusual gap between city and country. In many places in Africa, Asia and Russia, even urban people have a "country place." But this does not imply a recreational second home, as it does here, but a simple shack or other shelter designed to allow you to gather or grow food during the correct season. In much of southern Africa, middle class urban dwellers keep cattle, and go out the land to tend them during the weekends. In Russia, summerhouses allow people to collect mushrooms and wild plants.
In America, there are still vestiges of this culture. Hunting and fishing camps are now recreational to a large degre, but there are still millions of Americans who rely for deer and fish for primary sources of food. The community garden in the undeveloped areas of urban centers might be a metaphoric version of this - the reminder that food does not have to be grown only on land you own, or on land your house rests upon. But the overwhelming assumption is that the first step to agriculture is ownership.
That's wrong. It is wrong because many of the people who most need to grow food cannot afford to own land, and it is wrong, I think because as Sukkot reminds us, it isn't about any one piece of land. It is about all the land. Our society can only survive the coming crises if we make the nation, and the world bloom, if we use land productively, wisely and carefully. But it is also wrong because understanding what is going on depends on having a populace that is connected to its own agriculture. That is, we cannot afford to leave millions of city and suburb dwellers out of the project of creating a sustainable agriculture. And since few people can afford to live in expensive cities and also own large quantities of rural land, we need to think of more creative ways than traditional ownership to draw those connections
How might we reconnect urban dwellers to their own agricultural traditions? CSAs have provided an excellent model, but up until now, most CSAs are providing only in-season produce to their members. There is no reason why urban dwellers shouldn't also get their grains from CSGs, signing up in the spring to receive a fair share of wheat, beans, corn or rice. There is no reason why we shouldn't get our yarn, sweaters, mittens, gloves, tshirts, socks, tablecloths and blankets from CSFs, that produce fiber goods, or yarn that someone can bring to their neighborhood weaver or sock knitter to be made up. While this would be more expensive than buying sweatsocks from Walmart, it would also be putting our money where our principles are.
Albert Bates told me last year that The Farm has started the US's first "CSE" - where they use existing expanses of outbuilding roof to generate solar electricity, and sell it back to their neighbors. The possibilities for wood for heating and building, clothing, food, and other goods are enormous, and vastly underexplored.
But it isn't just enough to have a relationship with farmers. There are some things you can only learn by touching and smelling and living. We need to bring urban dwellers out to the land, at least some of the time. Train and boat lines that run from cities to the countryside could take teenagers who need summer work out to farms. It wasn't so very long ago that many teenagers barned tobacco, baled hay or picked cherries every year. It could be that way again.
While buying your own dacha in the countryside is a pricey proposition, there is no reason why urban dwellers might not invest in local farms. They might buy some sheep that will be theirs, paying to have them fed, tended and grazed, receiving lamb and wool at the end of the year. We routinely stable horses this way - there is no reason we could not do so with food animals. The owner, of course, would have a relationship with the animal. Or perhaps urban dwellers might join together to buy a plot of land with a farmer. The farmer would farm the land, paying out the owners in produce and food in perpetuity. Thousands of young people would like to get on some land - there is no reason they should not. Such arrangements are new, and potentially come with difficulties, but normalizing them would go a long way to making them easier to navigate.
The movement to limit development has meant that towns and cities often now hold parcels of land that cannot be developed. There is no reason why such community resources should serve only the tax rolls - there is no reason why cattle cannot graze the local commons again, why farms rescued from the bulldozer should not be transformed into smaller truck farms, or farmed by tenants, or turned into community gardens. Many already are - the intervale in Burlington Vermont being a stunning example. More could be.
It is harvest time now. We are filling the grain bins and enjoying the lush period of the autumn. It is time for all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike to remind ourselves that none of us is so very far from our agrarian past, and that all we have to do to reclaim it is to begin to do so.