Eda Goldstein is a writer and member of Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel. She has worked as a veggie cook and head of the kibbutz kitchen, a dairy farmer and a plumber. In her spare time, she grows herbs and vegetables in old watering troughs, reads, cooks and hatches plots to build a green neighborhood on the kibbutz.
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Loquats (“shesek” in Hebrew) are recent newcomers to the Middle East: Their native home is China. But just as the almond trees in Israel always seem to bloom right on cue on Tu B’Shevat, the first fruits on my loquat tree always ripen just before the Seder.
Figs, grapes, pomegranates and dates are about the only truly native Israeli fruits. Jaffa oranges, those mainstays of Israeli export, were brought by earlier travelers and settlers; and sabras, the prickly pears whose name is synonymous with native Israelis, are not in the least indigenous. In other words, the fruits we claim as our own are really as far-flung in origin as the immigrants and children of immigrants who make up Israel’s population.
Pesach is the holiday of spring. It’s not only the hard-boiled eggs on the Seder plate that remind us of new beginnings in this season. The parsley, though it’s supposed to be bitter, has always seemed to me to embody the new green sprouting from the earth. Pesach also marks the beginning of the Omer – the countdown to the wheat harvest in late spring/early summer.
Just before Pesach, then, is a great time to visit the open market – the “shuk” – to see what fruits and vegetables are in season, and decide which will be gracing our Pesach table. The shuk nearest kibbutz Gezer is in Ramla. It’s not exactly on the tourist track, but it’s one of the best, and on Wednesdays and Fridays it’s bustling with people from all over and from every walk of life.
Once again, the Scientific American website has has some thought-provoking articles – this time a six-part series on food. The first, on heirloom tomatoes, ignores a few issues, such as the value of preserving diversity in crops, but makes a few interesting points as well. The second is on test-tube grown meat. How many vegetarians would eat “meat” if it didn’t require killing animals? We might find ourselves confronting this question sooner than we think. Today’s, the third, compares the nutritional value of cooked and raw vegetables. Not so surprisingly, it supports what I’ve always believed: We should be eating both.
- Photo credit: Hashomer Hatzair Archives Yad Yaari
Like everyone else, I have childhood memories of Seder Pesach. (In my grandmother’s cramped apartment in St. Paul, my great-uncle Al, who led the Seder, sitting at one end of the table in the bedroom; us kids squirming up against the living room radiator two rooms away at the other.) But when I think of Pesachs past, it is my adult memories of cooking for 400-600 in the kibbutz kitchen that immediately come to mind.
Nearly every Thursday, I stop by a tiny farmer’s market that’s only open for two hours a week. Among the sellers with goods taken from the backs of cars and trucks and set up on makeshift stands is a jolly white-haired guy named Koby. Koby’s always got a few assorted bags of vegetables – sometimes carrots, sometimes cauliflower, beets or tomatoes. For just a few shekels, I can get several kilos of the sweetest peppers or tastiest potatoes I’ve eaten in a long time, and they’re all organic. Koby is always pushing his vegetables, even when he’s about to run out: “Try these carrots! They’re something special!”
The vegetables, it turns out, are grown by elementary schoolchildren.
The town of Modiin, about 30 km northwest of Jerusalem, is pretty much a suburb without a city; an outsider can easily get lost among its shiny, planned streets filled with look-alike buildings, all faced in the same beige limestone. (I write this with all the smugness of one living in a tiny kibbutz house with a view of dairy sheds.) So it was something of a surprise to find that the town supports an educational ecological farm right on its border.
It’s called Hava v’Adam (a Hebrew play on words – Hava means both Eve and a farm). Last month our Kibbutz Gezer ecology group got a tour of the farm, organized by my neighbor and friend, Ofra, who works there part-time.
Around October, people can be seen walking around Kibbutz Gezer with large bags and, if they’re organized, sheets and sticks. They’re picking olives for home use from the trees that are scattered around the kibbutz grounds. To be honest, I gave up on preserving large batches of olives years ago, even though the tree in back of my house could provide a year’s worth for me and my family. It involves smashing, slicing or perforating each olive, soaking them and changing the water daily for at least two weeks, sterilizing jars, and waiting at least three months to eat the finished olives. More often than not, I ended up with mold floating on my brine, or olives that were too bitter to eat no matter how long they sat in salt and lemon.
This week’s Scientific American online has an excellent article on sustainability, what it is and isn’t. No scientific background is needed, and those looking for connections to Jewish ethics will find plenty to think about. While you’re on the Sciam site, check out the article on what artificial sweeteners do to the environment once they’ve passed through your body.
Gezer, my kibbutz, has its own olive grove, for oil. The trees are not nearly so old as those in Deir Hanna; many are mere babes in their late twenties. Nonetheless, they have their own history.
For some reason, the olives have always attracted the kibbutz members who are dreamers, or those who are most committed to living an alternative, sustainable lifestyle. Most were planted by my friend, and one-time neighbor Shimson.
What’s the most iconic symbol of peace? Chances are you immediately thought of the dove and olive branch. Doves were long ago exposed as white pigeons – not particularly peaceful or gentle birds, if the truth be known. And olive trees have lately been at the heart of the conflict in between Israel and its neighbors.
It would only be stretching the truth a little to claim that olive trees are the equivalent for most traditional agriculturalists in this part of the Middle East and of buffalo for Native Americans or yaks for Tibetans. To my knowledge, no one’s ever worn any part of the olive tree, but olive oil is an important source of fat in a cuisine that’s heavy on vegetables, legumes and grains. It was burned for light, is still used in soap and cosmetics, and it’s valued for its medicinal properties. Olive trees are precious property, passed down through generations. A family might sell its land but still retain rights to the olive trees on it, returning year after year to harvest the fruit.
The olive tree in this photo is reputed to be 2000 years old – give or take a century or so. It’s growing in a grove just above the village of Deir Hanna, in the North of Israel, one of five there that have attained record-breaking ages. I was a part of a group of ecology-minded people from Gezer, my kibbutz, and some friends who visited these trees on a trip to the nearby city of Sakhnin last summer. We went there to see new and traditional methods of building and water treatment. After we all stuffed ourselves silly on hummus and salads in downtown Sakhnin, our guide and friend Jan, a permaculture instructor and writer, led us up a winding hillside road to see these forgotten leafy treasures. (More about Jan, later.)
Touching any living thing that’s so inconceivably old is awe-inspiring. But unlike the other ancient trees I’ve walked around – giant old-growth redwoods, whose looming trunks? John Muir aptly described as “cathedrals,” reminding you of your petty insignificance – these trees connect one directly to human history. They’re recognizably agriculture, planted by humans in familiar patterns. Rather than growing tall and stately, their trunks have spread outward, becoming ever more twisted and gnarled with time – sometimes even splitting into separate trunks – as though they’re hunkering down to withstand the ravages of eons.