For Tu B’Shevat: Seeing Jewish farming

The first almond tree blossoms in Israel are a sign that Jewish Earth Day is just around the corner. Environmental awareness and responsibility is the major theme in celebrating Tu B’Shevat, the holiday also known as the New Year for the trees, on February 8. Originally observed as a harvest festival, in ancient Israel Jews would donate a tithing, a tenth of their harvest, to the Temple. Over the centuries the holiday has been invigorated with new traditions like eating fruits and nuts in a symbolic meal (seder). Reuven Rubin, <i>Pomegranates</i>Eating the seven edible plant species of Israel mentioned in the Torah (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates) can remind us to protect and care for the earth. Israeli artist Reuven Rubin’s 1942 painting of a sliced pomegranate makes this ancient symbol of fertility and observance look fresh. Planting trees in modern Israel is a Tu B’Shevat trend that has contributed to the cultivation of orchards like the one Annie Leibovitz photographed at Kibbutz Amir in 1969.

Annie Leibovitz, <i>Kibbutz Amir, Israel</i>With a new interest in producing and eating local foods, a new generation of Jews in the United States is connecting symbolism to everyday practice. A small but growing number of environmentally and socially responsible Jewish farms are popping up around the country to create a whole culture of Jewish farming combining biblical precepts of charity and gratitude with sustainable agricultural trends like permaculture and composting.

One such farm is a joint venture by the Jewish Farm School and Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y. An illustrative map drawn by Faryn Beth Hart shows how the farm’s layout and types of plants form a “living laboratory where tradition and ecology unite.” Crops and beds are arranged to form specific shapes and symbols. One notable scheme is the “calendar garden” with 13 fanning segments organized in a circular form designed to depict the lunar cycle of the Hebrew calendar. Each plant bed is fashioned to emulate a sliver of the moon, one for each month of the Jewish year (including the itinerant leap year that adds an extra month). The beds are planted with crops that coincide with the seasons and festivals that occur in each month.
Eden Farm Map

Taking the climate and native vegetation of upstate New York into consideration, the section for the month of Shevat is cultivated with crops that relate to Israel’s seven species. Wheat, fig and barley are able to flourish in Putnam Valley so they made the cut. For the rest of the species, the farmers got creative. Grapes are represented by grape hyacinths and olives by sesame seeds because they produce oil. For pomegranates, husk cherries were chosen because of their numerous seeds, inedible skin and unique taste. Dates are the only species not yet accounted for, but stevia, a sweet leafed shrub, might be planted in its stead.

Hart’s playful schematic map also depicts the “Pe’ah garden,” located at the bottom right corner of the map. In the Torah, the law of Pe’ah requires that the corners of the field should not be reaped and left for the poor. Accordingly, the Farm at Eden Village has planted their Pe’ah garden in the corner of their field and everything that grows in it is donated to a food pantry in Fishkill, N.Y.

As Jewish culture evolves, art and visual culture helps us to better understand how farms are carefully integrating Jewish traditions and environmental practices.

Rebecca Pristoop, Curatorial Assistant

Image Credits (top to bottom): Reuven Rubin, Pomegranates, 1942, oil on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New YorkGift of Ambassador and Mrs. Benson E.L. Timmons III/ Annie Leibovitz, Kibbutz Amir, Israel, 1969, Gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of the artist.