A Jewish Journey Through the Country’s Agriculture Capital
Risa Isard, one of our founding tzevet member (2010-2013) recently wrote a piece about her experience of living in California during this drought and reflecting upon the dryness through the Jewish lens she learned at Ramah.
I’ve spent the last year living in Fresno, California—the heart of agriculture capital of the country. It’s been an amazing and eye opening experience to have this kind of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, including being able to differentiate between varieties of fruits I’d never even heard of before now. But it’s not the fruits—the end of the labor—that move me most. Rather, I am most moved by this newfound knowledge I have about what exactly it takes to produce the food I enjoy so much. I’m grateful for the men and women in the field whose hard work makes it possible for me to shop at farmer’s markets almost exclusively, where I buy produce that was sometimes picked the very day I bought it. I’m also moved by the uncontrollable “x factors” and the game of roulette that seemingly determine the fate of my community’s economy and quite frankly, our nation’s and our world’s food supply.
It’s the latter realization that made me finally understand why agriculture and “country life” are tied to religion so closely. There are too many unexplainable things that play a decisive role in whether your crop will come in. I won’t say that realizing why ag and religion are connected has made me closer to God. That’d be a bold-faced lie. I’ve never had less of a Jewish community than I do here—a place where I’m regularly reminded that I’m the first or second Jew someone’s ever met. But even without a community, and even in the midst of California’s Bible Belt, my Jewish education came to life in the most unexpected way.
It first hit me in the fall, when Sukkot coincided with the Great Harvest. Virtually all of the country’s raisins were ripe for picking within a 60 mile radius of where I live (the actual statistic via the Fresno County Farm Bureau is 99.5%). During August and September, farm hands’ trucks lined the streets as I cycled or drove past the fields where workers were picking on a regular basis. More importantly, the hot weather in which our farm laborers found themselves working meant that field huts (literally, sukkot) were a reality, not a mitzvah. The only word to describe witnessing literal sukkot serving a practical function at the same time that Jews around the world were erecting their own sukkot is powerful.
This month, I’ve been reminded again of the coinciding of traditional Jewish practices with “real world” necessities. As I learn that uncontrollable forces of nature can beat even the most experienced farmer, I’m reminded of how Judaism provides us with strategies for combating less than ideal circumstances and even provides us with coping mechanisms, if you will. Just two weeks ago—the day after Tu b’Shevat—California’s Governor formally declared the state to be in a drought, calling it a “state of emergency.” The timing is eerie, that’s for sure. As Jews, we were supposed to be celebrating the “New Year of the Trees,” but here in California, we didn’t know what the future held for our trees. The only word that can describe how I felt at the cross roads of such an uncertain (read: pessimistic) future and Tu b’Shevat is one some of our campers will be familiar with—yirah, or part awe/part fear.
The drought has also made me reflect on the traditional parts of the amidah that we add during this time of year to pray for wind and rain. Lobbying your legislators to declare a state of emergency and release water reserves—as Californians did before Governor Brown’s declaration—might temporarily alleviate some of the distress, but it will hardly solve the full-blown crisis we’re facing. It’s no longer a question. Fields will lay fallow this season. Farmers will be faced to make hard decisions, letting some crops go while doing their best just to keep their trees at least alive, even if forgoing yields. When it comes down to it, praying for rain—torrential downpours at this point—is the only thing to do. Enter: “mashiv haruach u’morid hageshem.” And once again, enter yirah.
The summer of 2013 was one of only two summers since 2001 when I wasn’t at Ramah. Since I wasn’t a day school kid growing up and never found a true niche in the Jewish community at home (or even at college), Ramah has always been the place where I did my Jewish learning and growing. It’s refreshing to me to know that the foundation I have from Ramah (where I learned how to daven, hence my understanding of the amidah, and where I led a limud curriculum about sukkot) is something that I can build upon through these real life experiences that aren’t even particularly Jewish. Because of Ramah, even when I’m not practicing Judaism in a traditional sense of the word, I’ll always see the world through a Jewish lens.
If I’ve grown in one Jewish way this past year, it’s that I’ve learned that when you’re living at the behest of nature, these customs that felt so old school and purely symbolic are actually founded in practices that are still relevant and purposeful. So today, as California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, our nation’s most fertile land and my newfound home, experience rain for the first time in more than 50 days I say Baruch HaShem. And for the first time in a while, I mean it.