It sounds like a Borsch Belt joke:
So, Yentl, what did you learn at the Jewish Food Conference?
They taught me how to grow latkes and catch gefilte fish.
While I don’t recall hearing any corny jokes, I did have a good time at the first ever Boston Jewish Food Conference on April 22, 2012. The focus of the event, subtitled “Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability,” was on creating a responsible Jewish food ethic that integrates religious and secular wisdom. Chefs, nutritionists, foodies, farmers, educators, activists, and religious and secular Jews gathered to learn, network, and–of course–nosh. The event was organized by a year-old organization called Gamei Boston – Beantown Jewish Gardens focusing on hands-on agriculture and sustainability education in the Jewish community.
Given the critical role that food and agriculture play in the Jewish religion, rituals, holidays, and culture, it makes sense that Jews are involved in the sustainable and local food movement. “Our community has been exploring our relationship with food for over 5000 years,” conference co-organizer Leorah Mallach pointed out. Agriculture was the primary occupation for Jews during many periods of our history. Many modern American Jews learned about farming while living on a kibbutz in Israel.
This was not your typical conference. In addition to important social justice topics, such as Workers Rights in the Food System, and Food Access in Greater Boston, the conference offered participants the opportunity to learn about the ancient Jewish laws of kosher slaughter by standing witness as a licensed poultry shochet transformed a live chicken into kosher meat. (I briefly thought about participating, but since I don’t eat chicken, I felt this would go far beyond the call of duty.)
When moderator Rabbi Jacob Fine of the Jewish Farm School asked the “Jewish Farmers Today” panelists if they identified as Jewish farmers, or simply as Jews involved in agriculture, three of the four farmers made an explicit connection between Judaism and farming. Two specifically cited how the rituals associated with kosher slaughter methods help them acknowledge the meaning of the act.
Organic farmer, seed-saver, and artisan baker Eli Rogosa, of the Heritage Grain Conservancy, led a workshop called “Lechem Min Ha-aretz: Bread from the Earth,” and had a table in the conference Shuk (marketplace). She has worked with the Israeli Genebank to collect rare ancient Israeli seeds, and now makes bread, matzoh and flatbreads from these ancient grains that she grows, such as einkorn and emmer.
As a secular Jew, I don’t view my involvement with the good food movement as a form of religious expression, yet I do feel a connection between the values and traditions of Judaism and my commitment to ensuring that everyone has access to healthy, delicious food. And I do seem to know a disproportionately high number of Jewish foodies. Whether through my involvement with the Boston Workmen’s Circle or my own family rituals, I look forward to finding new ways of deepening these connections.