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On Jewishness and Dirt

Along with his partner Ilana Rose Cloud, author Jonathan Strunin owns and operates Tuv Ha’aretz Portland, Portland’s Jewish Farm Box program, bringing local sustainable produce and Jewish food to Portland

Last week, I found myself in a common position: knees on the ground, hands dipped in soil, showing small children how to plant leeks, potatoes and tomatoes. Around me was a dizzying chaos of happy preschoolers and parents looking for beetles and worms and ants, smelling and tasting plants, and generally getting a good dose of life in the dirt.

So it was striking to me when, not once but twice, adults refused to shake my soil-covered hands. I get it, especially as one of these adults was a community leader and very put together – you don’t want to get your nice clothes dirty sometimes. But it got me thinking about what being “Jewish” means to me. Let me explain.

To me, being Jewish is about getting my hands dirty. Literally. After all, according to the Torah, we are all from A-dam, the first person, who was breathed into life out of a-dam-ah, the soil. Therefore our tradition states that we literally are the earth infused with the breath of life. How else can I remember this if I don’t get my hands dirty working with the earth? 

On top of that, I understand that mitzvot, the central practices of Jewish observance, are simply our practices designed to align us with humility, awe, and compassion. In my experience there are few practices more effective in  this intention than growing food. 

Working with the land for the past decade, I have come to understand myself as part of something much larger. Although I prepare the soil by adding compost, it is the microorganisms that bring the soil to life. Although I plant the seed, it is the seed itself, and the soil and the rain and sun that transform it into a thriving plant. Although I compost my waste, it is a billion beings that turn it back into healthy soil. These processes grow our food, but are the same processes that ultimately can give rise to ancient forests. In this I am at best a facilitator, a small part of something I cannot comprehend. How can one not become humble and awed in the face of such miracles?

And as for compassion, one need look no further than the abundance of the harvest. One of my favorite parts of gardening is over-abundance, the fact that many food crops will produce and produce until you have apples or zucchinis coming out of your ears. After eating and preserving all I can, I am literally forced to share. And with sharing comes generosity, and meals, leading to conversation, more understanding, community building, and ultimately compassion. What’s more, the mitzvot give us specific guidelines to share our over-abundance with people in need, with the beasts of the land, and ultimately with the earth itself.

I believe that digging in the dirt is in our souls, and it’s a vital part of my Judaism. And I invite you to see if you agree.

It’s spring. The a-dam-ah is warming, the land is beckoning for you to do the most Jewish of acts. Go out there and dig a little, maybe say hi to a worm, plant a seed or a start. It won’t hurt (after all G-d made dirt, and dirt doesn’t hurt). And who knows, as you experience the moist, gritty Willamette Valley clay between your fingers, you might just find yourself feeling a little more Jewish.

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