Beautiful hobbit house

I love hobbit houses with lovely rounded corners and natural materials – and, though living entirely off grid seems a little daunting, I’d move into this super cute little house if I only had the chance! Straw bale building fascinates me so much that I’ve been itching to try it for a while now.

It’s a great inspiration to us all to watch people fight back against mass building and insane housing prices by raising shelters that are sustainable, affordable, beautiful and easy to maintain. In Israel, however, the main obstacle in the way of lowering housing prices are the prices of land. Land is scarce (in most regions – some are sadly underpopulated), and there is also the unfortunate phenomenon of widespread land piracy by Bedouins – which, despite the romantic image of the uncivilized nomad, cannot be tolerated in a small country with few and precious land resources (and, indeed, would not be tolerated in any country with a semi-developed legal system).

I hope, and dream, and pray that one day soon, our government will recognize the potential benefits of low-impact living, with eco-friendly building, environmental awareness and reduced energy exploitation, and will encourage people who would choose such a lifestyle, wishing to tread gently and lightly upon the face of this earth.

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Staying safe

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Israel, where beauty and danger, joy and grief walk side by side.

From reading my blog, it’s sometimes possible to forget I live in Israel… I can admit that I forget this myself sometimes as I dig in the garden or scatter some grain to the chickens – at those moments it feels like I might be anywhere.

However, there are moments when reality hits, brutally. Just last Friday night, a terrorist walked into the midst of a family celebration and stabbed three people to death. I do wish I hadn’t seen the photos of the murder scene. They haunt me day and night.

There is an important point which doesn’t come up, in my opinion, nearly often enough when this subject is discussed – namely, that the terrorist didn’t break in or even climb in through the window. He walked in through the front door, which was unlocked.

The Fogel family in Itamar, about whom I can’t ever stop thinking and hurting, actually went to sleep with the front door unlocked, because a teenager was late coming home, and they didn’t want to sit up for her, or be bothered to open in the middle of the night. Five people lost their lives, including a four-month-old baby.

When I pointed this out, people turned on me: am I blaming the victims?! And the answer is no, no, and no. Absolutely not. I believe that the murdering beasts should be shot on the spot. Unless they are tortured first, which I would entirely support. Do I blame a girl who walks alone at night for getting raped? No. But I still say that it’s wiser and more prudent to thwart danger by, say, choosing a different route.

I’m merely saying this: let’s not make it any easier for those who try to do us harm. Locking doors and windows is basic, common vigilance. People living in town always do it on account of housebreaking. But somehow, people in settlements, who have so much more to fear, neglect this simple precaution.

Lock your doors and windows. I repeat; lock your doors and windows. Do it during the day and during the night. I always do. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to sleep or not. The convenience of just being able to tell a neighbor “come in” rather than go and open the door is insignificant compared to the terrible risk. And I don’t open doors to strange men when my husband isn’t present. I don’t care if people think I’m weird or rude. Safety first.

I do hope that one day, we will live in a world where no one has to bother about whether the door is locked or not; and most certainly, where no one pays with their life for neglecting to lock the door or window. But for now, the most important thing is to stay safe.

Jewish homesteading: an interview

A while ago I was contacted by Tachlis magazine, who were looking for information on the Jewish homesteading movement. My email interview with them is below:

Where do you live exactly?

I’m sorry, but as our privacy is important to us, I cannot state our exact location. I can only say we live somewhere in the Shomron.

What is your homestead like?

I wouldn’t call what we currently have a homestead, precisely; I look at it, figuratively, as the seed of what I would like to have. Right now we have a small flock of chickens, a small garden and a few young fruit trees. I would like to have a large, productive garden and orchard, more chickens, and ideally some sort of a dairy animal. This way, we would provide a significant part of our own food.

In the meantime, we are doing what we can with what we have, and learning relevant useful skills in gardening, improving soil and raising animals. We used to keep dairy goats so I know how to hand-milk and make cheese, and can easily go back to it again.

Is there a community where you live? Is there a minyan?

Yes and yes. We have some wonderful neighbors around here.

How did you decide to homestead?

I don’t think it was a one-time conscious decision. We did know, even when we first married, that we wanted to live on a piece of land, not in an apartment building. We are just taking baby steps in a certain direction, and anything we have accomplished so far has been largely thanks to my husband: sometimes you just need to jump in with both feet, and he can do it much better than I. He was the one who brought home a box with our first chicks, and he was the one who decided on buying goats. He has also accomplished various complicated projects around the household I couldn’t have done myself.

What do you feel your family is gaining from homesteading?

Even though I wouldn’t refer to us a homesteaders just yet, we are learning a whole lot from growing plants, raising animals and working on a plot of land. Our children know the thrill of a newly hatched chick and a newly sprouted seedling. They know how an incubator works and where is the best spot to plant tomatoes. They know all sorts of things I wish I had learned as a child.

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Above: Israel, 19 months old, loves to feed the chickens.

I think one of the best things in growing your own food is that the experience does something to every member of the family, regardless of age. You can all share the excitement of newborn baby goats – nobody is too young or too old for that. And when you go foraging for wild-growing goods, you are all equally satisfied when you come home with full containers.

Our lifestyle has brought us together with many wonderful like-minded people, which has been a terrific experience and an education in itself.

And, of course, those who “graduate” to growing and raising a significant part of their own food will reap the benefits of a healthier diet and reduced expenses.

Does homesteading help you connect to the Torah in a deeper or more personal way?

Yes, certainly. Jewish life and working on the land are closely intertwined. Many of the mitzvot specifically refer to agriculture: ma’asrot (tithes), Shmita (the Sabbatical year) and the holy status of the firstborn male, to name a few, and of course anything that has to do with humane treatment of animals. When you grow plants and raise animals, even on a small scale, you get to experience this first-hand, not just learn it in theory. Then there’s everything Shabbat-related, such as the restrictions of tending to the garden (you must do everything before Shabbat) and milking (you can milk so the animals don’t suffer, but not collect the milk). Also, as we’re into poultry especially, we have learned there’s some doubt about the kosher status of certain heirloom chicken breeds (in particular ones with an extra toe). We have found out so many things we would otherwise have had no clue about!

You can read more about homesteading and small-scale farming in Israel in this post.

Why government won’t support homesteading: an opinion

Our society used to be mostly agricultural. It revolved around the nuclear and extended family, a close-knit community where people usually lived their whole lives, the family farm, the village, the artisan tool-maker, and everything small-scale and personal. For better or worse, the Industrial Revolution put an end to that kind of life and propelled us to a world where manual work is scoffed at, and agriculture is seen as something menial or boring.

Yet this did nothing to change our nature. As living beings, we were made to interact with other living beings. It is good and healthy for us to tread earth, smell flowers, pick fruit off trees, take care of animals, and make occasional escapes into wilderness. People who live in small apartments in big cities can find an outlet for this healthy instinct by growing plants in pots, keeping an aquarium and a cat, and venturing out to the country from time to time. The words “farm”, “country”, “rural”, “pastoral”, “village” still bring up pleasant nostalgic associations (compare them with the associations you get when you hear the words “factory”, “industry”, “rush hour”, “traffic” or “highway”), and some people even find out that they are inherently incapable of living the city life anymore, and drop their perfectly good jobs in order to cultivate a piece of rural land, such as in Marcel Pagnol’s splendid novel Jean de Florette.

We still yearn for the simple, cyclic, gentle and healthy rhythm which can be found in nature, the earth, and the seasons.

Some time ago, I picked up the Israeli Shabbat leaflet “Olam Katan” (“Small World”) and was genuinely interested by an article which suggested that modern technology and means of transportation make small-scale farming/homesteading possible even for people who don’t want to, or can’t make this their main source of livelihood. It is entirely possible, the author argued, for a family where both spouses hold a regular job to also keep a small homestead on, say, on 1 square km of land. Such a homestead can include a barn with 3-4 dairy goats and a dozen chickens, a small vegetable garden, and some fruit trees. Furthermore, it was argued that Israel has enough unexploited land which is suitable for agriculture. Such land, according to the author, could be divided into small homestead plots and handed out or sold inexpensively to anyone who would like to start a homestead or a sustainable small-scale farm. Thus many more people can live a healthier, closer-to-nature life, while also creating a strategical advantage for Israel by preventing Bedouin clans from illegally taking over empty lands.

While I would like, and am ready, to believe that a small-scale farming/homesteading revolution is possible, I also think the only way for it to happen is by individual people making the change in their private lives. I don’t think it will ever be encouraged or supported by the government, for many reasons. Here are just a few:

1. The government will never, not in a million years, hand out land or sell it cheaply (if it did, I’d be the first to stand in line!) – it will reap big bucks by selling land to big contractors, who in their turn will reap their big bucks by erecting tall buildings with cramped over-priced apartments.

2. Small-scale farming/homesteading will never be encouraged on a government level because commercial-scale farmers hold too much power.

3. A family living on a homestead will very likely have a rewarding, satisfying life; the more they grow, the less they will buy, not only in the way of food, but also in other areas. Shopping will no longer be needed as a recreation. They will move away from the temptation of big stores and shopping centers. In the evening, they will hurry home to milk their goats and water their tomatoes. Such people, for psychological and logistic reasons, are more likely to buy only what they need, which means the government will lose money by way of taxes each of us automatically pays when we buy in a licensed store. People who succeed in their little homestead venture might also discover they like it so much they will possibly opt for a less demanding, lower-paying job and enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle – and then the government will lose money by way of income tax. Some economical guru up there is bound to figure it out, and the government will never – not in a million years – agree to lose money, even for the sake of promoting a healthier and happier society.

4. A homesteading/small scale farming network will encourage the development of a local, sustainable market based on barter and small unregistered sales – the government won’t want this to happen because this will, again, mean less taxes.

However, it is a joy for me to know that other people, like me, indulge themselves in dreams of a world where families work together, more food is produced locally, and giant chain stores are cheated of part of their profit because people realize they don’t need so much stuff.

Small-scale farming in Israel: reclaiming the land

In the course of history, many Jews have become very much detached from their Biblical agricultural past with its complex laws connected to seasons, years and the Holy Land. In modern Israel, agriculture was reclaimed to a certain extent, but it is generally highly commercialized, industrialized and mass-scale. The urban and suburban areas are very densely populated, leaving people little space for home gardens and a personal connection to the land.

There is, however, a rising movement – in particular among Orthodox Jews living in the less populated areas of Israel – of small-scale, organic, family-run farms, oil presses and wineries, belonging to people who have seized the opportunity to till their own gardens, pasture their own sheep, make their own wine, and embrace – with modern innovations that make life easier, of course – the Biblical version of living off the land.

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Image: typical view of terraced hills and olive trees 

And of course there are people like us, who don’t really aim towards doing anything on a commercial scale, but want to grow or raise a significant part of their own food, and see this as an opportunity of being good stewards of the land and resources we were given.

So what makes an Orthodox Jewish homesteader or farmer in Israel different from any other homesteader or farmer? Generally speaking, it’s adherence to the Halacha – the Jewish Law – with the specific Biblical rules and regulations pertaining especially to the land of Israel.

Disclaimer: what I have written below describes the relationship between the Jewish farmer, the Jewish law and the land of Israel in the broadest terms; if you wish for detail, there is plenty of further information out there. We are not a rabbinical authority, nor are we mistake-proof.

Shabbat – No working the land, moving plants, picking or watering is allowed on the Shabbat day, which starts on Friday at sunset and lasts until Saturday nightfall. An automatic drip system is a good gardening solution, but we don’t have that in parts of our garden, and we have to water manually there. Last week, a tomato plant died because we had a very hot Saturday and couldn’t water until nightfall, by which time it was much too late.

The Sabbatical year – Unlike the Shabbat, which is observed by Orthodox Jews around the world, the Sabbatical year applies to Israel only. Every seventh year, the land is supposed to rest, which means no tilling, no planting, no working the land in any way. Gardening in containers is allowed, as is basic plant maintenance (such as, watering the trees so they’ll survive) and, with certain restrictions, picking produce. It is also possible to nominally sell the land to a non-Jew just for the year, which makes it possible to work it as usual, but the latter is less practical for backyard gardeners and owners of small homesteads.

Tithing – Jews are required to give a tithe out of their agricultural produce. This means that even if we grow one single tomato, we are under obligation to set aside part of that tomato. Since it is impractical to seek out needy people and offer them one slice of a tomato, backyard tithes are usually just set aside and respectfully disposed of.

The firstborn male – when we kept goats and had one of our does kid for the first time, with a little buckling, we were surprised to discover that this little male goat does not in fact belong to us, but instead should be given to a Cohen (priest). However, since we do not have a Temple today and much of the original function of priesthood had been temporarily lost, such a gift cannot be really used (butchered, purposefully used for breeding, etc). Too late, we found out that what we were supposed to do was nominally sell part of the pregnant doe to a non-Jew, to avoid such a complicated situation. In the end the little buckling was shipped off to a petting zoo.

Regional conflicts and safety – Because of the ongoing Jewish-Arab conflict in Israel, the Jewish homesteader or farmer living on an isolated hill somewhere, or in the middle of the desert, is in a precarious position. To put it bluntly, if you hear an intruder in your farmyard in the middle of the night, you have no way of knowing whether their principal purpose is stealing your sheep or murdering your family. Therefore, the only reliable way for Jewish farmers and homesteaders to protect themselves is to shoot first and ask questions later. Fortunately, after the Shai Dromi acquittal, the law is on the side of honest men who take up arms to protect their lives and property.

Some will say that such local, small-scale homesteading and farming ventures are impractical, labor-intensive and complicated, and that it’s simpler and cheaper to just buy what you eat from big farmers, or import produce, but I disagree. Money is not everything, and nothing beats the satisfaction of eating real food grown by real people living on the land they love.

The Table

Friday night. The candles are lit, the house tidied, the table beautifully set for ten persons. I’m waiting for my husband to come home from synagogue, while putting finishing touches here and there; I add another set of cutlery, take out the drinks, pour iced lemonade into my lovely new glass pitcher. The guests – a local family we are friendly with – are due to arrive any moment.
They come. After the meal begins and everyone had had something to eat, the six kids we have among us progress to play and get the house good and discombobulated. We adults linger around the table. The conversation flows. Different subjects are discussed, but not work, or household projects; no plans are made. The Shabbat encloses us all in a beautiful, magical circle, temporarily shutting out the cares and worries of the world, allowing us to be duly refreshed.
Then our friends are gone, with a tired baby sound asleep in her stroller. The table is cleared, the children tucked in, dishes are being washed. I reflect with satisfaction on an evening well spent.
Why, then, was I a little reluctant to go through with it in the first place?
Well, there’s the extra work having people over requires of me, of course. A larger variety of dishes is expected when there are guests (also, as a rule, around here people usually bring something with them as well). The table needs to be opened, extra chairs fetched, the cutlery drawer almost emptied, nearly all my dishes used up. Then all of it needs to be washed. And Friday is a day usually spent, for me, in hectic activity, and rather a lot of washing up as it is. I’m tired by the time evening rolls on.

 

However, there is nothing like the gathering of people around a common table. It gladdens my heart. It forges special ties. I know I want this, for my family. I also know that with no pregnancy, new baby or illness, I can reasonably do a lot of things that would otherwise be stretching. I am stepping out of my comfort zone, if only a bit. And that is worth it.