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.

Spring Chickens

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Yes, I know that it’s only the end of January; days are still short, nights are still cold (I hear you folks up north snorting at me with disdain… you don’t know what real cold is, you are saying), but fine days in winter feel like spring in Israel, with everything turning green and fresh and blooming, and chickens busily digging around among the new grass.

In the photo above you see two of our hens, quite happy to be turned out of their coop, which I was at the time cleaning out (a long-overdue practice). I spread some of the manure and rotten straw around our fruit trees, not working it into the ground but just on the surface to let it slowly sink in with subsequent rains.

We’ve had an up-and-down season with our chickens this year; many chicks, but also many losses to predators. We have acquired some few more nuggets of wisdom, I hope, and are ready to apply the lessons we learned now that our girls are picking up laying again. More on this topic in my latest Mother Earth News post:

“We’ve always been big enthusiasts of free-ranging our backyard flock and, in fact, have practiced this for the larger part of our career as chicken owners. Recently, however, we had to rethink our strategy a bit due to the appearance of a particularly sneaky fox that started to make its way on our property at the most unexpected hours.”

Drying hyssop

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We don’t often find fresh hyssop in stores, so when we came across it we grabbed a bunch and I decided to take advantage of the dry, windy weather we’ve been having to dry it up.

Dry windy spells in winter are a pain. They make being outside unpleasant, they cause one’s hands to dry out and crack, and what’s more serious, they dramatically increase the risk of wildfires (by the way, thanks so much to those who have expressed concern for our family – we are thankful to say we are in no immediate danger of fire, but are keeping alert and hoping for rain). But these winds are perfect for drying herbs.

Drying hyssop – or any herbs, really – is very simple. All you have to do is take a good-sized bunch, tie it by the stems and hang it outside – or, if the wind is really violent like it was this time, put it in a mesh bag to prevent the leaves from scattering.

Of course, a food dehydrator or a simple oven can work just as well. Or you can hang the herbs inside. They will dry up eventually, only it will take longer. On the upside, they will make the room smell nice.

Once the hyssop is properly dry, remove and crush the leaves and discard the stems. The crushed leaves can be used as a seasoning in various dishes or, as is more common in Israel, mixed with olive oil, salt and sesame seeds to make za’atar, a popular local dip eaten with pita bread and/or cream cheese.

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.