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Food for Thought

On Saturday afternoon, as participants in the 2010 Hazon East Coast Food conference shuffled from their seats to the buffet tables, a small plate of goat meat appeared in the back of the dining hall. Quietly it was passed among the participants in Adamah, a three-month fellowship combining organic agriculture and Jewish learning. Weeks earlier, the Adamahniks had witnessed the ritual slaughter of ten goats they had spent the previous two months caring for. They held the animals to calm them as the shochet went about his work. Then they tanned the hides and hollowed out the horns to make shofars. Now the meat was about to become lunch for some 200 conference participants.

The fellows are an unusually earnest group. Over the three days of the conference I watched them sing and dance, give thanks for their food through song, say blessings with eyes closed and bodies rocking gently. And as the meat was passed around, there was a similar conscientiousness. They held their pieces contemplatively, said a blessing, and chewed slowly. (So did I, and it was phenomenal.)

"It’s not easy," Aitan Mizrahi, who oversees the small herd of goats that live at the Isabella Freedman retreat center, told me. "It’s emotionally challenging. It’s spiritually challenging. My relationship to it is constantly evolving."

Hazon’s mission is to create healthy and sustainable Jewish communities, but its most potent association is with food. This is the home of the annual Jewish food conference and, as they regularly reminded us, the center of the "new Jewish food movement." Hazon is the force behind dozens of Community Supported Agriculture programs across the country and has developed a reputation for mindful food practices — stuff like raising and slaughtering goats in full view of the people who are ultimately going to eat them.

On Friday night, Rabbi Brent Spodek stood up and challenged the conference to go further. "To the degree that this [movement] retains a focus on food, it will remain a movement on the fringe," said Spodek. Rather, the focus should be on labor — on production rather than consumption. Calling for a "Torah of self-sufficiency," Spodek wondered why there wasn’t a Jewish carpentry school, or a Jewish plumbing school.

There were sighs and murmurs of agreement all around, and when he finished, enthusiastic applause. Mark Dornstreich, a veteran organic farmer who attended the conference with his wife Judy, thanked Spodek for defending the "beauty of manual work," which is "so undervalued in our society."

"It seems to have clearly hit a nerve," Spodek told me later.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s rare enough to find Jewish professionals who talk this way — who tell people to their faces what they should be doing differently, who seem congenitally incapable of speaking bureacratese. But it will be interesting to see if this gains traction. Compared to food, labor is terribly unsexy. It conjures Jewish labor activists, aging hippies, the Workmen’s Circle. Food activism is sensual (if you doubt it, you clearly haven’t tried the chevre from the Adamah dairy). Chefs have become celebrities in our culture, and they’re taking farmers along with them. After Bob Villa, how many famous carpenters can you name?

To be sure, there’s lots of old hippy influence in Hazon. My first morning I watched goats getting milked while "Fire on the Mountain" played on the stereo. But I have to believe what part of what makes this appealing to suburban Jewish moms is the potential to eat healthy, and to eat extremely well. Wellness isn’t a word I heard once in my weekend with Hazon, but it does seem to be the unacknowledged link between the broader food agenda and the bike trips, Hazon’s other signature program.

Hazon is already bigger than food. The conference is a magnet for foodies, chefs, farmers, rabbis, social justice activists, environmentalists, and just regular folks who like to eat. Are these people going to get as fervently behind a Jewish carpentry agenda? Or activism on behalf of third-world laborers? Uniting under the food movement banner has the intrinsic advantage of allowing people to do right by the planet while doing very right by their own bodies.

Nigel Savage, the irrepressible Englishman who started Hazon ten years ago, rejected Spodek’s notion that a focus on food would forever consign Hazon to the periphery. He noted that no less a public figure than Michelle Obama had touted Hazon’s work (in a recent conference call about teenage obesity), and that Hazon’s CSA network is the largest such faith-based effort in the country.

"Across the country people are unbelievably fired up by this," he said. "It’s patently obvious that the Jewish food movement is transforming the Jewish community."

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