It was on a trip to the Sinai many years ago around the time of Shavuot that my eyes were opened to the fascinating cycles of the year. Kids and lambs were everywhere, nursing from their mothers. Bedouins were busy making cheese from the leftover milk, which they later dried and salted to save for the long winter when little milk would be available. Little tufts of green herbs — what we would call weeds — peeked out through the earth, to be consumed by the animals and people in the area. In the desert where so little grows, life is so deeply appreciated when it finally appears. Driving back to Jerusalem, I felt as if I were traversing a timeline from the earliest days all the way through 20th-century civilization.
Years later I had another very “green” awakening. I visited my daughter, Daniela, who was living on Kibbutz Neot Smadar near Eilat. There, I saw the kibbutzniks, who cultivated the land and sustained themselves from it, eating in silence, appreciating every morsel.
I don’t eat in silence. In fact, my husband often tells me I should be a little quieter. But those moments of reflection in Israel have helped me think about the cycles of the Jewish year and how seasonality impacts what Jews eat in Israel and elsewhere.
The Torah teaches us that we are stewards of the earth. Each week the seventh day is set aside as a day of rest for us, as well as for the land and the animals. Every seventh year is a shmita year during which all agricultural activity is forbidden. In the Book of Leviticus (Chapter 25), for example, the Israelites are promised a bountiful harvest if the land is allowed to rest.
The “green” Jewish, and even Christian, movements of which we speak today are grounded in these ancient texts. Someone once told me that even if one does not live in Israel, Israel serves as a model of how to live. So much of the progress we currently witness recalls the land and what it taught us so many thousands of years ago.
We are about to celebrate Passover, a holiday of rebirth. Once known as the spring festival, it celebrates the wondrous renewal of the spring. Each year long before the Exodus, the Israelites celebrated a festival of unleavened bread in which they gave thanks for the new grains that had emerged from the barley planting. In their flight from Egypt, the original spring festival became a patriotic one devoted to freedom. Matzah represents the exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites, seeking freedom, sacrificed the time needed to let their bread rise and bake properly. In Exodus, God describes the resulting feast: “They are to eat the flesh on that night, roasted in fire, and matzot, with bitter herbs they are to eat it” (Exodus 12:8). The bitter herbs mentioned recall those that emerge from the ground in the springtime in the desert, where growth is scarce. Lamb fulfills the portion of the meal that is “roasted flesh.” According to the Dead Sea scrolls, this lamb or goat should be at least one year old. Could this be a preventative measure against bathing a kid in its mother’s milk? Indeed, lambs need a longer time than most other animals to nurse.
Fast forward to Shavuot, known as the Festival of Weeks, the Festival of the First Fruits, and the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, and we find the best example of a holiday in sync with the season. Originally a harvest holiday celebrating the barley crop, Shavuot arrives exactly seven weeks after Passover and in time came to be closely associated with dairy, not wheat.
A period of rebirth, Shavuot falls both when lambs and goats are born and when new barley is planted. During the spring months, the earth is green, even in the sparse desert, and the animals feed on wheat, grass and weeds, which are key to their producing milk, later used to make butter and cheese. It is for this reason that butter churning and cheese making have become symbolic elements of spring harvest festivals all around the world. Mount Sinai is known by other names: Mountain of God, Mountain of Bashan and Mountain of Peaks (Har Gavnunim) all mentioned in the 68th Psalm. Gavnunim means “gibbous, many-peaked,” but the word has the same root as gvinah, the Hebrew word for cheese. Accordingly, cheese consumption at this time of year is a reminder of the giving of the Law. Furthermore, throughout the Bible, Israel is repeatedly referred to as the Land of Milk and Honey.
To clarify, the milk originally referenced in the term “a land flowing with milk and honey” was probably, rather, a form of yogurt, while the honey was most likely that of dates. Today, this date honey, called halek or silan, is incorporated by Iraqi and Syrian Jews into their Passover charoset, while in modern Israel, chefs use it as a delightful sauce over quails or drizzle it with halvah over vanilla ice cream.
It seems that Israelis are trying, more than ever, to establish connections with the biblical history of their land. Each time I visit Israel I encounter new recipes and new attempts to draw meaning from the earth. Boutique olive oil producers, new cheese farms, variations of za’atar, kiwis, mangoes, a world of global foods.
At a meal for French cooks I attended, Israeli chefs prepared the traditional local foods rather than the upscale French or American dishes that I used to see brought out before visitors. Instead of looking to the outside world, chefs are searching within their own country, sometimes taking out their grandmothers’ recipes and modernizing them. The ancient slow-cooking stews hinted at by the excavations of Qumran, the biblical date jam, and the chickpeas are all re-emerging in the extraordinary food of contemporary Israel.
Certainly, it is impossible to discuss seasonality of food without addressing local eating. We, as a society, now care about meeting our farmers face-to-face and decreasing our carbon footprint. The Jewish community is no different. During Rosh HaShanah we dip our local apples in honey and revel at the sweetness. On Passover we buy the first vegetables of spring and say, “Boreh Pri H’Adamah” around our seder tables. A few communities are even raising their own livestock to be slaughtered by a nearby shochet.
In terms of the cycles of the year, I recognize that in North America it is not always easy to eat locally and seasonally. Depending on where we live, during the winter months it can be difficult to obtain fresh items that have not traveled great distances to reach us. Tomatoes are a great example. I do not buy fresh tomatoes in the off-season, using only canned tomatoes during the winter. Rather than buying an inferior product that has traveled extensively to reach me, creating pollution and other environmental externalities in the process, I prefer to enjoy fabulous tomatoes in the summer, accepting that their season is fleeting, and relish the leafy greens and root vegetables that are available throughout the remainder of the year.
In biblical times, the late summer and fall were characterized by the gathering of eggplants, zucchini, apples, apricots, pears, tamarind, carob and other crops that could be dried on lines in the sun and stored for the winter. Some fruits would be set aside for Passover’s charoset, not to be touched until the following spring. Dried fruits would be used throughout the year in compotes and again at Purim as fillings for hamantaschen. Customs like this link us to the earth that bore us forth.
Olives, harvested in the Middle East in October, are transformed into perfect oil a couple of months later, in December. Oil played an extremely important role in ancient Israel at the time of the winter solstice. Used for fuel, medicine, lighting, priestly ablutions prior to entering the Tabernacle in Jerusalem and, of course, as today, for cooking, oil was so important in the biblical period that priests offered the first crush of the “purest and finest” oil in the sacrificial rituals to God performed in the Temple in Jerusalem. And without oil, there would be no Chanukah.
Even beyond Israel, I have witnessed an amazing movement among young Jews, and young people in general, to reconnect to the seasons through food. My own son spent the entire summer planting a backyard garden in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and proceeded to harvest and share his crops with us over Sukkot, another harvest holiday.
In December of last year, I spoke at a conference sponsored by Hazon in Monterey, Calif., where hundreds of Jews of all ages and religious affiliations came together to discuss the intersection of Jewish food values and contemporary environmental realities. I met Jewish farmers, cheese makers, picklers, activists, chefs and foodies. While each had a unique focus, seasonality remained a common theme, seeking inspiration from biblical traditions, the ebb and flow of the year, and growing and harvesting accordingly.
Throughout my entire career in food writing, I have pondered the cycles of the Jewish year and the role played by seasonality in creating the dishes traditionally consumed by Jews. After all, prior to globalization, localism, the organic movement, refrigeration and the microwave alike, our ancestors lived solely by the seasons. Indeed, there is a profound dynamism in Jewish food; it connects us to the land of our ancient past and our ever-evolving present and provides us with the roots upon which to build our future.
Joan Nathan is the author of 10 cookbooks, including her latest “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” (Knopf). A regular contributor to The New York Times, she has won several James Beard Awards. Her book “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf) was the basis for a PBS television series.