Hazon heads to Petaluma to talk Jews, food and chicken farms

From as far back as she can remember, 81-year-old Sylvia Schwartz of Mill Valley has been eating locally grown, healthy food.

It’s the way many people strive to eat today, from cutting out fried foods and white flour, to avoiding processed meats and visiting farmers markets for fresh, organic produce.

But Schwartz didn’t establish these habits on her own. She took cues from her mother, whom Schwartz calls “an early advocate of healthy eating.”

Schwartz’s mother also was an avid listener of a radio show featuring a doctor who doled out advice on the subject.

“He said fried food was terrible, so [my mother] threw it out,” Schwartz recalled. “Also, we had no hot dogs in the house. I hated that doctor. All of my aunts and uncles used to think my mother was totally crazy, but she said, ‘I don’t care. You’ll see.’ She was right. She lived to be 98.”

Two attendees of the 2009 Hazon Food Conference role-play a marketing scenario as part of a workshop for leaders of Jewish community-supported agriculture. photo/hazon/david gartner

Schwartz, who still cooks with the same methods she grew up with, is one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Hazon Jewish Food Conference, a four-day affair that will explore the intersection of Jews, food and contemporary life, Dec. 23 to 26 at Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma.

Coordinators of the Hazon Jewish Food Conference expect more than 200 people to attend the in-depth sessions, which will aim to strengthen and expand participants’ knowledge of Jewish thought on food, agriculture and consumption.

The event also will provide opportunities to build community with regional cohorts and professionals of similar backgrounds.

The Jewish food movement hinges on a push from a range of Jews — farmers, foodies, locavores, vegans, omnivores, rabbis and lay leaders — educating their Jewish communities about where food comes from, who grows, raises or kills it, how far it travels from the field to the dinner table and how all of those are woven into the Jewish tradition.

The latter will drive the discussion at one of the first sessions, “What’s So Jewish About the Jewish Food Movement,” led by Los Angeles rabbis Dara Frimmer and Lizzi Heydemann. Both are Stanford University graduates.

“As familiar as conference attendees are about the food movement in a secular sense, many are not sure how it connects to Judaism,” said Heydemann, adding that her awareness of the Jewish food movement was heightened while living in a Bay Area co-op.

“Our presentation will link our idiosyncratic Jewish ideals and values, and stories we tell as Jews to the bigger story of food in America and the world,” she said.

The new Jewish food and farming movement actually has its roots in ancient Israel. Biblical Judaism revolved around agriculture and the seasons, and most ancient Jews were farmers. Two of the major Jewish holidays, Shavuot and Sukkot, were traditionally harvest festivals, and several of the Torah’s mitzvahs relate directly to agriculture.

Adam Berman, founder and executive director of Urban Adamah: The Jewish Sustainability Corps, will facilitate a panel discussion with speakers who are, in some way, creating land-based intentional Jewish communities.

Berman’s Berkeley-based leadership program, which will begin in June 2011, will bring groups of young Jewish adults to the city for three months of urban organic farming, green living skills, Jewish learning and direct social action.

Participating in the conference was an easy decision for Berman, a Hazon board member whose professional work allows him to delve into many of the same concepts.

“Having the opportunity to explore issues connected to Jewish tradition, and how we grow food and eat it, is compelling,” Berman said. “It’s appropriate for 21st-century individuals who are interested in living a relevant Jewish life.”

Today’s Jews who farm, garden and educate communities about sustainable food sources do so as a choice — and not an easy one at that, given that most American Jews congregate in urban centers.

No one understands this more than Schwartz, who grew up on a Petaluma chicken farm during the 1920s and ‘30s. She recalled that roughly 200 Jewish families comprised this “very unusual” farming community. 

“It was a totally different way of life,” Schwartz said. “Kids really worked. I milked cows, churned butter and tended our garden of vegetables. That’s the way everything was done.”

Schwartz, who narrates the documentary “A Home On The Range,” about Petaluma’s Jewish chicken ranchers, will join fellow former rancher Lily Krulevitch in a discussion titled “Sacred Cows, Sacred Plows.” The pair will share stories as a living testimonial of Jewish families that fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and traveled to California to tend chickens.

Schwartz hopes the nostalgic nature of their talk will have the younger participants curious enough to uncover their own grandparents’ histories.

“I don’t want to preach to them,” Schwartz said with a laugh. “I just want to expose them to a different type of life.”

To register for the Hazon Food Conference or for more information, visit www.hazon.org.