The organic epicure | Berkeley goats give kids hands-on Torah lesson plus cheese

“The Talmud says that you can’t feed yourselves until you feel your animals,” Ariela Ronay-Jinich explained on a recent Sunday morning. And with that, children scrambled to pick stray plants on the grounds of Urban Adamah, the farm in downtown Berkeley. The plants would be fed to the goats.

Or rather, as Ronay-Jinich put it, “We’ll give the goats a snack to thank them for the milk they gave us.” The goats clearly appreciated the exchange as they craned their necks through the fence to greet the children.

Along with two other educators, Ronay-Jinich, who is the senior farm educator and Hebrew school director, led a goat cheese-making workshop on June 8, timed to Shavuot, the holiday on which it is traditional to eat cheese and dairy products. The event was part of Urban Adamah’s Family Program Series.

While participants did not learn how to milk the goats themselves, they got to feed them and hear how one goat in particular, Fiona, needs to be milked twice a day. “If we don’t milk her, she wobbles, because her body hurts so much,” said Ronay-Jinich. Fiona produces up to a gallon a day.

While Urban Adamah gives away nearly all the produce it grows, it is not allowed to give away or sell its goat’s milk because it’s raw, or unpasteurized. The staff and the fellows drink it. Or, in this case, use it to make cheese.

The milk was heated on a portable stove, and then at just the right moment, Ronay-Jinich poured in a few capfuls of apple cider vinegar.

Janna Lipman Weiss and her daughters, Maya (left) and Simone, watch Ariela Ronay-Jinich at work photos/alix wall

“When you add apple cider vinegar to milk, magic happens,” she said, as families looked on to see the curds separate from the whey, as she invoked Little Miss Muffet.

Then an adult poured the hot liquid into a strainer, and the curds left behind were used to make cheese. Ronay-Jinich explained that some like to cook grains in the leftover whey.

While a few adults were willing to try the raw goat’s milk, they didn’t find it particularly goat-y. Ronay-Jinich explained that the longer it sits, the more goat-y it becomes.

Meanwhile, the kids showed off their Bay Area foodie cred with the questions they asked. “Can any kind of acid be used?” asked one, while “Is it like chevre?” came from another.

Another declared, “It smells like cheese!”

The kids were split into three groups and picked herbs growing on the farm to add to the cheese. One group flavored theirs with lavender, oregano and lemon zest; another did onion, dill, basil and fennel, while the third went more minimalist and did fennel and thyme. All added salt.

Since the actual cheese-making process took only a few moments, the groups rotated among two other activities: barley harvesting and threshing, and a drama game in which groups acted out various biblical and talmudic laws regarding the treatment of animals.

Program associate Zach Friedman discussed the three harvest festivals in Judaism, Shavuot, Sukkot and Pesach, and explained that it is traditional to harvest barley at Pesach and wheat on Shavuot.

But farming can be unpredictable, and the harvest didn’t happen as planned. “We planted the seeds and watered them, and waited, but they weren’t ready by Pesach,” he said. “And by Shavuot, the wheat wasn’t ready but the barley was.”

Lila Hochman feeds the goats at Urban Adamah.

The variety of barley they grew came from seeds that were a gift, and the supply was limited, he explained.

After harvesting some barley, Friedman demonstrated how to thresh it by hand. “With a kale leaf, we can just pick it from the ground and eat it,” he said, “but it takes a lot of processing to eat this.” He took a stalk and rubbed it between his hands, allowing the grains to fall out. Rubbing it against a mesh screen was another method, allowing the grains to fall on a tarp below.

While larger operations have machines to do this, he said, another method is to put the stalks in a potato sack and jump on it. Then the leftover material can be used to make a cob oven.

Some children complained that the cheese-making wasn’t as hands-on as they would have liked. Maya Weiss, 11, of Walnut Creek, initially expressed her disappointment. On an earlier volunteer day visit this spring, she was able to help plant fava beans, “because they put nitrogen into the soil” before the other summer crops are planted, she explained, sounding like an old farmhand. Nonetheless, she was happier with the barley threshing, since she actually got to get her hands dirty.

At the end, as everyone feasted on crackers with the just-made cheese, Friedman asked if the children felt now that this was their farm, and welcomed them back any time. “This is our farm!” they yelled.

“I love spending my days here, and hope you do, too,” he said.

With sadness, we say goodbye to Rebecca Joseph, aka the rabbi chef, who launched 12 Tribes, the “dinnerculture” service that later morphed into a kosher caterer. Joseph is moving to Greensboro, N.C., to work as Hillel director and associate chaplain for Jewish life at Elon University. We can’t help but wonder whether the Shabbat dinners there will improve under her watch or whether she’ll stick with just being rabbi.

“Though it lasted just four years, 12 Tribes was a success beyond anything I ever imagined,” she said. “Now others need to carry on the work and take it to the next level, here and across the country.”

Alix Wall is a personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. You can find her website at Please send story ideas to [email protected]

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."