Farming, Judaism, and Capitalism
By Zachary Brenner
Illustrated by Natalie Friedman
It is midday when I walk across the street from Stevenson Circle to meet Yonah Shapiro for our interview. As I walk through the gates, it takes me only a second to forget that I am at UC Santa Cruz. The garden, if you have not been, is hidden in plain sight. I find Yonah finishing up some last minute farming before his shift is over. It is his second to last day on the job and it seems the perfect moment for us to converse about his experience as an apprentice.
There are three sites where people in the apprentice program focus: the field site, the farm garden, and the Chadwick Garden. For the first three months of the program, the students rotate from one site to another, attempting to discover which area they will concentrate on for the final three months of the six month program. Yonah chose the Chadwick Garden, which was founded in 1967 by Alan Chadwick who Yonah explains as kind of crazy for building a farm on a sloped cliff.
As a Jew, Yonah feels lucky that he has been able to farm at UC Santa Cruz for many reasons. One of which, he explains, is because Santa Cruz is one of the few places in the world that is considered a Mediterranean climate. It reminds him of his experience on the Kibbutz in Israel and I sit back and watch him slowly recognize how much he has grown since then. He admits to me that when he first decided to become an apprentice, he was very overwhelmed. “I was on the waitlist… I didn’t even get in. I didn’t have enough experience”. I found that incredibly difficult to comprehend since before we started our “official” interview, he took me around the entire garden and was able to explain what each crop was, its stage of development, and how long it had until it would become rotten.
Yonah explains his apprehension when he began working at the farm. “I knew I would be with all these All- Star farmers… I got really intimidated. I’m just this guy who thinks avocados are cool. But then, I realized, I’m here. I can learn from everyone here. I don’t have to be the shy guy in the back who sometimes raises his hand. I can ask the guy I met yesterday, ‘How do you grow a cucumber?’”. This seemed a good link to the rest of our discussion about his experience as a Jew in the program.
He explains how he and his friend Courtney (who he graciously introduced me to at the start of our interview) were among the only Jews. He recalls, “Our second week [Courtney and I] were like, ‘Let’s do Shabbat!’ We got some wine, we got some bread, and then all these other people were like, ‘Hey, I heard you’re doing this Shabbat thing! Can we join?’ And we were like, ‘Wow, we didn’t even think of that!’ It wasn’t about their need to learn about religions, but about them wanting to know how we were brought up and how we’re connected.”
I ask him if that helped him think up the idea for building a sukkah on the farm. A couple weeks before our interview, I met Yonah for dinner at his sukkah on the farm. A sukkah is a three-walled temporary shelter that Jews build on the holiday of Sukkot. The ceiling is meant to be made from leaves so there is space to see the stars from the inside. Everyone in Yonah’s sukkah, which was over 20 people from the program, seemed genuinely curious about the prayers Yonah was sharing with them. And it was not fake interest or inquiry, but authentic curiosity.
He explains to me the process of how the sukkah was built. Humbled, he tells me that Courtney was the mastermind and all he did was mention the possibility of building it. He recalls the night it happened, after returning from a date. Somehow, the rumor had spread that they were interested in building a sukkah. “I came back that night and it was a miracle. My friends came up to me and wanted to participate in building a fort…they didn’t even know what it was!” He continues by saying, “Two non-Jewish people built it. Courtney and I didn’t even build it.” Listening to this, I am reminded of childhood and the excitement involved with building a fort with your closest friends.
Yonah continues, “It was a beautiful closing holiday for us to be there”. He is proud that they built the sukkah. When the Jews were in Israel, they were farming on their land and built their sukkot (plural for sukkah in Hebrew) in the fields. Sukkot is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the harvest, which is why building a sukkah seemed so appropriate.
We tangent to a conversation on modern capitalism and mainstream consumer culture. I ask him why he thinks people in the farming program are so interested in people feeling united and why so many other groups of people are more egocentric. He explains: “The more time you spend with nature, the more you’re going to realize how little you need.” I ask him if he felt connected before coming to the program. He remembers quitting his job and flying to Santa Cruz last minute on Passover. “When I got into the program, I realized that my friends had everyday jobs doing everyday things. One friend was in car insurance. I was about to go across the country and live on a farm. I was about to separate myself from everyday life”.
We discuss how on the farm, they are all very connected to the natural world and what really matters. The farming world yields strong relationships and connectivity between humans. People learn how the food system actually works and, in turn, learn how relationships and life work without the distractions of technology. Being surrounded by people who are interested primarily in learning and forming meaningful relationships, Yonah is inspired to keep up his lifestyle as best he can when he moves to Los Angeles in the near future. “Going back to city life like LA, I’m wondering how much I can keep”.
He reminds me, however, that farming is not all positive. The corruptness of farming in modern consumerist culture is undeniable. People buy peppers at the store, yet neglect to understand the painful process of picking that pepper. The farmers responsible for feeding our society get paid close to nothing. In one way, people are incredibly connected to nature and separate themselves from the technology that is regarded as imperative in the capitalistic world, but that farmers are also treated poorly by the system.
Tomorrow, Yonah will be personally responsible for cooking the meals that everyone in the program will eat. “My job tomorrow is to cook three meals for 50 people. Every day, people are exempt from work and cook all three meals with whatever we have.” I think of how I feel separated from nature and the people who work with the land. I’m constantly buying food at the store and not realizing the process that goes into making that food, but I’m also too concerned with forming opinions and having answers than appreciating what I have. Yonah says, “It’s a shame that this kind of lifestyle gets dubbed as ‘hippie’ or ‘flower child, irresponsible love’ thing. Yeah, my jeans are ripped, I haven’t shaved in a few days, and my hair is long-ish, but [I don’t want to be labeled as] a ‘hippie’”.
We agree that the farming lifestyle has many advantages that are overlooked. His Jewish identity has been partially formed by his experience as a farmer. He explains how on Shabbat, he doesn’t use his cellphone not because it’s the Jewish law, but because he likes to separate himself from technology and connect to the Earth.
We part ways, but I can’t help but believe I am going to act differently from here on. I will try to stay more connected to the world and my experiences rather than living through my smartphone and laptop. What started as an idea for an interview about a sukkah on the farm turned into an enlightening conversation about life and connectivity. One quote that Yonah shared with me rings through my head as I walk to my 4:30pm lecture: “It’s okay to not know and be vulnerable.”
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