by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
Yesterday was the first day (finally!) of my local farmers’ market here in NJ, and I’ll admit I went a bit fruit happy, coming home loaded with local blueberries, strawberries, and cherries. It took some detective work to figure out what things were not local–the farmer may be Pennsylvania Dutch but those sure aren’t local peaches, not yet. I’m much stricter about eating fruit locally and seasonally than I am vegetables. I can go months without fresh berries or stone fruit, hoping that it counts towards my balanced diet if I eat many servings of fruit in the summer and far fewer in the winter. Sure, there are days towards late February when I am sick of citrus fruit, grapes, and bananas, and look longingly towards the plums flown in from California. But in my heart, I know they will disappoint me.
(As an aside, the Toronto Star had an article last week about the ubiquitous California strawberry, tracing it from laboratory to the store. The comments on the article are an interesting cross section of conflicting consumer values )
Today, choosing to eat seasonally is a values choice. In my brain, I hear two conversations from the days before I had my daughter. One parent explained to me that parenting is compromise, and that meant buying those strawberries in December if your kid just had to have them. Another told me how for her growing up, eating cherries was special, because you only got them for part of the year, and how she wanted her son to know that feeling of specialness when he eat cherries. I understand the first parent (we’ve all been there) but I want to be the second. Just because we can have something all the time doesn’t mean we should. We risk having the sacred and special become mundane.
Seasonal eating keeps us rooted in changes of every year, and that is what makes it such a Jewish value for me. Jewish time is agricultural, with the Pilgrimage festivals linked to the harvests of the year. The reason we have Jewish leap years is to prevent the holidays from coming unglued to the season: Passover can’t be in the middle of the winter and Sukkot can’t be in the summer. The rituals we associate with the festivals are also connected to the seasons: the spring greens on the seder plate, the first fruits of Shavuot, and the harvest decorations of Sukkot. There is some disconnection in the timeliness of it all for those of us who don’t live in Israel: every year, my father reminds us that the reason we eat potato at seder for our “spring greens” for karpas is that it was still winter in April in Poland. Our rootedness in the land is for a land far away, as we see when we pray for rain based on Israel’s climate calendar. And yet Jews all over have also adapted to the land they find themselves in, incorporating the seasonal produce of their new homes into their holiday meals.
Living according to the passage of the seasons also reminds us that we can’t have what we want all the time. I’m sure many kids would love it if every day were another night of Hanukah. But if we lit the candles all year, they would lose their meaning. They wouldn’t be special any more.
One of my teachers taught me that living on Jewish time means living on a separate clock and calendar than the rest of the world. To me, part of that means eating by the real calendar, not the artificial abundance created by technology and our ability to use fossil fuels to transport food. Food is a gift from God, and the more we take it’s permanence for granted, the more mundane we risk it becoming.
One of the traditional uses for the shehechiyanu blessing is the the first time you eat a fruit in a given season (or since Rosh Hashanah). Wouldn’t it be sad if we never had the chance to say it because our food was no longer linked to the seasons? As we head towards a beautiful summer of harvests, I hope we all have a chance to experience foods that are special.